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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Joe Rosenfield ’25

Part of an ongoing series about a small college in the middle of Iowa and the people affiliated with it.

Almost every Grinnellian knows the name Joe Rosenfield. After all, his name is on Grinnell’s student center and on one of Grinnell’s particularly active programs (yeah, that’s right, the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Right). But what else do you know about him?

Okay, I’ll admit that I don’t know a huge amount. I do, however, know that someone [1] is writing a biography. I may know more than some of my readers. So let’s take a look.

It’s obvious that Rosenfield donated a lot of money to Grinnell. You don’t get usually get your name on the side of a building without giving money (or having someone give money in your name). Programs like Rosenfield tend to run on the interest on their endowment; the broad range of Rosenfield activities suggest that it is clearly doing well). But his impact on Grinnell’s finances are wider than that. Many people credit Rosenfield as being one of the main forces as Grinnell went from a place that sometimes had trouble making the bills to having one of the highest per-capita endowments in the nation. I’m told that when we were a place that couldn’t always pay our own bills, Joe often paid them.

Joe clearly loved Grinnell and wanted to see it thrive. But he didn’t really need to see his name in the bright lights; he generally preferred to work behind the scenes. I’ve been told that he didn’t want his name on the JRC, and it took a lot of convincing to get him to agree. (Joe, you’ve meant an incredible amount to this institution; let us honor you.) And, even then, we were worried enough that we didn’t name a building after him until a few years after he’d passed away.

My guess is that he would be most happy to have his name associated with the Rosenfield program, as it really builds Grinnell’s curriculum and helps students think more deeply about important issues. I expect that he thinks (well, thought) of it as one of his most important legacies.

But you probably knew most of that. It’s looking like this essay may be a bit of a failure [2]. Still, it has a few things that aren’t in his minimal Wikipedia entry. I’ll need to read the forthcoming book and then write a summary in the future future. Until then, I’ll leave you with a few assorted facts that you may not have known.

In his youth, Joe Rosenfield was a Boy Scout, one of the pioneers of Scouting. There’s a newspaper photo of a young Joe Rosenfield and a fewer other scouts meeting with Theodore Roosevelt when he came to Des Moines. A biography of Rosenfield’s friend, John Ruan, notes that at the end of his life, Joe was proud to be the Mid-Iowa Council’s longest tenured Scout. I believe that he was also the recipient of the Silver Beaver award, one of the most distinguished Scouting awards one can get as an adult.

Ruan donated a statue honoring Rosenfield to Camp Mitigwa, the Council’s primary camp, around the time of Rosenfield’s death. Mitigwa’s camp director told me that he’d regularly see Ruan’s limousine parked near the statue, as Ruan came up to think about his old friend. The ability to build that kind of friendship says something important about the kind of person Rosenfield was.

Joe Rosenfield was clearly a special man, one who was devoted to this institution I love, and one who helped it not just survive, but thrive. I wish I had gotten the chance to meet him. I’m glad we honored him with a building, whether or not it’s a tribute he would have wanted. I think of him whenever I pass by the statue at Mitigwa [3]. I ask that when you benefit from a Rosenfield event, or from our endowment, think of Joe and say a silent thank you.

[1] Either George Drake or Wayne Moyer, if I’m not incorrect

[2] You’ve probably realized by now that not all of my essays are a success.

[3] When possible, I sit by the statue and just enjoy its presence as I think of him.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-11-14.