James A. Ahrens '62

  • James Ahrens
    James: My name is James A. Ahrens, A-h-r-e-n-s, frequently pronounced in Grinnell that way. “Aarons” in the rest of the world, because it’s the English pronunciation. I currently live in Grinnell, Iowa, and I’m a member of the College class of 1962.
  • James Ahrens
    James: And... If I’m answering the questions here- why did I come to Grinnell College? I first started college at Iowa State College as it was known then, in 1958. I’d intended to go into science or engineering but I decided after the first year that I probably didn’t have the math skills to do that and so I decided to come back to Grinnell, and so I had no trouble getting into Grinnell as a transfer student, and coming back here.
  • James Ahrens
    James: And I lived at home during the next one and a half years and was affiliated with Rawson Hall. This was back when the hall system had sway over the campus and that was, I think, either the first year that they did not have the hazing induction of students or the second year of it. But, as a transfer student I didn’t have to go through the hazing part anyway but I was affiliated, as a local student, with Rawson Hall, and became part of that... and it became a primary group, speaking sociologically, and it was a very valuable experience and one of the things that I liked best about this campus and about this College as a whole were the people that I met here and have continued to, in many cases, keep up with over the many years since that time.
  • James Ahrens
    James: There was a favorite professor- actually, two of them. It ranked that way. I became a History major and Joe Wall was the professor of most influence on me perhaps. George Drake was another one. He was back from his year or two years as a Rhodes Scholar and came back from Oxford and taught British History.
  • James Ahrens
    James: So I took British History from him for the entire year. Interestingly enough one of the things that I found to be most influential was that one of his class exercises was to pick on people, and I have no idea why he picked on me to lead a class discussion in one of the sessions. And I did that, found it to be quite stimulating and successful, and I determined that I was probably gonna end up as a college or university teacher. And so that’s the way I ended up in- after a long journey.
  • James Ahrens
    James: I lived in Rawson Tower on second floor. I had my desk in the bay window so I could look out over during the day, over Mac Field and all the activities. And Ward Field was there across the turf and that was the site of football games and so forth. I lived with two others, Dave Palmer, who’s a friend of mine. We’ve been together since kindergarten through college here in Grinnell. And another fellow from Illinois by the name of John... oh heavens, how these things do escape your memory all these years- John Williams, and we most enjoyed that association with both the hall and for that room too; it’s sort of special to us.
  • James Ahrens
    James: Every day I wore regular clothes just like everybody else, what I’d been used to wearing. We had to require- we were required to wear a coat and tie for dinner and I had an old jacket that I wore along with a wide tie which must’ve gone back to 1945. It got rather gravy-spotted over the years that we ate in the sit-down meals at Cowles Hall.
  • Alenka Figa & James Ahrens
    Alenka: Do you mind if I ask-James: Go ahead. Alenka I know you mentioned the hazing but what did hazing, like...?James: Well, every freshman was issued a prep hat. They had to make a paddle. They had a- very much like the Greek system of college initiations. But then they put you through all kinds of weird exercises; recite things, do things for upperclassmen, this type of thing. And if you didn’t do it right, you had to hand them the paddle and they administered appropriate swats to your rear end.Alenka: Oh geez. Okay.
  • James Ahrens & Alenka Figa
    James: That kind of hazing was, I think, responsible for a number of students who left after that first year. I was frequently reminded of that and anytime I hear about hazing I become very strongly against that practice in any occasion. So, it's not something- It influenced me in that direction, at least.Alenka: So, sorry, just to stay with it for one more second, why did the- had the hazing ended completely by the time you came to Grinnell? Like, did the school put an end to it?James: I beg your pardon?Alenka: Or why- Why did the hazing stop?James: It stopped because there were many objections to it, mainly by parents of students. And there were- They finally came to the realization that there’s just no place in a residence for that.
  • James Ahrens
    James: So they’d gone to the extreme on the other side, I think, because they have eliminated the hall system in which students would have a hall president, which they would elect themselves, but he would be responsible for the C of HP or Committee or Council of House Presidents, and they were a policy-making institution under the supervision of the Dean of Men. And... Dean of Men, whom I knew by the way, who had been a high school guidance counselor when I was in high school, but they made that policy for the residence halls.
  • James Ahrens
    James: And as a result of that, getting rid of that system, they lost the real advantage of a primary group association with individual students and their fellows in this one organization in the house or hall. And it became, I think, it became a detriment afterwards to have students list, by their rank order, you know, time of longevity, what rooms that they would get on a completely integrated campus both north/south as well.
  • James Ahrens
    James: But, that’s one of the reactions to a very bad program that they had before and they went completely the other direction. And the students now have no memory of that and they will, for example, I think, go through remembering all of the people that they met on a campus-wide basis and not concentrated a lot in the one unit or dormitory unit that they had been associated with.
  • Alenka Figa & James Ahrens
    Alenka: So, when you were at Grinnell was there like, a Student Government Association?James: There was a Student Government Association, but as far as I could tell, it had almost no influence whatsoever. We- Those were the days of in loco parentis. People- we were- The College assumed the authority of parents over youngsters. And... the women’s side of the campus was completely segregated and they locked up the doors of the loggia and the house mother, or some deputy, would check in the girls as they came back from their night activities; the library, dates, what have you.
  • James Ahrens & Alenka Figa
    James: But it was quite a different time in American education and we’ve gone completely away from that, now. And you probably think that it’s a big improvement.Alenka: Ah, yeah, I guess. I don't know. I mean, that's such a- there’s such a time difference and a culture difference.James: Rght.Alenka: It’s hard to say something is better, but..James: Well, that’s true. You have to experience both to know which really is better, but I’m making an outsider’s judgment on it.
  • James Ahrens & Alenka Figa
    James: But I’ve been around the College over the years. After I graduated with a major in history, I went through officer training school at... for the US Air Force and have served, honorably, in the- as a commissioned officer since 1962. And.. at the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, about 1973, I went into the Reserves and did Reserve Unit for the balance of a career, being mobilized several times after that. I ended up with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and commanded a battalion in Desert Storm, the first Gulf War.Alenka: Wow.
  • James Ahrens & Alenka Figa
    James: So, I’ve got quite a broad range of experience and traveling and so forth, but in-between that time I taught at a military academy in Lexington, Missouri called Wentworth Military Academy. I taught all Junior College students in the ROTC commissioning program. A lot of my former students are in the Army now. And... let's see... I also, at the end of the Vietnam War, I came back to Grinnell for ten years while I was in Reserves and farmed until the Reagan recession came along and our farming operation could no longer support the three people that were in it. And so, I could do something else, so I went back into teaching.Alenka: Oh.James: And I’ve taught military history, which is my specialty, for 22 years at that academy.
  • Alenka Figa & James Ahrens
    Alenka: So, has your time, or your experience with the military changed how you feel about Grinnell?James: Well, I’m not sure what you mean.Alenka: I guess, does your experience in, just like, other communities change how you feel like the Grinnell community should run?James: Yes, it did. It made me appreciate Grinnell more than ever.Alenka: Ah, that's good.
  • James Ahrens & Alenka Figa
    James: I think that’s why we came back here to live. My wife and I retired. She’s a Coe graduate from Cedar Rapids.Alenka: Oh! I'm from Cedar Rapids.James: Yeah, I noticed. And as a result of retiring here, we’re able to, one, keep in pretty good physical shape riding bicycles all over; a nice riding town. Also, there are so many activities, learning opportunities, and a lot of people around that I personally know. I know most of the grandfathers of the kids that are graduating from high school, now. They’re all my contemporaries. But, the families around here are all- many of them are... that have just come in recent years aren’t as familiar as the ones that have been here since a long time.
  • James Ahrens
    James: So.. But, Grinnell is a great place to live. We live in the Mayflower Community, which is a three-level of care. You can either live in an apartment or in a condominium, and we live in a condo. You can live in, if you need it, assisted living, and when you get close to the end you can be in the nursing home wing of it, and it’s a real advantage to have to, you know, do your downsizing and moving and stuff while you’re still able to do it. I’m a second generation Mayflower resident; my mother spent her last years at that place.
  • Alenka Figa & James Ahrens
    Alenka: Can I ask ask: So, your name Ahren- "Aarons"? Right?James: "Aarons" is English, "Ah-rens" is German.Alenka: Okay. Are you related to the "Aarons" or "Ahrens" of the Community Center that’s here?James: You’re thinking about- No, that’s the rich branch. There were three families, and none of them- they weren’t closely related, or- if related at all in here. So, I’ve got a set of relatives and Claude Ahrens is, who’s founder of the Ahrens Foundation, has another set of relatives, one of whom was my classmate. He’s a nephew of Claude, but... And we’ve always compared relatives, but no, I’m not one of the rich ones.
  • Alenka Figa & James Ahrens
    Alenka: Okay. I'm sorry. Is there anything else about Grinnell you’d like to address?James: I’m hoping that I can stay active long enough to contribute a number of senior education activities here. We have a program under the Community Education Council which provides what are called Bucket Courses. A Bucket Course is what you wanted to learn before you kicked the bucket.Alenka: Haha.James: And we manage to prevail upon senior status Grinnell College professors and people who are emeriti. We see if they are interested in teaching something in their specialty and we’ve had a wide variety of courses. I’ve taught three and I’m teaching another one this Fall.
  • Alenka Figa & James Ahrens
    Alenka: And you do that through the College?James: No, we don’t do it through the College, but the College is a member of the Community Education Council, and so is the Regional Hospital, the School District... seemed like there’s another one- oh, the City of Grinnell. They all send representatives to this, and we coordinate what we’re doing and educational activities, so we work on each other’s programs.
  • Alenka Figa & James Ahrens
    Alenka: Yeah, well, if those are the memories you'd like to share, I think that's good. Thank you.James: Okay, I'm.. I think I’ve done about as much as I can share here, so I thank you for the opportunity.Alenka: Well, thank you.
Alumni oral history interview with James A. Ahrens '62. Recorded June 1, 2012.
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