Joe Rosenfield at his desk

Essential Grinnellian: Joe Rosenfield ’25 Transcript

Season 2 Episode 6

Ben Binversie:

00:04

Joe Rosenfield ’25, you’ve heard the name, but how well do you know the man who helped guide the college from a precarious existence and meager endowment to the thriving institution it is today? (Singing) This is All Things Grinnell. I’m your host Ben Binversie. On today’s show and interview with George Drake ’56, president and professor emeritus and all-around phenomenal person about another Grinnell legend Joe Rosenfield. Perhaps the single most impactful figure in Grinnell College history. Step aside, J.B. Grinnell. It’s all Joe Rosenfield coming up next after I remind you that the information and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the individuals involved and do not represent the views of Grinnell College.

Ben Binversie:

01:01

A week before he died, Joe Rosenfield finally and only reluctantly gave the college permission to name a building after him and his name now dawns the central building on campus. We also have the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations and Human Rights. Those are both a big deal, but that doesn’t even begin to capture the impact Rosenfield had on the college. People know about Warren Buffett and his role in growing the college endowment, but the only reason Buffett joined the board was because of his friendship with Joe, and Joe was a superb investor in his own right. Most students walked through the Rosenfield Center almost every day during their time in Grinnell and are almost certainly impacted by his legacy, but do people know Joe? Well, I sent my trustee podcast comrade Gabriel Shubert over to the building named in his honor to find out.

Gabriel Shubert:

01:48

I gotta ask you a question.

Brenda Guan:

01:50

Oh my God.

Gabriel S.:

01:50

I’m here on site with the podcast for All Things Grinnell.

Brenda:

01:53

Oh no. Why did I do this to myself?

Gabriel S.:

01:55

Brenda, what can you tell me about Joe Rosenfield?

Brenda:

02:02

You know, he was good buddies with my tutorial prof.

Gabriel S.:

02:05

Who was your tutorial prof?

Brenda:

02:07

It’s George Drake.

Gabriel S.:

02:08

Amazing.

Brenda:

02:08

George Drake wrote a book about him. Other than that, I just know that the JRC is named after him.

Gabriel S.:

02:14

There you go.

Brenda:

02:14

Yeah.

Nicole Rosengurt:

02:16

According to that sign up side of the Spencer Grill, he said something about how horses couldn’t drive him out of Grinnell and I think that’s pretty beautiful. Horses can’t drive me out of Grinnell either.

Maggie Coleman:

02:27

He’s related, I think to Louise Noun who is a local feminist, has a collection of art at the Des Moines Art Center.

Nicole:

02:35

Women’s art?

Gabriel S.:

02:36

Maybe.

Maggie:

02:36

Yes. She’s cool.

Nicole:

02:38

What a cool family.

Sam Rowekamp:

02:39

I know absolutely nothing about Joe Rosenfield. Other than that his name is on this building that we are standing here.

Daniel Pocklington:

02:44

I know that he was friends with Warren Buffett and they got us a lot of money for our school.

Montserrat Castro Gomez:

02:50

I know he was a student here. I know he worked for the Scarlet & Black, and I also know he became a trustee after he was student here. And that’s it.

Gabriel S.:

03:02

Tell me, what do you know about Joe Rosenfield?

Ryan Chang:

03:05

Actually. Oh, okay. Well he’s from Des Moines, Iowa. He went to Grinnell. He majored in poli sci and history. What else?

Ryan:

03:15

He lived in Langan for four years. He worked for Younkers after school. He was part of the S&B. He was part of the Cyclone and a humor magazine.

Ryan:

03:28

What else?

Ryan:

03:29

He was one of six Jewish people at Grinnell College at the time he went here. He felt like this was just one of the few places that he wasn’t affected by antisemitism.

Ben Binversie:

03:40

Okay, that’s enough. Someone obviously read the book, so congrats. You spoiled the entire podcast episode jerk. Okay. Now that you’ve got the spark notes on Joe, let’s get to the real thing. To fill in the gaps, I brought in George Drake who just finished up writing Joe’s biography. In George’s estimation, Joe left his big a mark on the college as anybody. His lifelong love affair with the college can be quantified through his financial impact, but there’s so much more to Joe’s story than his investing acumen and his reach spreads far beyond Grinnell as well. We took some time to talk about the 1925 grad and longtime trustee and his legacy at Grinnell, but first we have to start when Joe arrived his first year at Grinnell.

George Drake:

04:22

I entered Grinnell in the fall of 1921 not knowing exactly what I’d find there, but after I’d been there about three weeks, I’d fallen in love with a place and you couldn’t have driven me out of there with a team of horses. I just took to Grinnell right away, whether Grinnell took to me, I don’t know.

Ben Binversie:

04:41

And that last quote there about driving him amount with the team of horses is inscribed on the building that now bears his name on campus. Outside of this and a few other remarks that are dispersed throughout the book, we don’t have much telling us why Joe fell in love with Grinnell the way he did, at least not in his own words because he wasn’t necessarily one to write about himself or focus on himself in any way really. But in writing this book, what could you discern as far as why Joe became so enamored with Grinnell?

George Drake:

05:16

Well, there are probably a lot of general reasons, but the thing I think is the key is Joe was Jewish. This was the 1920s. Ku Klux Klan days. Prejudice was pretty rampant in our society, and he was from a very well to do and a comfortable family, really, in Des Moines. I think within the bosom of the family, there were lots of relatives around. He felt very loved and protected. But out in society generally, I think Jews were pretty well marked. And there were, when Joe came to Grinnell, about six Jewish students, he didn’t have a large group that he-

Ben Binversie:

06:05

Not a lot of people.

George Drake:

06:06

Cling to. But Grinnell had no fraternities and sororities and I think it was one of them are open environments and may be where in the nation maybe, for a Jewish student. One of the evidence of that is that the college in those days had literary societies which were the closest thing to select him to fraternities that otherwise students were selected by the membership and Chrestomathia was the most prestigious of these literary societies.

George Drake:

06:37

It actually started back in the Davenport days of the college, and Joe was invited to Chrestomathia in his fall of his freshman year. When I saw that, it just hit me between the eyes. This is really something I’d always suspected that one of the reasons for Joe’s love affair was that maybe for the first time in his life, in outside of his family, he felt completely accepted, not marked off as a Jew and that had to make a big difference. Clearly there are other things. We had a lot of literary work on campus was probably stronger even than it is today with lots of things going on. Magazines and so on. The humor magazine that he was business manager for three years was an example of something much more posh and slick than anything we produce it on campus now, sold all over the Midwest.

George Drake:

07:34

The S&B came out twice a week, there’s lots of opportunities for writing there. And the Cyclone was a big deal then, but much more than today. The annual, and he invested himself early in all of these. So he had something that he really enjoyed doing. He was not himself an athlete, loved athletics and athletics were big at the college where we were in the Missouri Valley Conference to in big time football, basketball track. We were known as the greatest little track school in the West. We were really good-

Ben Binversie:

08:05

And we had Morgan Taylor ‘26 at that time.

George Drake:

08:07

That’s right. Yes. He’s entering with Joe was Morgan Taylor, who’s the only Olympic Champion we’ve ever produced at the college. He won the 400 meter hurdles at the 1924 Paris Olympics. And Joe knew him well. Interestingly, a grad across the hall from Joe and Langan hall was Gary Cooper, now known as Frank and those days who was at the college for two years and Joe knew him pretty well, although he said he was a recluse. Kept to himself a lot. It was, I think intellectually exciting for him though he doesn’t have a lot to say. He was so cynical about the academic life of the college. He would say we had one or two good professors that he could remember. He didn’t go on and on about all these wonderful faculty contact.

George Drake:

08:55

What counted for him were his peers. As often you would say what count for Grinnell students now. I mean, as good as our facilities aren’t as good as the faculty. Maybe the most important thing is the other students.

Ben Binversie:

09:08

Yeah, the relationships that you make during your time here. It is interesting you talk about maybe the lack of antisemitism and I know you did still find some evidence of antisemitic jokes and various publications throughout Joe’s time. But in general, that atmosphere of acceptance was something you found. But it’s interesting that Joe wasn’t really a religious person even though he was-

George Drake:

09:33

No he wasn’t.

Ben Binversie:

09:34

Raised in a very Jewish family, but not in necessarily the religious sense. I think he went to Sunday school and was brought up certainly knowing that he was Jewish, but didn’t absorb it into a part of his life in a religious way.

George Drake:

09:51

That’s right. Elaine Steinger who ran the Jewish Federation for years and years, I interviewed her and she found Joe troublesome because he wasn’t contributing as he thought he should to various Jewish causes. And he was definitely not a Zionist, definitely not Zion. He didn’t support and send any money to Israel and so on.

George Drake:

10:17

I think the way he conducted his life was not as a Jew. I mean he, some of the sort of parts of Jewish culture that definitely influenced him, but I don’t think he was self consciously thinking as a Jew and didn’t go to temple. He did support the temple, he did make a contribution. I think every year, and he did make contributions to the Jewish Federation, but not anything. I mean here was the greatest philanthropists in Des Moines. And he’s just sort of an average supporter of Jewish.

Ben Binversie:

10:53

Yeah. It’s notable in that respect. You were talking about his involvement in student publications, which you noted took up a great deal of his, his time and focus and maybe because of that, but maybe just in general. He was maybe just a middling student, decent.

George Drake:

11:09

Decent and at Iowa, he was a top student of law school, we all know there are certain points in our life when we sort of catch fire intellectually. He caught fire intellectually. He really loved the study of law. He had lots of good things to say about the law professors at Iowa. There’s where he narrowed his focus to his academic life planning to become a professional lawyer and took that very seriously and I think he was excited by the study of the law. He’s so-called God’s son. Really Fred little said he didn’t think Joe thought like a lawyer because he thought he would do things instinctively rather than analyzing everything.

George Drake:

11:51

As I thought about how he spent his time, I doubt he studied a lot. When did he find time to do it? Because these publications were very time consuming when he did there, and then he kept saying, I would go out and watch practices football. He said, “I don’t think I ever missed a sporting event at Grinnell.” At one point some of his friends and he went down to Columbia, Missouri for the Grinnell - University of Missouri football game. So he even traveled to games on one instance, may be others that I didn’t track down. And you would know if you actually go out and watch practices. You taking a lot of time away from this all. He ain’t no academic difficulty at Grinnell but he, I haven’t seen his transcripts. I’m just going by self-reported Joe self reporting and he was pretty much an average student at the college. It wasn’t the intellectual atmosphere at Grinnell that really captured him although these publications were pretty intellect. I mean they were intellectually challenging.

Ben Binversie:

12:56

Yeah. And also they kind of show, maybe not the beginnings, but maybe the honing of his sense of humor, which is something that you kinda traced throughout his life and that a lot of people note about him. And I mean even the column in the S&B was a pretty humorous column and some of the humor as I was reading the book went over my head admittedly, but I think that’s fair.

George Drake:

13:24

Yeah. He and his friend, good friend Bob Feller had a weekly column. Maybe there were two newspapers a week, but they all were in one of them each week called Doric a column, a pure beauty right there. It’s is a pretty clever use of words and they were commenting on what was going on campus or in town. Two banks closed in town and there was a tough time economically and they had lots of humor around what was really kind of a tragic events for folks. Joe was he even brought fun at a fundraising campaign, which is ironic given what he did for the college with respect to fundraising and so on. But anything was fair game for those two. And that’s sort of typical of college humor and the one that probably he might subsequently have regretted the most. I mean I never heard him say this or anything, but they had a running joke about the girl in my English class who always says dumb things and really just totally clueless and well, who could get away with that today? That would be a classic sexist, misogynist kind of stuff.

George Drake:

14:40

He was not. And later he was a great promoter of women and women’s rights and so on in later life and the chief supporter of Planned Parenthood. Women really loved Joe because not only because he was funny and fun to be with, but he was really fighting for women. What we are as undergraduate, not all as what we are later.

Ben Binversie:

15:04

Certainly. Joe kept writing for schools, publications and then had a grand effort to publish the Cyclone, almost single handedly as a junior. And you say in the book that maybe one of his lasting contributions as a student, maybe that he kinda saved the Cyclone.

George Drake:

15:23

The editor, It’s not ever really explained in the material I saw at least a month, maybe longer than that, just sort of gave up. Joe was the business manager, he had an instrumental role in the success of the Cyclone but he wasn’t the editor and what he did, he just stepped in and said, "We’ve got to get this out as an important publication." The senior class deserves it, the juniors did the Cyclone. The Cyclone would bear the year of the juniors who produced it rather than the seniors who had graduated. And it was a sort of a year behind in terms of what it represented. The printer was in Iowa city, he went over to Iowa, he said he spent two full weeks at Iowa city with the printer getting the thing out. He saved that particular issue of the Cyclone. It’s a good Cyclone. Those were good college annuals in those days. You could not see a publication of the College- go over to the Iowa room. And we’ve got all those there. You couldn’t see anything that wasn’t pretty professional. They were good.

Ben Binversie:

16:31

Yeah. Then he graduated in 1925 and went on to law school and then worked at a law firm in Des Moines. And we’re skipping a lot of good information here. But he ends up joining the family business in Younkers as well.

George Drake:

16:50

That’s correct

Ben Binversie:

16:51

And you talk about that as not only Joe contributing to the culture of Younkers, but him also being really a product of that culture and not having known anything really about the business before and yourself as well. You went on this journey researching, you learned a lot about the ethos of the Younkers family and how that influenced Joe.

George Drake:

17:17

Younkers was the creation of four different department stores, most of which had begun out in the provinces of Iowa. We think in the case of Joe’s family was Oskaloosa just South of Grinnell and these Jewish family actually begun as peddlers and then turned it into a store and then they decided this new capital city out there in the middle of the state. Des Moines ought to have a branch. The branch obviously then eventually absorbed the whole business for these four families. And by 1927 and 1928 all of these four families had joined into one department store under the name of Younkers. And Younkers was probably at that time, the strongest of the four but almost equal was Harris Emory store, which was the ones that The Frankel Family, which was Joe’s-

Ben Binversie:

18:13

Mother’s side. Yeah

George Drake:

18:14

Mother’s side on the side owned. Anyway, they ended up with the premier, really, really strong department store in Iowa and Joe’s family owned half of Younkers. Joe’s father was the representative in the business, but he died in 1929 just a year after Joe got out of law school and Joe inherited his father’s position on the board. He’s instrumentally involved in ‘29 on. But in 1948 he joined Younkers full time soon became chair of the board, chaired the board for 20 years and was the one who superintended the spread of Younkers department stores around Iowa and nearby states. That was his main contribution, the culture, and that was really what you’ve asked me about. Younkers had a wonderful culture. They looked after their associates. They taught, their associates civic virtue. They would close the store until 10:00 or 11:00 in the morning on election day. Their associates could go and vote. They established intramural, various sports leagues for their associates.

George Drake:

19:22

Had a big bashes Christmas time and the KRNT theater, which is the big theater in Des Moines at that time, to bring in outside entertainment, national, international entertainment for them monthly and weekly publications that would instruct their associates about the character of what they should do as a salesperson’s, as retailers. The responsibility they had to their customers had a very liberal exchange policy if you didn’t like what you got, bring it back, et cetera. And they were the biggest purchasers of war bonds were in World War II and just on and on and on. It was a culture that was internally very strong but outward looking. And that’s sort of emblematic of Joe. He was internally very strong and outward looking. And I had no idea until I did the research for this book that how much I could conclude that the Younkers culture contributed to who he was. It was just part of this. It was where he grew up.

Ben Binversie:

20:23

Rewinding a little bit during this whole time while Joe is working at a law firm and then back at Younkers, he’s still involved with the college and he comes back around and eventually joined the board of trustees. How did he come back towards his involvement with the college?

George Drake:

20:44

Well, I think before he became a board member was sometimes offered legal advice to the college or it had some connection but not a strong connection to the college. But then is a very good friend, if I forget, I think it was Fred Little as well, who had been in school with a little ahead of him in school when they were students who was chairing the board, asked Joe if he would join the board and Joe did, this was in November of 1941 about a little less than two weeks before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He walks into a very critical time, higher education generally and Grinnell in particular, when they soon begin to lose male students hand over fist and drop from around 800 plus enrollment down to 400 or so. And how’s the college going to survive? Joe lived through that period and of course one of the survival techniques of colleges like Grinnell was to get an officer training program, which they did get. And about 800 to 1000 military people on campus for about two, two and a half years.

George Drake:

21:59

I did not realize until getting into the research that they collapsed these programs about the time of the Normandy invasion because they could see we were going to both in the Pacific and the European theater. We were probably going to win and we would need all of these officers and it took almost two years to produce the officers. Let me get it, I think about a year and a half on a college campus and they go to officer training school and so on. It’s good two years for them to get into the field. And they were right. We were out of the war by ‘46 when these folks would. Again, the colleges fighting through that period, the war isn’t over yet when they don’t have those military people around to pay bills. Joe was part of that process.

George Drake:

22:43

But the critical thing that happened was a Joe took a really hard look at our endowment when he joined and calculated that it was worth about $78,000 and that is pitifully small. And it consistent of the dormitories, which were included in the endowment at that time because they produce revenue, but they have larger expenses actually than revenue and farms, which some years made money, some years not.

George Drake:

23:10

But it wasn’t unusual for the total profit from the farms to be under $50,000 in a year. He recognized this college would not survive without a much better endowment. And he set about to make that happen. The College did not have audits in those days. Joe was probably responsible for the college entering an audit process, so then treasurer of the college, a man named Louis Phelps was not only treasure, he ran buildings and grounds. He was the secretary of the board and he had a secretary, all the help he had. He was not an accountant and it was actually Arthur Anderson that did the first audit and it was a mess. And Poor Louie who was a mainstay of the colleagues. I can’t tell you how many people respected him. He was gonna resign because I’ve just screwed everything up now the guy said, "Please stay."

George Drake:

24:04

And they went out and hired a controller, added one person to actually keep the books. Joe was responsible for sort of straightening out our finances. We actually knew what was going on. He also was pushing very hard for us to sell farms and biosecurity security. He’s doing the early steps needed in order to begin to secure this financial future of the college, but that took a long time. I was a student in the 1950 to ‘52 to ‘56, Joe only chaired the board once from ‘48 to ‘52, he just finished chairing when I came in as a student. And at that time the college was borrowing money at almost every board meeting and usually just to meet payroll and the administrators were going off sometimes overnight trips to some Chicago or somewhere to get a loan and try to persuade someone to support the college.

George Drake:

25:01

Fortunately, not for the person, but for the college, Fred Darby, who was the wealthiest of the trustees, died in around 1953 I think it was, and he left the bulk of his estate to the college and that was oil and gas revenues and the college didn’t sell them. It just use them as a steady supply of income and probably saved the college at that point because Joe’s efforts were not yet really yielding as much as was needed. But even when Warren Buffettt joined the board at Joe’s insistence or request in 1968, the endowment was only about $10 million. They built it up to that, in ‘68 college’s prospering very well under Howard Bowen’s presidency and because I was really doing well, and they had to borrow over the summer, make payroll because tuition don’t come in until September, August or September.

George Drake:

26:02

From a January is the last tuition again until the following August or September. They’re living off of that tuition and it wasn’t enough to get them to the summer. They’d still in those days borrow money to get through the summer. It just took a long time. But once Warren and Joe got to work together, then it really began to take off.

Ben Binversie:

26:23

But it was certainly a precarious time for the college. And right around when you come into the story as a student at the college, you said that if the college would have died, it probably would have been while you were a student. And we talked a little bit about the financial situation, but there was also some other turmoil at the at this time, which really had an impact on Joe’s relationship with the college as well. Can you talk about the incident that occurred with present students?

George Drake:

26:52

Yeah. That’s was probably the most explosive thing in the book.

Ben Binversie:

26:56

Hot takes from George Drake.

George Drake:

26:57

Yeah. And Sam Stevens became president in 1940 and then finished in 1954, 14 years, he was, I think the second longest serving president-

Ben Binversie:

27:11

Behind Main.

George Drake:

27:11

Besides Main. And the college’s history and was enormously successful president in the first six to eight years of his tenure. Got us through World War II, ran out of the depression and so on and did it effectively and he did it partly because he was a very decisive, strong leader. But this morphed into being a really imperial president. They hired 60% of the faculty and when the veterans come back from under the GI Bill after World War II, it go from four or 500 students up to 1200 students. And the trustees are very nervous about this with way too big. When are we getting back to normal?

George Drake:

27:53

And he hired some good faculty. Obviously the faculty helps in the hiring process, but he would go, for example, Joe Danforth, who was sort of icon of the chemistry department. Sam calls up the University of Wisconsin, Chemistry Department says, "Who’s your best graduate student?" Joe Danforth. "We’ll hire him." He said, this kind of thing. And Joe was a great chemistry professor and helped a lot to build the department to where it is, this wonderful department that we have in chemistry. But these people he hired after World War II, we’re really pretty good. And they were the kind of faculty members who were not going to let the president run them around. And a cadre of faculty became vociferous opponents of Stevens.

George Drake:

28:38

And as a student, I knew that, I knew there was contention. And there would be mysterious firings over the summer, some of the best faculty would disappear. Stevens hired some of the best and fired some of them faculty. That’s one level, sort of on-campus feeling. But the college needed to build a new science building after World War II. I mean, science had so exploded during the war that old facilities just were not adequate to the doing contemporary or modern science and almost every liberal arts college in the country was building a new science building, Grinnell was among them. But that was a million dollar building, which doesn’t sound like much today, but it was by far the most expensive building project they’d ever had. Stevens has the obligation as all presidents do, to go out and get that money or superintendent the process of getting it and they weren’t getting a million needed.

George Drake:

29:37

At least they knew and he’s raised maybe 500,000 at a point when they’ve been messing around with this and they need to start breaking ground and construct the thing and you just can’t hold off any longer. Stevens shows the board a letter from Marshall Field Chicago retailer, promising to give $100,000 and sort of on that basis, Joe actually makes the motion to go ahead and construct. Turns out the letter was a forgery and it’s discovered by the trustees, by the time that they meet in their January meeting in 1954, the first meeting of ‘54 in January and you look at the minutes and they were supposed to meet with the faculty committee that day and that’s called off. They go into an executive session, which means only the president is there and just the board members and last all day, all day being six, seven hours. At the end of the day, Stevens is there and Joe has resigned and actually the chair of the board was trying to resign, but these colleagues convinced him at lunchtime that day to stay in the chair.

George Drake:

30:48

Stevens is going to, they’re going to give him some more time. And Joe is obviously furious about this. Joe could not stand dishonesty, particularly dishonest business practices, which essentially that was, so he goes, but by June board has changed its mind and they fire Stevens. June of ‘54, first thing in the minutes is, maybe Mr. Rosenfield will come back, and he does. And I structure this in the book as one of the most critical moments, certainly in the recent history of the college, the most critical moment I think we’ve ever confronted. If Stevens had stayed and Joe’d stayed away, where would we be?

George Drake:

31:32

Joe is the savior of the college in many ways and he’s a very heart and soul of the college. And he comes back and Stevens leaves. And certainly it was time for Stevens to leave. Just Stevens response to the board when confronted with his forgeries, says, "Well, we’ve got the building, haven’t we? We accomplished our goal." They didn’t have the money and increase their debt, but that’s a big moment. And I knew Sam pretty well, and I mean all the students felt they know Doc Sam, he was definitely a figure that you had to contend with.

Ben Binversie:

32:07

Joe returns to the board of trustees where he continues to exert a powerful sway and his investment acumen certainly help the college grow its endowment incredibly over the years. How did he gradually start to build the endowment? And then what were some of the big highlights in terms of like the home runs that he and Warren hit over the years?

George Drake:

32:33

Well, you would start with Intel. Bob Noyce, a graduate, ‘49 graduate of the college, who clearly was a brilliant scientist and in the area of solid state physics, he was introduced to transistors at Grinnell because we had a graduate who was in bell labs where the transistors were developed and Bob was introduced to transistor or Grant Gale did this was a close friend and mentor for Bob. That got him into solid state physics. He went to MIT, got his PhD and worked for Fairchild and other organizations as a scientist. And he had ideas and was thinking a little bit around the edges about starting his own business, becoming his own entrepreneur. And Joe and several of the board members took Bob under their wings and urged him to do that.

George Drake:

33:33

They saw that potential at Bob Noyce could, in fact, be a good enough businessman as well as scientist. And finally, after some several years and Bob was on the board of trustees at that point. He was a colleague of Joe, he came to these key board members like Joe and like Sam Rosenthal from Chicago and said, "I am going to start a business. Would you be interested in helping in the startup?" And both Joe and Sam invested and invested in this way, if we make the money that goes to the college, if we lose it, it’s our loss. And then some college funds went in that Grinnell was a 10% contributor to the startup at Intel. And of course the rest is history in a sense, Intel became one of the great manufacturers of chips and Bob was probably pretty a couple of people who invented the integrated circuit chip and Bob’s one of those.

George Drake:

34:37

Now he made a great invention and he managed to turn that invention into a great business. And the college made huge profits for this endowment out of Intel. Bob is actually, when I was president in the ‘80s, convinced the board, convinced me in the board that we should sell the Intel stock. Bob was just so nervous that so much of the college’s endowment was an Intel’s, so we did sell it. And article in Money Magazine just a year before Joe died, in 1999 I think, Zweig, the writer of the articles estimated Grinnell loss about a billion and a half dollars or so by selling early, prematurely. That’s probably one of the great ideas we had, one of the bad ideas we had, that was dramatic. And then really it was a major factor in building the endowment, was the purchase of WDTN, the ABC network station in Dayton, Ohio.

George Drake:

35:41

And that’s an interesting story, which I’ll try to tell quickly. This came through Warren Buffett, Warren was watching for these kinds of things, saw that AFCO company was selling it’s television stations. They had one in Cincinnati and one in Dayton. He was very interested in the Cincinnati station and he saw that the price was a really good price based on the revenues of the stations. It was a fire sale of these stations. Definitely someone should buy them at the price it was being offered. Well, Cincinnati was snapped up quickly, but not Dayton. Warren figured out that he really wasn’t free to buy it because he was a director of The Washington Post, The Washington Post, I think I had already had owned four stations, the limit was five. If you are a director and you bought it, that was attached to Washington Post, he would have filled up their quota and he didn’t feel he could do that.

George Drake:

36:38

So I thought of good idea for, it maybe a good idea for the college. He talked to Joe and they cooked this up and I was a board member then and we was sat through this meeting where Warren gave us a seminar on why this would be a good purchase. Most of us hadn’t heard of it before, right at that. On the moment, we decided to buy the station for $11 million using $2 million of the college as endowment and borrowing nine. And then while I was president, these gurus, the gurus on the board decided it was time to sell and we sold it for I think 46 million. It was a huge, just over five or six years. And interestingly, we followed Warren’s and Joe’s advice very easily and very quickly on the board, such as that I trusted those two.

George Drake:

37:26

But what we discussed at great length was how to keep the students from fighting around the station because this was still in a time of student activism in the ‘70s and we knew the students, whoa, what a wonderful we’ve got. I mean, think of what you’d think as a student. "Here’s a college on that workstation. Now let’s really get our views across to the public."

Ben Binversie:

37:49

Yeah, I’ve heard what students did on the radio. I can imagine what they would do on TV.

George Drake:

37:54

What they would. The board, created a separate entity responsible to the board but not the board directly to administer the station.

Ben Binversie:

38:05

In addition to his financial role on the board, I think it’s important also to understand how Joe influenced the college in other ways. Maybe less tangible than money perhaps, but equally important by steering them through changes like the shift to coed dormitories where his pithy statement was enough to convince people of the legitimacy of the idea.

George Drake:

38:30

Joe was, he was one of the older board members and of course by the time he finished his 96 when he died, and it’s still pretty involved, was the oldest. You might think he might have the most retrograde notions, but I think he moved quicker than almost anybody and understands the students generations as they flow to the college. But it was 1968 and the administration has come to the board and recommending we go to coed dorms. As I recall, it wasn’t total at that point. It was going to be, some dorms will be coed, some wouldn’t be. I know that was the case. I kept some single sex dorms. Anyway, that that was really contentious and I was not a board member then, but I’ve talked to people about that meeting and it was contentious because a lot of people really believe in local presence.

George Drake:

39:21

Our responsibility helped these students learn how to live responsibly and what do you do if you just turn them loose in dormitories, they’re going to have sex all the time or more than they are now or whatever. And they weren’t getting anywhere in this discussion, they were about 50, 50 on those who are to support the administration and those who didn’t. And Joe hadn’t said anything and then finally he just pipes off, he says, "Well," He said, "I am forward if they make it retroactive." And the room just dissolved in laughter and it dissipated the tension and they voted unanimously to support the administration.

George Drake:

40:01

Another one that I do remember very well because I was on the board at the time. The drinking age had been reduced to 19 for a while. Most of our students were legitimate, I mean, legal drinkers. And the college decided, students push for it and the administration agreed that we should have a pub on campus. We had restrictions both in town and on the campus, that went back to the founding of Grinnell, we wouldn’t allow that. We had to go to the city council and appeal that. And honestly get the law changed. That was a major shift, not only legally and also socially. And it was Joe who made the motion to do that and Warren who seconded the motion. They got it. And Joe particularly and he really, really cared about students.

Ben Binversie:

40:57

Now, all the while Joe is serving on the board, he’s also incredibly involved in Des Moines public life. Can you just talk briefly about his contributions there? Because as much as he impacted Grinnell, he also had a huge influence on the development of Des Moines.

George Drake:

41:14

That was, to me, something of a revelation. I didn’t have no idea how much involvement he had in Des Moines. Michael Gartner, who for years was the editor of The Register, then became head of NBC news, came back to the state and now as the owner of the Iowa Cubs, he understands Des Moines probably as well as anybody and he thinks that Joe was a sort of conscience of Des Moines, the sort of heart of Des Moines and he taught an awful lot of people to be generous and he credits Joe a lot for just the forward looking development of Des Moines. Now specifically the things you can point to besides his involvement in this wonderful business, Younkers, which was a huge part of Des Moines, but he was the chief contributor to a number of democratic politicians. Most importantly, Harold Hughes was a great governor of Iowa, was the primary donor to Harold Hughes and sort of sponsor of Harold Hughes, but John Kolber and Tom Harkin, Tom Miller and so on.

George Drake:

42:25

The so called cadre of democratic leadership. Joe was an advisor to and his funder of those folks, he’s responsible for getting the Iowa minorly franchise in Des Moines, he wasn’t the only one, but he was the one who actually had quickly raised the money to get the stadium built that required that. He was the biggest funder of Planned Parenthood in the state of Iowa by far, the big biggest funder and it was the one organization besides Grinnell College, they would let them use his name to help in fundraising, Living History Farms, really interesting museum of farming. He raised the money to help make that happen.

George Drake:

43:12

The World Food Prize, which we are noted for now in Iowa was endowed by John Ruan, a very close friend of Joe’s. And I can remember, he and John would have breakfast together at the Wine Club almost every day. And when I would have lunch with Joe once a month or so, John Ruan would come by and we’d have a conversation and so they were very close even though politically they were diametrically opposed. What Joe suggested, and John accepted the suggestion that he invest in Intel and John made a ton of money in Intel. And it’s that money that now endows the World Food Prize. Joe’s involved with that. It just goes on and on and on.

Ben Binversie:

43:54

And even though you had this huge impact financially and through a lot of these organizations, you titled this book Mentor. And that’s really a big part of Joe’s legacy. And really the reason we have this book as well is the relationships he developed and the people he mentored. How did Joe become a mentor for so many people?

George Drake:

44:15

Well, there’s one fairly simplistic, but I think accurate reason. Joe’s only son was killed in an auto accident in his senior year in high school and Joe’s wife was, some people me, she just never recovered from that. And she died certainly, it was seven or eight years after her son, but her life was in a way really blighted by that. That was a huge amount of loss. When I knew Joe, he was a widower, had no children, and he never referred to any of that. I mean, his life was just totally private. But the loss of that son, I think that was one of the stimulus for or stimuli, for his becoming a mentor, particularly for young men. The sponsor of this book, Jim Cownie and his partner, created the ninth largest cable television network in the United States.

George Drake:

45:14

They were all over the country, not just in Iowa. And Joe through Younkers, he handle all Younkers investments. It was big part of the startup, about 50% of the startup. It took a long time, particularly until satellites came along and he could really multiply the amount of program that you had on cable. I mean, cities didn’t need cable so much. They could get the television out of the air, but the rural areas needed cable terribly badly, and so cable took off. But at the point when they were just about dead, Joe invested heavily in heritage, which was called, at 37 cents a share of the stock, this stock was almost worthless. He says later that he made more money out of that inherited stock than anything else because then they blossomed very shortly after, Cownie thinks, they wouldn’t have had a business without Joe.

George Drake:

46:08

He thinks he owns everything and that’s why he wanted this biography to be written. Those two guys, he was a mentor for them. He was a mentor for Bob Noyce, obviously. The Bucksbaums, Matthew and Martin Bucksbaum, when they started, they’d gone from the grocery business into the shopping center business and Joe soon got acquainted with them, helped them get into the Des Moines market, persuaded them to move to Des Moines. Their organization was called General Growth. He was on the board of General Growth from the start. Those guys talked to him daily about advice, where should we go? Where should we start a shopping center? How should we find the funding for this? And so on. And Joe was just intimately involved with the Bucksbaums. We have the Bucksbaum Center on campus, is another recognition of that.

George Drake:

47:06

And then a woman who we really bettered was Jill June, the executive head of the Planned Parenthood. And she probably knew Joe intimately, in terms of Joe who was the person and he would sometimes talk about his family with her. When I interviewed her, I got more of those insights than I got from anyone else. That was a very close relationship, but it was definitely a mentoring relationship. And I’m sure there are many more that aren’t in the book or that I don’t know about that, he mentored me as president of the college. Anyway, it’s everywhere.

Ben Binversie:

47:43

Yeah. I think in writing this book, you do a wonderful job of painting Joe in this portrait of this fascinating and really impactful man, but yet very private. And it’s an interesting and difficult task to maybe write a book about someone who is so private. And I think he had a rare combination of self confidence and humility that maybe contributed to that privacy as well. Fred Little said he was pathologically private and really that he was a doer, contend to let his actions speak for themselves and he never wanted anything named after him. But finally a week before he died, he agreed to let the college name a building after him. We now have the Rosenfield Center. It’s obvious that he was hugely influential, not just at Grinnell but Des Moines as well. What do you see now when you look around Grinnell as the continued legacy of Joe here?

George Drake:

48:45

It’s hard not to find it. Well, my tutorial met at the library today and Chris Jones, who was the archivist, was the one who led that session and he very wisely inserted a tour around the library in that plus part of what he did. And so we physically saw a lot of the library and we were down in the room where all of our DVDs and CDs are and so on and he just commented, he said, "We’re so lucky because we have the budget to do all of these things." He talked about digitizing resources. We have the budget to digitize what we want to digitize. Most colleges don’t. Everywhere you go you see the fact that we are now a well-endowed, very well-endowed institution and we have funds to do things.

George Drake:

49:43

Not that they’re unlimited, they are and that would be the greatest mistake we could possibly make this assume it’s unlimited, but Joe wanted to make the college impregnable and I think we’re close to being that way. We build these wonderful facilities and we borrow, we raised money, but we’re also using endowment income. In fact, our endowment’s so large that if you’re going to by law spend 5% of the earnings, there’s money left over for doing physical projects, but Joe would turn over in his grave if he saw we using endowment for buildings, death on that. He wanted to protect that endowment and he knew that we in the administration wanted to get these buildings paid for. It’s easy to try to reach into the endowment to do it.

George Drake:

50:27

Our salaries are good. We have thick of financial aid, what were $50 million of financial aid every year. That’s probably the greatest contribution of the endowment is that it allows us to be, I think among our universe of perhaps 30 or so outstanding coeducational liberal arts colleges, we are the most accessible of any of them with the least amount of loan, most amount of grant, least amount of tuition coming back to the college because we’re discounting it in the form of financial aid. And we have a lot lot of students who do not come from well and yet this is a very expensive college. If you look at that, it’s an unbelievable-

Ben Binversie:

51:08

The best price.

George Drake:

51:09

Price. We couldn’t do that without the endowment, so we’re getting used to it now. But I’m familiar with a much less well-endowed college from my student days on through, when I was president, we were doing well, but we weren’t anywhere near where we are today with respect to endowment strength. It isn’t an unmixed blessing. It’s harder to raise money. I mean, my generation looks at the college now, why would they need my money? It’s so much wealthier than when we were here and so on and it’s better off. Quality of the faculty, it’s pretty hard to find a bad faculty member at Grinnell. You might find one who’s not having a good year or something. But no, we can afford to pay the salaries and provide all this support that’s important.

George Drake:

52:00

Research support, lab support and so on, leave support. All of these things we can afford to do that allow our college faculty be much more productive scholars than they used to be. I say, it’s hard to look around and not see the impact. And that’s Joe. Not to say we wouldn’t be a good college now. We would be, I think, and we would have built the endowment. It would have happened to somehow but not like it is. I mean, it was just, we owe everything to Joe.

Ben Binversie:

52:29

And you mentioned, he might be squirming in his grave thinking about using the endowment to fund our buildings. But he also maybe would have squirmed at the thought of someone writing a book about him.

George Drake:

52:42

That’s true.

Ben Binversie:

52:43

But I think he’d be happy to know that it was you who penned it. And it certainly is a story worth telling and I’ve enjoyed reading it and talking to you about it, so thank you George.

George Drake:

52:53

Thank you Ben. It’s been fun to do this.

Ben Binversie:

52:59

That was George Drake discussing the life and legacy of Joe Rosenfield. He recently published a biography of Joe called Mentor. You can find a link to the book on our webpage where you’ll also find some pictures from Joe’s life and clippings from his student publications. For those of you who are in Grinnell, there’ll be an event on Tuesday, December 3rd honoring Joe, 7:30 PM naturally in the Joe Rosenfield Center room 101. Well, Joe may be one of the most influential figures in the college’s history and well worthy of a podcast episode, another Grinnell grad from his family, his sister Louise Noun was notable in her own right. She served as the president of the Iowa ACLU, as well as a slew of other contributions and responsibilities throughout the state of Iowa. Noun lived a remarkable life and you can read more about her on the website.

Ben Binversie:

53:51

If you’re listening to this on Thanksgiving, and even if you’re not, I’d like to take a moment to take the best out of a holiday with a fraught history. Recognizing the history of our country’s relationship to native peoples is just the first step and we’re far from achieving that. I’m just starting to work on a story about the relationship between Grinnell and Meskwaki people, whose settlement is just 30 minutes away from here. I’m looking forward to reckoning with that relationship soon. But for now, to all of you who will celebrate in some fashion, and even those who don’t, I hope you can take a moment now to pause, reflect, and be grateful. Wherever you are on this day listening to this podcast, I hope you’re doing well and I’m sending you a big audio hug.

Ben Binversie:

54:32

Next time, we’re talking with Evelyn and Will Freeman, the longtime Grinnell track and cross country coaches as they enter their last season of coaching the pioneers after almost 40 years. That’s next time on All Things Grinnell. Music for today’s show comes from Brett Newski and Podington Bear. If you’d like to contact the show, email us at podcast@grinnell.edu or check out our website, grinnell.edu/podcast for more information about the guests from today’s show, and don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast wherever you listen. I’m your host Ben Binversie. Stay grateful, Grinnellians.

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