All over the country, wool suits, polyester dresses and cotton skirts are stuffed into the backs of closets or folded neatly in basement boxes. Most no longer fit, and they’re all out of fashion. But the women who’ve kept them for 30, 40 or 50 years won’t throw them out. The outfits are tied in their memories to a singular woman, someone who influenced the course of their lives: Mina Baker-Roelofs ’41. Her subject, though dismissed by many today, was rigorous, preparing teachers and small business owners. Mina cared about her students far beyond the time they left her classroom, kitchen and sewing lab on the third floor of Jordan Hall.
Mina was born in 1920 in Holland, Mich. Her parents were Dutch immigrants, and she spoke old-fashioned Dutch with her grandfather as a child. A minister’s daughter, Mina learned at an early age to care for others. She came to Central as a freshman in 1937 but stayed only two years—transferring to Iowa State University midway for a home economics degree. But her memories of the school in the years before World War II, and in the waning years of the Depression, still stuck in her mind almost 60 years later, when she was interviewed for an oral history report.
In the late 30s, breakfast—served family-style—began at 7 a.m. Arriving even two minutes late meant you were locked outside until lunch. Mina remembers being part of a “gang” of five girls and making JELL-O, with a forbidden hot plate, on the sill of her dorm window.
After she graduated from Iowa State, Mina taught at an RCA mission school in Kentucky. President Irwin Lubbers called her back to start a home economics program at Central. She first spent a year at Iowa State University getting her master’s in textiles and clothing. In 1946, she returned to Central as a one-woman home economics department.
In 1946, Central’s enrollment was just over 500. The college looked much different then. Peace Street—and railroad tracks—ran through the middle of campus. The pond and bridge weren’t even ideas yet.
Mina taught a full course load of foods, nutrition and tailoring courses. Textiles were her favorite; she collected fabrics from all over the world. As part of textile and gourmet food tours, she visited Europe over a dozen times and the Netherlands even more.
“Mina believed in experiential education before it was popular,” says Vivian Rippentrop, who later became Mina’s colleague in the department. “She brought examples of real-life items to class and had students deal with real-life issues.” Pamela Simmons Vande Voort ’82, a student of Miss Baker’s (as her students called her) remembers the piles of cookbooks, newspaper articles and fabric samples she’d display at the front of the room.
Mina’s classes were no cake walk. Football players took cooking for the easy A—and quickly learned there was no such thing in Miss Baker’s classroom. Before class began, Mina would fill both sides of a reversible chalkboard with notes, and students would write frantically to keep up. “She expected the best of us as students, and we always wanted to give our best back to her,” says Vande Voort. “You never wanted to disappoint Miss Baker.”
Despite the challenging assignments, Mina’s students loved her. Years later, Rippentrop collected letters from alumni for Mina’s birthday. The students remember standing on tables as Miss Baker pinned their hems. “Third floor of Jordan was a haven set apart from other areas of academics,” wrote Mona Schaver Roozeboom ’75.
Mina was a single woman most of her life. But after she retired in 1985, she married Harold Roelofs ’40, a creative teacher who liked to write and dance. Harold’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren became Mina’s cherished family for the rest of her life.
Even in retirement, Mina didn’t stop working. She gave presentations for older learners and continued editing Central College cookbooks. Her friends encouraged her to write down her vast store of knowledge, especially about Dutch culture, and the result was the book Mina’s Memories of Dutch Family Life.
Mina’s lifelong dedication to her field was recognized by her peers. In 2003, she received a Career Award from Iowa State’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences. Two years later, she was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Iowa Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. Mary Stark, a good friend of hers, says the two were Mina’s proudest moments.
Up until her death in 2010, Mina “always had a smile on her face” says Vande Voort. She was grateful for the opportunity to teach at Central for so many years, and she gave a very generous gift to the college through her estate. Even the fabric and clothing she collected lives on at Central; the theatre department received the bulk of her collection. Some of the clothing was used in last year’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, including a hand-sewn silk suit.
Mina’s life was an inspiration to all those who knew her, and the impression she made on Central lives on in her students. Kim Koch Ansley ’80 wrote in a letter to Mina: “You were an example of how to live life to the fullest.”