Don Lubbers, Central president 1960-1969, was the nation’s youngest college president when he took the position at age 29. Under his leadership, Central’s enrollment grew to 1,355 and international programs started in France, Austria, Mexico and Spain. His father, Irwin J. Lubbers, was Central College president from 1934-1945. Later, Lubbers was president of Grand Valley State University for 32 years and became the longest-serving state university leader.
Here, Lubbers reflects on his years at Central and shares recent news.
What was it like becoming president of Central at 29?
That got a lot of attention — I got clippings from all over the country, and that was good for Central. I loved my father’s career, so I was very fortunate at an early age to do exactly what I wanted. I was three years old when my father became president, and it was a real advantage to me to have grown up on the Central campus and then become president. As an old man, it makes me very grateful for the career I’ve had.
What events were important to you at Central?
When I became president of Central, there were only 450 students. Within the first year of my presidency, the admission director resigned. I asked longtime football coach Richard “Babe” Tysseling to take over the job temporarily, and did he ever make it work! So I persuaded him to stop coaching, and we went searching for a football coach. Ron Schipper was coaching high school in Jackson, Michigan, and wasn’t sure he was interested in moving to Iowa. But we finally persuaded him to come – and what a tradition he built at Central! That was one of the most important appointments I ever made, because Central’s reputation for winning football and Ron’s reputation as a great coach – that was very good for Central.
We started two things to show Central was a unique institution. First, we started an all-campus student academic seminar. All classes were suspended for a week, and faculty-led discussion groups were set up, and we brought in a noted academic scholar. This got quite a bit of attention. It was something that hadn’t been done before, and it was a celebration of liberal arts. One speaker was a philosopher, one was a microbiologist, one was a historian-Jesuit priest, and it was just really interesting stuff.
Second, when we looked across the state of Iowa, no one was doing much in language training. Bill Wing, a professor of French my father hired, always wanted to have language houses. We had a French house and a Spanish house and a German house over the years. We also started the first major exchange program with the Sorbonne in Paris. We made that one of the major initiatives, and my goodness, that took off. We got students from other colleges to go on our summer programs, and we got students coming to Central to major in languages. It worked very well.
So, we started winning football games, we started attracting students with special academic programs, and the enrollment started increasing by an average of 100 a year — which was pretty exciting for us, and necessary, too. So we began building dormitories. A new gym was absolutely necessary. We were always trying to enhance Central in different ways. For example, we wanted to make the campus more distinguished. We contacted a landscape architect in Des Moines, and he came up with a lake in the middle of the campus. Whoa — that was shocking! It required closing Peace Street, and the city of Pella agreed. My wife and I and our kids went to New Jersey for a little holiday and fundraising. I got a call from the business manager and heard people were in an uproar. Fortunately for me, I was a thousand miles away. I said just take the criticism, and it will work out all right. Well, that lake is a distinguishing factor of the campus. It’s wonderful. Those are the kinds of things I was always looking for. When you’re a young man, you’re ambitious, and you just keep moving.
What’s your most recent news?
I just came back from Europe. The purpose of the trip was to celebrate an exchange program established between Grand Valley and University of Economics in Krakow, Poland, 40 years ago. We started the program in 1975 for students and faculty to study behind the Iron Curtain. A lot of them came back with a lot more appreciation of our own country. Of course, that’s all finished now.
Also, we have a new great-granddaughter who was just born in Des Moines. I didn’t know I’d live long enough to become a great-grandfather. There’ll probably be more if I can stay alive.