Michael Warren Lewis '81

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  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: My name is Michael Warren Lewis, I live in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I’m the class of 1981.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: OK, so Mike, first question, why did you come to Grinnell and what is your first memory of the campus?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Well, I came to the college because I wanted a small student experience. I had started from my first year of school at the University of Delaware in the freshman honors program, and there were very small classes, a lot of individual attention from the instructor. And my second year was going to be in the general population and I knew that I did not want to be in these much larger classes, so, I was looking for a small school. I was also motivated to be much further away from my family. They’re in the DC area and I wanted to be far enough away that they couldn’t simply drop in on me whenever they wanted.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: My first memory of the campus, we were driving and when we first crossed into Iowa, an incredible hailstorm began. We actually stopped under an underpass to let these massive chunks of hail just bounce off of the roadway. I recall looking at that and going, “wow, this is- Iowa is a pretty wild place.” And then, got to the campus and got out of the car and it was right down between the Forum and Main and Mears, and remembered looking at this place thinking that it felt like, the sort of home I had not had and it always felt like that ever since, so.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: That was really my first memory of the campus. Of course, that first weekend there was a film on in ARH which was back then the theater. And, it was a, again, a tremendous thunderstorm so something about that weekend and thunderstorms. But it was pitch black out there and I remember, at the movie theater, looking out the window thinking, "y’know a tornado could be passing by right there and I wouldn’t see it ‘cause it’s so black." Little did I know there was a tornado passing by, down by I-80, that was the year that the Skelly station was eliminated by this tornado and some of the students who had been here longer went down to help with the cleanup and whatnot. But, so it was quite dramatic, and so my first experience with the campus was a lot of extremes, both emotionally and in terms of weather.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: So was there a professor, student or staff member during your time at Grinnell that strongly influenced you?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Yeah. We had a brand new professor of Philosophy, freshly-minted from the University of Texas. His name was Dan Graham. He was an expert of Aristotle and he’s gone on at different places in academe to publish Aristotle and he was a really strong influence. For such a quiet guy he was, I sat next to him at these round tables that we had back then, and so there was no head of the table and you could end up sitting completely across from the professor or right next to him, and just by chance I was right next to him. And he would make these incredibly witty comments under his breath. He wasn’t, I don’t think either confident enough or felt it was appropriate to say them really out loud but he couldn’t help himself and he would say these things and he would break me up ‘cause it was so funny and everybody else in the class was looking at me like was insane, why are you laughing? It’s ‘cause I can hear what he’s saying and you can’t.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: But, we handed in our first paper, this is my senior year. We were mostly majors in the class. And, time came for him to hand the papers back and he got up and didn’t hand them back, he said, “Before I hand these back, I wanna let you know that it is clear to me, having read all of your papers that you’ve been taught a great deal about philosophy, know a great deal about philosophy but that you have never been taught how to write. It is going to be my mission, I’m changing the focus of this course. It’s going to be my mission for the rest of the semester to teach you how to write.” Then he passed the papers back and it looked like some sort of back alley slasher with a razor had been after them ‘cause the red was all over them and we were mostly majors. We met out in the hallway afterwards. We were terribly outraged, "How dare he," y’know, "who does he think he is, of course we know how to write."
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: So I go off and I take my paper to my girlfriend who was a freshman that year even though I was a senior and she was going to be an English major. In fact, she was going to go on to be a PhD in English and she was going to go on to teach English. All that was in the future at that point. And I told her my tale of woe and or outrage as I handed her my paper and then to my horror she pulls out a red pen and begins correcting things that the professor had not corrected. That was, that was a real shocker but then I realized not long after that this was a great opportunity because she was describing things and telling me how to do things that I had never heard of. Things like, parallelism which is so obvious now, but that I had no clue what was meant by this. And, in fact, between the two of them they taught me quite well how to write and that’s become very important to me in my job because I’ve done nothing but writing for the last 25 years.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: So just going specifically into that, how has Grinnell helped you with your career path, or helped influence it?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Well, when I came out of school, I came out of a school that was, a school system that was not terribly good and I had a lot of raw material mostly because I simply read everything I could get my hands on. I came out with excellent grades without ever having to break a sweat in any of the classes I took and my standardized testing was all pretty good, too, because it’s, the stuff that I had been given was consistent with standardized tests. What I did not have was an organizational frame of reference to be able to put that sort of stuff to good use, and when I came to Grinnell, in particular, it was clear that I had to up my game. That where I had gone through pretty much on autopilot, I now had to work very hard to keep up with the other people who were here, so both the excellence of the people in the class that I was in and the caliber of the professors. That made it clear to me I needed to do better and I did. So.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: What are your best memories of your time at Grinnell?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: That’s a tough one to answer ‘cause they’re all good and they’re all different and weird. I was in everything from Rugby to the Society for Creative Anachronism. I worked for food service, every aspect of what I was doing was interesting and to some extent fun. So. There’s no good memory, no specific memory that’s better than the rest.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: Do you remember what your dorm room looked like?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: I was a transfer student and I got a single when I came in, which was nice.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: As a sophomore?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: As a sophomore, and what I did not know, however, was that they’d given me what was known as the suicide room. Someone had actually killed themselves in the room. And, of course, I was a transfer. I didn’t know anything about this. Everybody else knew. I learned about it before long. It was a really sort of odd space. It was in Langan in the basement on the loggia side, so you had a little window and you could see feet going by. So it’s very very strange. I’m sure someone who was taking like Russian would get really depressed doing that. It doesn’t exist as a room anymore. They renovated Langan and made it go away, so. But yeah, it was different.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: What kind of clothes did you wear everyday as a student?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: I was pretty scruffy.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: Heh. Typical Grinnell student.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: I didn’t have much for special occasions, so.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: Was there a particular book that influenced you during your time at college?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Probably The Nature of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. That was one, in fact, I’ve actually highlighted portions of that and given it to other people to read. It’s been very useful for understanding how things change; what science is, that sort of thing. I’d say that’s the one.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: Do you have any memories of the town of Grinnell?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: I do, mostly it’s when I was taking my now wife out to the Longhorn which is now gone to hear Peter Young Under the Coat Rack. He was a, I believe it was an alum, and he did the circuit through college towns all through Iowa, probably overlapping a bit in other places. But he did sort of Jimmy Buffet-style music and so.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: How has Grinnell changed since you were a student?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: It’s certainly much tidier. Everything is more up front than it used to be. It used to be a little more raw. Everything is now neater. There’s more flowers and planting. It’s little things like that. Of course the renovations of the dorms are a big thing, the Rosenfield Center, Rosefield Center, the Joe, whatever.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: The JRC, yeah. Describe anything or something that is no longer on campus but was meaningful to you.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Oh, the Pub. Yeah, the real Pub, not Lyle’s Pub. Lyle’s Pub is nice but it’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see in the warehouse district in Minneapolis which is carefully cultivated and actually shockingly clean, really, even though it has this sort of industrial look to it. No, the Pub was a dingy little dive.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: Where was it on campus?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Oh, it's Bob’s Underground.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: Oh, Bob’s!
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Yeah, but it was, Bob’s is night and day nicer than the Pub was. The Pub was a hole. Yeah. But it’s, it was something. It was kind of ours, it was our something.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: Would you say that it was your favorite place on campus?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Oh no, no, by no means. But it’s something that’s no longer around. My wife would answer, The Forum Grill.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: Yeah, everybody’s been saying that.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Yeah? That’s one where a lot of people hung out. It was the coffee shop before coffee shops became popular. So, but that was, and that was a constant meeting place. I was a wizard on Defender. I and one other student of my class were the kings of that machine and whenever one of us got a higher score, the other one would make sure to get an even higher score and for us it was not a question of, gosh, could we get to that score, the question was when did we have to get go class or some other thing ‘cause we were just, we were so good. We would just keep racking up additional lives and, in fact, we would often be given a quarter to play the game by someone else with the proviso that we’ll take it when you’re done because we’re leaving a zillion lives on there, so one person gets to play for one quarter essentially as long as they want to regardless of their skill level. Yeah. So that was pretty fun, but yeah, the Forum.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: Describe your favorite academic experience or class at Grinnell College.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: In the, oh gosh, which class was it? It was Professor Susan Miltheisen, and she had this wonderful set piece going of a thought experiment on categories. It ran like this: that here is a drawer into which I put all of the things that are book rejections. So anything comes in that's a book rejection, I put it in here. I have this other category over here that is everything that is not. I put it in that drawer. And I think about this for a few moments and I raise my hand and I say, “OK. You’re telling me that you have this categorical system but there are things that come along which break down those systems no matter how complete you think they are. There’s always something else that comes along.”
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: And she responds, “Well yeah, I don’t see where that would possibly work.” I said, “Well, you’re handed a letter. It’s big, it’s bulky, it’s got wires sticking out of it and it says something outside, ‘This is a letter bomb.’ Are you telling me you’re really going to put that in that drawer and not throw it out the window? Because I’m real sure that if you had any inkling it was, in fact, a letter bomb, the window is where that’s going, and that defeats your category system.” At which point she, after some hemming and hawing back and forth, acknowledged that yes, that probably was correct, so that in fact and so. That is I think my favorite academic experience was the absolutely blowing up of what had been a nice little experiment, little thought piece that she had going which I thought she felt was bullet-proof, but no.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: If you knew then what you know now, what would you do differently during your time at Grinnell?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Oh man. I don’t know that there’s anything that I would want to change simply because the other constraints that had been recommended were pretty severe. So. Yeah, the anything I would liked to have done differently I couldn’t have anyway.
  • Chelsie Salvatera & Michael Warren Lewis
    Chelsie: I’m taking that you met your spouse here, right?Michael: Right, yeah.Chelsie: Ok.Michael: Again, I don’t want that to change at all. I’ll just say I nailed that sucker down. Just nail that down right now, that’s, yeah.Chelsie: Do you wanna talk a little bit about how you guys met?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Oh, yeah, we ran into each other. We physically ran into each other. I was carrying boxes from storage in the Loose basement and she was looking for the laundry room which at that time was in Loose in the basement, and she came around a corner and wasn’t, y’know, she was moving pretty fast and wasn’t looking and I was carrying these boxes. I really couldn’t see anything and we collided and the boxes went bump bump, bump bump bump and so it’s really cliché, right out of all sorts of romantic comedies but that’s, in fact, how we met.
  • Chelsie Salvatera & Michael Warren Lewis
    Chelsie: And you were a senior?Michael: I was a senior, she was a freshman.Chelsie: And so that continued, that was straight on to marriage, or?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: She, we continued dating, being together, being a couple. I moved to Des Moines after I graduated and came back and saw her on weekends or whenever I wasn’t working. She left Grinnell at the end of that first semester in her second year and we went up to, after a little bit of time in Des Moines, went up to the University of Minnesota where she finished Phi Beta Kappa and then went into the doctoral program there and got her doctorate and I went to law school. So, yeah.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: Very broad question, describe student and campus life as you experienced it during your time at Grinnell.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Students were very free to create the experience that they wanted. There was a tremendous amount of do-it-yourself-ism of all sorts that went on where if you didn’t feel like you were having a good time you were free to make a better time out of it. There weren’t a lot of real restraints on us and what we were expected to be doing outside of the class area, and so. We had all sorts of things happening. Y’know the Rugby Club goes on a tour of Canada. It just, just took advantage of the ability to do it, so we did it, that kind of thing.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: If you were writing a history of Grinnell College what would you include from your years here?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: History of Grinnell College. Well, other than what I’ve just said in the previous… I don’t know. I don’t know what I would put if I were the one tasked to write the history of Grinnell because it’s, it’s so many varied experiences, all bundled together under this sort of capstone category of attaining a bachelor’s degree and when I think about all of my friends and all the things that we did for good or ill, it’s, it defies any simple... something I could put together in a conversation type of structure.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: It’s, it tremendously varied. People doing just amazing things, I mean we had F. Hudson Miller who this year was awarded a special recognition at the, yesterday’s convocation for his efforts. We had him putting together the film series that came through and they were tremendously interesting and fun things and ironically enough one of them actually tied into a political event that happened. We were here for the 1980 presidential elections, and Edward Kennedy was running for the President that year and we had seen, we had seen Flesh Gordon, which was this terribly low-budget, modestly pornographic movie that F. Hudson had arranged to get here and we had loved it.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: It was so corny and awful. And it was so corny and awful that at one point one of the football players got up on stage and began doing this little song about a bear climbing a tree and it was sort of a sing-a-long type song, and everyone just started hootin’ and hollering and going along with it while this film was playing in the background, we just basically forgot about it.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: Well, roll the clock then forward to the visit by then-Senator Kennedy. Well, I guess he’s Senator for a long time, now he’s deceased. But at any event, we were all in the old Darby Gym, waiting for this event and like many of these political events, you get the crowd in there, then you let ‘em wait and the candidate will show up eventually and there will be some speechifying made and whatever. Well, we were restive and we were bored, we were kids, it wasn’t exactly short attention-span theater, but it might have been.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: At one point up gets the football player. Same guy who’d been on the stage during the movie doing the same song and everyone was hootin’ and hollerin’ and going along with it and having fun. It was interesting to watch the Secret Service folks scurrying around because they had no idea what to make of this and finally somebody talked to one of ‘em, said this is what happened at the movie theater, same deal, same package, "Oh, OK, it’s fine then." And that football player entertained us for a little while, then we had Senator Kennedy show up and talk and Senator Kennedy was visibly mystified why his references to farm subsidies got no response from this crowd. But his references to Israel – we had a large Jewish population, mostly from Skokie, Illinois – got overwhelming applause. But, in the mark of a true politician, he pretty much dropped the farm subsidy thing after the second effort and then stuck with Israel. And so he could get the- chinned up response.
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: But, yeah, it really defies any particular- I mean that’s just one little facet of the things that came in and interrelated during our time here that are a history, I’m just visualizing what the book would look like to have all of these stories to do it justice. And that’s just from my time period. I know other people had their own experiences and that’s a similar type of depth, breadth and truly exhaustive but fun to listen to, hopefully mostly.
  • Chelsie Salvatera
    Chelsie: Is there any final thing you would like to discuss or to say?
  • Michael Warren Lewis
    Michael: No, just that this place, in many ways, as I look at it, it took me in. I felt that, fundamentally, based on my experiences, somewhat difficult and in a tough neighborhood, that kind of thing, I was in some ways somewhat broken when I showed up and Grinnell was the place that more or less healed me and let me go off to do productive things where previously I, if not for the influence of a place like this, I’m not sure what I’d be doing right now.
Alumni oral history interview with Michael Warren Lewis '81. Recorded June 5, 2011.