Grinnell College’s first alumni house will become new gathering place

June 20, 2024 — A historic home two blocks northwest of Grinnell College’s campus will serve as place for alums to relax, socialize, network, and reminisce.

Renovations are underway to the Hannah Alumni House thanks to a $1 million gift made by Mary Emily Hannah ’58, DL ’82. The home at 1527 Broad St. will eventually host alumni events, meetings, and be a place for alums to stay while in town. The first phase of renovations is anticipated to be ready in time for Reunion 2025.

Designed to welcome alumni and make their campus visit special, the College’s first alumni house will commemorate the exceptional legacy of Grinnell alumni. The house will have a collection of historical objects, artifacts, and photographs from the College’s Archives.

A photo from the late 1910s shows the newly built house at 1527 Broad St.
A photo from the late 1910s shows the newly built house constructed by 1901 Grinnell College graduates Jesse and Maude Fellows.

“At Grinnell College, we believe our alumni are the fabric of our institution, tailors of a rich and storied legacy that stretches nearly 200 years,” says Bernadine Douglas, vice president of alumni and donor relations. “The Alumni House will be a celebration of our history and a symbol of our bright future, a bridge connecting Grinnell alumni with cherished faculty, staff, and new generations of students.”

Fittingly, the house was built by an alumni couple – Jesse and Maude Fellows, both 1901 graduates of Grinnell College. Jesse was a principal partner in the Grinnell Washing Machine Company and an important leader in the growth of Grinnell in the early 20th century. Construction on the home was started in 1914 and was completed in 1918.

The Fellows hosted many events for College faculty, students, and alumni. 

“It is an appropriate tribute to the hospitality of the Fellows that the College has purchased this home as a welcoming and inclusive space that fosters lifelong connections and meaningful interactions among alumni and the College community,” Douglas says.

Trailblazer in higher education

In 1935 – 17 years after the Fellows House was complete – Mary Emily Hannah was born in Denver. She went by her initials ME for most of her life (including as a Grinnell student) but opted for the more formal Mary Emily later when she worked in higher education leadership positions. 

ME Hannah
   Mary Emily Hannah ’58,
   photo taken in 2008.

Hannah was the first female vice chancellor in the history of Minnesota State University System. She moved on to University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire in 1980 as chancellor and acting vice president, becoming the first woman to head a public 4-year campus in the state of Wisconsin. She then served from 1984-1993 as the vice chancellor of academic policy and procedure at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education until her retirement. 

“She kept me posted as she changed positions but was usually quiet about her career,” says Hannah’s cousin Phil Shires. “There had been some attempts at a glass ceiling forced against her, and obviously she succeeded against that.”

Shires was 7 years younger than Hannah, and when their families got together in Denver each summer of their childhoods, Hannah would keep Shires out of mischief. He also noticed a family dynamic. 

“She had an extremely dominate mother who was very strong willed,” Shires said. “Seeing that as model, or maybe as self-defense, ME had a very strong personality for a woman at the time. That was probably reflected in her career achievements. I would also add she was highly intelligent. She stayed up on what’s going on in the world. She formed carefully thought-out opinions. She didn’t broadcast them but if you engaged in a conversation with her, it was clear she had done her research and paid attention.”

As a Grinnell student, Hannah was president of women’s government. She was also on the staff of the yearbook and the radio station.

“In retrospect, I think my most significant mentors were Dean Evelyn Gardner, President Howard Bowen, and Professor Al Jones ’50,” Hannah wrote in retrospective for the class of 1958’s 50th reunion in 2008. “Each one gave me ambition – Gardner to take myself seriously, Bowen to speak up when I had something to say, and Jones to be a careful listener, reader, and writer.”

Two group photos for the 1958 yearbook featuring ME Hannah.
Two group photos featuring ME Hannah. Left photo: Hannah is pictured standing on the right in a yearbook photo of Women’s Honor G members. Right photo: Hannah, far right, is pictured with the 1957-58 Student Council.

Hannah stayed active as an alumna, serving as Heritage (Bequest) Chair for the class of 1958 from 1993 to 2003. She was also involved with Grinnell’s career development office and came back for reunions and other events. In 1979, she received an Alumni Award and in 1982 she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

In a 1979 letter Hannah wrote to Marion Bendixen Cubbage ’48, she mentions revisiting Grinnell several times. “My life has been primarily a professional one, rather than one marked by church and club work; one might say that I spend most of it battling for the liberal arts concepts in an increasingly specialized, vocational academic environment. That takes more time and energy than I had ever conceived of.”

In 2022, Phil Shires and his son Don visited Hannah at her home in Ohio. After discussing her wishes, Hannah decided to make a $1 million gift to her alma mater. “She felt the College had been instrumental in shaping her to accomplish what she did,” Phil says.  

In recognition of the gift, the College’s Board of Trustees approved the naming of the Hannah Alumni House at its May 2024 meeting. 

Hannah passed away on New Year’s Eve 2022 at the age of 87. Although the use of the gift was not determined at the time of her death, Shires thought Hannah would love knowing it went to opening an alumni house. “She would have been absolutely quietly delighted,” he says.

Renovations underway

Additional naming opportunities are available for spaces within the house. Karmi Mattson ’97, who has volunteered for the College in several capacities including serving on Alumni Council and as coordinator of the Grinnell-in-Twin Cities Regional Community, decided her gift would support an event space outside.

Mattson has pledged a $150,000 gift to name the exterior garden event space behind Hannah Alumni House. The area will be home to many future alumni and student gatherings.

“My fellow Grinnell alums are one of the best parts of the Grinnell experience,” Mattson says.  “Both the friendships I made while a student and the alumni I met later through events and programming in the Twin Cities and on campus have enriched my life in many ways. I have warm memories of time spent hanging out with other alums in Grinnell House and on campus, so I was excited to contribute to a new community space specifically dedicated to creating more of those memories for alumni.”

Photo of the house at 1527 Broad St. taken recently.
When renovations are complete, the Hannah Alumni House at 1527 Broad St. will commemorate the exceptional legacy of Grinnell alumni.

The exterior gardens are part of Phase 1 of the renovation work, which started this spring. This phase includes significant changes to the home’s exterior, including landscape design and repairs to make both the inside and outside more accessible.

Phase 2 will transform the interior space, creating opportunities for small, intimate gatherings, designing an alumni meeting room, establishing space for alumni archives, and furnishing modern guest rooms.

“It’s thrilling to have the renovations underway for Grinnell’s first alumni house,” Douglas says. “It’s important to have a place to honor the legacy of Grinnell College alumni. The Hannah Alumni House will preserve that rich history and celebrate the College’s milestones while being a place to connect and unwind for alums today.”  

— by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information

Additional philanthropic investments opportunities are available to support the Hannah Alumni House renovations and programming. For more information about how to partner in this effort to celebrate Grinnell’s outstanding alumni, contact Susan Kriegel at 641-269-4955 or

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