Campus Myth Busters

We dig deep into the College archives to find out the truth behind some of the most incredible Grinnell legends.

December 21, 2014

Erin Peterson ’98

We dig deep into the College archives to find out the truth behind some of the most incredible Grinnell legends.

Grinnellians have always been able to spin great yarns. Just take founder Josiah Grinnell, who insisted he headed to Iowa because he’d been personally advised by abolitionist Horace Greeley to “Go west, young man.”

It turned out that Greeley told Grinnell no such thing (Greeley himself disavowed the story), but Grinnell was such a charismatic storyteller that the tale took on a life of its own. The “go west” myth has been repeated in countless history books and taken as fact for more than 150 years.

That particular Grinnell legend may be the one with the most staying power, but it’s not the only tale that’s been told so often that it’s been accepted as truth — regardless of the amount of truth it contains.

We were interested in finding out what was behind some of the other rumors that have been winging their way around campus for decades, sneaking into College guidebooks and campus-tour scripts for added staying power. Is it true that Quad was never intended to be a dining hall? Did the Federal Communications Commission squash the campus radio station for an entire year because of a well-executed prank?

To find the answers to these and other burning questions, we enlisted the help of archivists, longtime faculty members, biographers, and national research companies. What we discovered surprised us. Sometimes, fiction is just fiction. And sometimes, the rumors are not only true, they’re just the tip of the iceberg.

Legend: Gary Cooper couldn’t land a role in a single play at Grinnell.

True or false? True.

The back story: During his 34-year film career, actor Gary Cooper ’26 landed three Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But snaring a spot in Grinnell’s drama club as a student proved too difficult for the swoon-worthy star.

Hey, we’ve got standards here.

Cooper, a Montana native who was born Frank Cooper (he chose Gary as his stage name later), started his college career at the Helena-based Wesleyan College. Though he dreamed of becoming a surgeon, such a career was never really within reach; biographers note that his chief interest seemed to be cartooning.

In 1922, he transferred to Grinnell. According to the exclamation-laden biography of the star in Current Biography 1941, he showed little early promise as an actor. “He tried out for [Grinnell’s] dramatic club and was unhesitatingly turned down,” the publication reported. “He had stage fright so badly that he stuttered — and did that in a whisper!” Some biographies of the actor suggest that he had more than one unsuccessful tryout for the club.

Nonetheless, he found other ways to stay close to theatre while at Grinnell. According to Jeffrey Meyers’ Gary Cooper: American Hero, he dated Doris Virden ’23, the leading actress in the dramatic club, for more than a year. He also drew the covers of the playbills of theatre productions.

Though his academic performance at Grinnell was, by most accounts, discouragingly poor, he found plenty of interesting ways to spend his time, Meyers reports. “Cooper and some friends once stole a 5-gallon jug of Matlack’s cider, tried to make it hard, then lost patience and drank it before it fermented,” he writes. “To destroy the evidence, they put a firecracker in the neck of the jug and blew it up like a bomb.”

Cooper left the College in 1924, believing he could get a jumpstart on commercial art work in Chicago, but ultimately headed to Hollywood. He started as an extra in 1925, and he moved up the ladder quickly. Despite some miscalculations during his career — he turned down the role of Gone with the Wind’s Rhett Butler, insisting that the movie would be “the biggest flop in Hollywood history” — he snared best-actor Oscars for his roles in Sergeant York and High Noon.

Cooper died in 1960 of prostate cancer. He was awarded a lifetime achievement Academy Award posthumously.

Legend: More than a century ago, an alumna donated a significant sum to the College to build a church. The Grinnell administration obliged, but as soon as the alumna died, the “church” became the Quad — a dining hall for decades, and now a space for special events and performances.

True or false? Very unlikely to be true.

The back story: With its soaring ceilings, arched windows, and stained glass, it’s no wonder that Quad has evoked comparisons to a church.

But architecture alone isn’t enough to substantiate any claim, and there are enough other confounding details that this story seems like nothing more than urban legend. College Archivist Chris Jones says he could track down no documents that indicated any donation from any alumna for a church. And the timing is, at best, strange: “Herrick Chapel was built in 1907 and the Quad was completed in 1915,” he notes. “It seems a little unlikely that [administrators] would design two chapels for such a small campus.”

But what about that design? It’s awfully churchy, isn’t it? A cursory Web search indicates that the architects may have been taking cues from the Great Hall at the Christ Church campus of England’s Oxford University (founded long before Grinnell), which has similar features, from the tall, beamed ceilings, arched windows, and even the wood-paneled walls. (The church was also the inspiration for the Great Hall in Harry Potter movies.)

Still, the legend persists — and along with it, the concern that any major gift to the College can be “repurposed” once the donor has shuffled off this mortal coil. But Meg Jones Bair, director of donor relations, dispels that myth. Strict ethics — not to mention binding contracts — guide the use of all major gifts. “When we accept larger gifts for a building or other large commitment, both the donor and the College sign gift agreements,” she says. She notes that the standard agreements include language that assures donors that their gifts will be used for the purposes for which they were given — or, if times change, a purpose that reasonably approximates the intent of the donors and supports the mission of the College. For example, when the NCAA prohibited Division III institutions from offering scholarships specifically to athletes, Grinnell worked with donors and their families to amend about a dozen scholarships in which candidates needed to be athletes. Many simply expanded their requirements to award the scholarship to a leader — either on or off the athletic field.

Legend: An alum once walked a cow to the top of Gates tower; since cows can’t walk down stairs, it was butchered in the bathroom.

True or false? False.

The back story: This legend has as many moving parts as a Clue murder mystery. Was it Gary Cooper in Rawson with a horse? Or Robert Noyce in Gates with a cow?

No matter: there appears to be no evidence that any alum from any era brought a massive beast to the top of a residence hall.

To be fair, Larry Swindell, author of the Cooper biography The Last Hero, offers a tale that was printed in an early movie studio biography of the star, in which Cooper rides a horse to his room at the top of Rawson. When the horse could not be persuaded to walk back down, it was butchered, and Cooper was expelled. But there are plenty of problems with the tale even without the question of the horse: Cooper never lived in Rawson (he was a Langan resident), and he was never expelled.

Swindell chalks the story up to a Paramount publicist who was “being paid to make Gary Cooper’s past sound interesting,” noting that “Hollywood publicists often reveal extraordinary resourcefulness for building tales out of scant information, or none at all.”

So why the persistence of the tale? It turns out that in some ways, it’s just an appealing story — and not just to Grinnellians. Bringing a cow or horse to the top of a building is a commonly reported (though perhaps less commonly executed) prank at schools, typically by the most famous alum the school can muster. At Pennsylvania’s Allegheny College, for example, the prank is credited to William McKinley, who went on to become the 25th president of the United States (McKinley denied the tale). At Princeton, the tale involves a horse that belonged to the chair of the alumni board.

Alumni at other colleges, including St. Mary’s of California, Goshen College, and the University of Virginia, all claim to have had students who have coaxed a cow to the rooftops of the tallest campus buildings, and it’s on a list of “Senior Prank Ideas” at the College Confidential website. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the definitive book of college pranks is called If at All Possible, Involve a Cow.

At Grinnell, however, the cows and the horses have all stayed at ground level.

Legend: In the 1960s, some inventive Grinnellians found a way to use the train tracks as powerful makeshift antenna for the radio station; their handiwork drowned out stations as far away as Chicago and earned an FCC violation that kept them off the air for a year.

True or false? False.

The back story: KDIC was not always KDIC; in 1948, the College launched its first AM radio station, KGRW. But by 1961, the station was in a tough spot; the equipment had become obsolete, and no one in Norris, the new residence hall on campus, could listen to the station because the dorm’s electrical wiring interfered with the signal.

This might have been about the time that ingenious students took matters into their own hands to create the most formidable train-track-powered station of all time, but the truth is more mundane. According to archive reports, students appealed to the College’s board of trustees for funding so that the station could upgrade to a stronger FM signal; but funds in those days were slim, and the request was turned down. The station was shut down until the spring of 1968, when it was relaunched as KDIC.

But were any other hijinks part of this seven-year hiatus? We checked with Waldo Walker, professor emeritus of biology, who says he’s familiar with the tale but has no recollection of what would undoubtedly be a memorable event. “I’ve been associated with the College since 1958 and was in the administration in the early 1960s,” he says. “I never heard of any intervention from the FCC.”

And neither, it turns out, has the FCC. To double-check his memory, we hired BCPI, an official FCC contractor, to dig through decades of the two stations’ records; despite hours of research, the company found no record of any violations.

Nonetheless, we wondered: Is it even possible to use the train tracks as an antenna? Speculation abounds on the Web; the answers range from “maybe, but it would be really, really hard” to “not a chance.”

These days, KDIC doesn’t need a train-track-powered jolt to get heard all the way across the country. If you’ve got an Apple or Android phone, you can download the KDIC app and listen to today’s student DJs from almost anywhere on the planet.

Legend: Grinnell has a series of secret tunnels beneath the campus.

True or false? Tunnels? True. Secret? Not so much.

The back story: Who doesn’t love a secret passageway? We sure do. They’re always where the best adventure stories start and often are the hiding spot for amazing treasures.

Well, not always, says Chris Bair ’96, the College’s environmental and safety coordinator. The College does have tunnels that run beneath North and South Campus dorms, but you won’t find the Holy Grail or even the tombstone of beloved founder J.B. Grinnell. What you will find are pipes that deliver heat, chilled water, and Information Technology Services cabling to all the residence halls.

Though Grinnellians could technically walk the length of North Campus — from Norris to Younker — in one of the tunnels, they won’t become popular passageways anytime soon. For one thing, says Bair, the entrances to the tunnels are kept “very locked.” Bair says that during his eight-year tenure he’s never seen any indication that students have made their way into the tunnels but has found plenty of evidence that students have made their way into “all sorts of strange places.”

While the tunnels aren’t accessible for students for good reason (they’re not the ones who need access to utilities), they’re also pretty unpleasant, says Bair. He describes the North Campus tunnel as a long concrete bunker that’s about as wide as three people — with about as much charm as that suggests. “The tunnels under North and South Campus are old and dingy,” he says. “They’d be pretty good in a horror movie.”

South Campus tunnels, meanwhile, aren’t even tall enough to walk in. These “crawl tunnels” extend the length of South Campus. And if you think you might just want to make your way from Norris to Quad by way of tunnel, you’ll have a tough go of it: The two sets of tunnels are connected only by buried pipes. But both campuses have more tunnel cred than East Campus; it has no tunnels at all. The utilities are incorporated into the residence hall basement space.

Read All About It

These stories are part of a much larger tale of the College and the adventures of its students and alumni. To find out more, check out these books and articles:

  • Grinnell College in the Nineteenth Century: From Salvation to Service, by Joseph Frazier Wall ’41.
  • Pioneering, by Alan Jones ’50.
  • The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley, by Leslie Berlin.
  • Gary Cooper: American Hero, by Jeffrey Meyers.
  • The Last Hero: A Biography of Gary Cooper, by Larry Swindell.


Do you have a campus legend you’d like us to dig into? Send them to We’ll answer the best questions in a future issue of the magazine.


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