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New endowed professorship announced in chemistry

Grinnell College
From left to right: Leslie Lyons, Luther and Jenny Erickson gather at the 2019 Alumni Reunion Weekend. Photo by Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College

By MJ Old

The Chemistry Department has a new endowed professorship named for Luther and Jenny Erickson, long-time residents of the Grinnell community.

The Ericksons came to Grinnell together in 1962. Luther was a professor of chemistry, one of the youngest in the department at the time. He retired in 2003. Jenny was the director of the Forum, a building which functioned as the predecessor to the JRC, until 1997.

Today, the Ericksons live in the Mayflower Health Center in Grinnell and remain connected to the community, including to alums around the world. Their two grandsons went to Grinnell – though neither majored in chemistry.

“They have long, deep, well-intertwined connections to the College and the town,” said Professor Leslie Lyons, chemistry, the recipient of the professorship. Lyons lived next-door to the Ericksons for 16 years, was a Chemistry Department colleague of Professor Erickson, and at one point served on a committee alongside Jenny Erickson. Lyons’ research focuses on electrolytes, an essential component of batteries.

Edward Senn ’79 spearheaded the effort to establish the professorship and used a novel technique to raise the millions of dollars necessary: crowdfunding. In total, thirty-five alums contributed.

Senn expressed a threefold reasoning for his work. Firstly, soliciting donations gave him a chance to reconnect with classmates and others who knew the Ericksons. Secondly, it was also a way to honor the teachers and friends who impacted him so much.

Thirdly, providing for future generations of professors and students was a way to pay forward the benefits Grinnell gave him. “I received a very generous financial aid package to attend Grinnell, a combination of grants, work-study – I washed dishes – and loans,” Senn said. “Establishing this professorship helps attract quality professors and helps students with research funding.”

When Senn was a student, the student union was in the Forum, which now holds SHAW and ITS. Visitors to campus from presidential candidates to jazz singers had events there in the south lounge. Senn worked as a desk attendant and Jenny Erickson was his boss. “Generally there was the right way to do something, and that was the Mrs. Erickson way,” said Senn. “Some of my friends might argue that I learned more from Mrs. Erickson than I did from some of my professors, although I can still tell you how we memorized the ten cranial nerves.”

Professor Erickson also left a strong legacy. Indeed, the endowed professorship is not the only special fund honoring him. Majoring in Chemistry requires completion of a Mentored Advanced Project, a policy that started in the 1960s. “The Ericksons were instrumental in that. We actually have a summer research fellowship named for Luther Erickson, [which] was another independent fundraising effort by alums to recognize Luther’s contribution to our program,” Lyons said.

Beyond a title and a medallion, holding an endowed professorship means that Lyons can more easily fund her research. All professors can apply to the College for money for their scholarly pursuits, but endowed chairs don’t need to apply. “The folks who have endowed chairs receive an allocation of funds to use for whatever scholarly purposes they might want. Not having to write a proposal saves an awful lot of time,” Lyons sad.

Nevertheless, Lyons remains modest about her place in honoring the Ericksons’ legacy. “I don’t know why I was chosen,” Lyons said, “but I’m happy I was.”

From left to right: Leslie Lyons, Luther and Jenny Erickson gather at the 2019 Alumni Reunion Weekend. Photo by Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College
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