THE HISTORY OF KIRKWOOD—From “The College in the Cornfield” to Influential Innovators

When Bob Davidson remembers the first board of trustees meeting for Kirkwood Community College, his face reflects a possibly confusing mixture of humor, pride and humility.

“Well, it was a pretty small affair. We got together in the offices of the Cedar Rapids Community Schools because there just wasn’t any place of our own to meet. They gave us a borrowed table and a few folding chairs to gather around.”

The Kirkwood trustee emeritus pauses in his remembrance. Davidson’s voice crinkles into a chuckle as high, dry and rich as Iowa soil in August.

“Hell, we didn’t have anything that first night! We got started and somebody said we needed to take meeting minutes. So somebody else ran down the hall to borrow some paper and pencils.”

From that first warm May evening in 1966, Kirkwood has been a story of community support encouraging excellence and growth, of seeking input from all corners of its seven counties and leveraging best practices and innovations from around the nation and beyond. In 1965, Iowa Governor Harold Hughes proposed a group of public colleges whose mission would be to train people for jobs. From that first “enabling legislation” the die was cast for a group of post-secondary colleges set in 15 strategic areas around the state.

Although some early Iowa legislators desired that these newly forming schools would be “vocational-technical only” kinds of institutions, the Iowa community college system can largely thank Kirkwood’s founding board chair for wider, more inclusive thinking. Bud Jensen was asked to speak on April 25, 1967 in Des Moines when the Iowa Legislature was discussing the community college legislation. Without notes, Bud gave his now-famous “Hands of the Bricklayer” speech. By talking without notes, there was no written record—but onlookers and Bud himself have captured what he said as he raised his hands before the assembly:

These are the hands of a bricklayer. They are calloused and hard but they have given both me and my family an excellent living. Would you deny these hands or the hands of my children and other children throughout the state the right or opportunity to read a good book? To caress a book of poetry or to learn something about higher math?

These potent comments of Kirkwood’s founding civic leader were influential in passage of the legislation allowing area schools to offer the first two years of a four-year post-secondary education. More than 45 years later those words—and the unflagging spirit behind them—continue to provide opportunity for Iowans. In the 2010-11 academic year about 141,000 Iowans furthered their education and training at community colleges in our state. More than 25,000 of them were at Kirkwood.

Even our college name has been an evolution and development as the college itself developed. We began our service as “Area Ten Community College” and in 1968 there was a movement—student-led, as our founders recall—to “humanize” the college name. A campus wide competition ensued with over 160 suggestions presented to the college administration. One suggestion emerged as the dominant, dominating choice.

Samuel J. Kirkwood was the governor of Iowa at two different points—1860-64 and 1876-77. He also served as a United States Senator and Secretary of State. A biographer described Kirkwood as representing “the strength, pioneer spirit, leadership and ability to unite people and communities” that also tends to reflect the best traits in our college history. Sam Kirkwood was also known as a progressive and aggressive leader. He was once quoted as saying to Abraham Lincoln, “Iowa will not be frightened into abandoning its principles.” He also noted in his inaugural address in 1876 that “The subject of general education has been, and must continue to be, one of great interest. The intelligence of our people measures, to a large extent, the wisdom of the laws under which we live, and also of the administration of those laws.”

Today the college that bears the name of an Iowa Pioneer governor blazes new trails for its people. 2011-12 Kirkwood students came from nearly every county in Iowa, 33 others states in the US—and 95 other nations. At the focal point of the college's main entrance stands a bronze statue of Samuel J. Kirkwood. It was a gift from The University of Iowa, whose leaders once saw this upstart two-year college as a competitor. Now Iowa’s leading university embraces over a thousand former Kirkwood students each year as their own. Just outside the doors of Linn Hall there is an ornamental walkway lined with various colored bricks. Nearly 150 of them bear inscriptions of nations from Albania and Armenia to Yemen and Zambia—all nations who have sent their sons and daughters to this former College in a Cornfield for nurturing and development of mind and spirit.

The Kirkwood Story continues. We would be honored to have you join us for the next chapter. Whether you are a student, parent, business and industry partner or one of our community supporters—there is a place for you at Kirkwood Community College.