The Activist Generation

by Greg Vranicar ’72, B. A., History
June 28, 1950 – August 22, 2021

How could a bunch of us not turn out to be activists? In our last year in high school, we witnessed the rapid intensification of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, unprecedented racial prejudice and unrest, and the horrible mismanagement of the Democratic National Convention on the streets of Chicago. Hubert Humphrey tried to stitch together a Party that could not ultimately beat a rebounding Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. Those were pretty disgusting days that led into our years at Grinnell.

Greg Vranicar '72
    Greg Vranicar '72

Now nearly 40 years later, we look back to see how this history and our education at Grinnell have influenced our activism. In my case, I firmly agree with late Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, who famously wrote, “All politics is local.” In my life, almost all activism has been local. I believe that working in one’s community for causes that may not gain splashy attention can be most rewarding. I credit my education at Grinnell and the example of my professors and my fellow students for modeling this approach.

The first few days at Grinnell were anything but activist. Indeed, during New Student Days in Read Hall Basement, the upperclassmen lined us up in order of our SAT Scores. To my amazement, I was not even above the median. I wondered, how am I ever going to keep up with all of these geniuses? In Humanities 101, most of the other students had read Homer and I did not even know what the Iliad and the Odyssey were. I remember having to repeat to myself what the Admissions people had told me “We don’t admit students to Grinnell unless they can make it here.” Lots of worry and very determined study during that freshman year helped me build up some confidence that was shaken in those first few days and weeks.

As I gained some traction during the first couple of semesters and dealt with the notion that, even though maybe not as innately gifted as some of my classmates, I could compete with them if I studied hard, managed my time well, and was passionate about what I was doing. I also fairly quickly observed that my career aspirations probably would lead to law school after Grinnell. I saw a number of seniors who I admired take that direction. 

The path leading to law school started in my sophomore year at Grinnell, 1969-70. That same time frame corresponded closely with an awakening of my activist notions. Indeed, the intensity of the Vietnam War and the protest against it came home for me in the fall of 1969. The Moratorium Movement, led by Barry Zigas ’73 who was a close personal friend, aimed to stir up local anti-war opposition by canvassing in neighborhoods to speak with “townies” about the war. I actively took part in the Moratorium by canvassing in the region of Grinnell west and north of campus. I enjoyed the face-to-face contact with real people and the discussions were frank and sometimes heated. Never did I meet anyone in Grinnell who had a son in the war (I don’t think women were allowed to serve in combat then). Raising the war issue during the first Nixon-Agnew year was definitely an activist thing to do and it fit my later “local politics model.”

My Moratorium activity, however, exposed a rather schizophrenic situation for me. From the beginning of my first fall in school and continuing during the Moratorium year, I was one of very few USAF ROTC students at Grinnell. The class of 1972 was the very last during which a Grinnell graduate could be commissioned into the Air Force upon graduation. Just after finishing my freshman year in May 1969, I was selected and accepted a full-tuition plus a $50/month living expense AFROTC scholarship. As part of my educational plan, I was assured that I could take an educational delay to attend law school directly after graduation and then go on active duty after completion of law school.

Accordingly, during the fall of 1969, I was on some days canvassing against the Vietnam War on the residential streets of Grinnell and on at least one day a week training in an Air Force blue uniform as a member of the USAF ROTC unit. Believe it or not, never did the Lieutenant Colonel in charge or the Major second in command say anything to prevent my anti-war activity. Indeed, in our ROTC academic classes on war theory and tactics, we had vigorous debates about the War. I remember objecting to the “air war theories” that were promoted as a cleaner way to knock out the enemy without loss of infantry and armored troops. As it became clearer that these ideas did not apply at all in a guerilla war, even our officers in charge sometimes agreed that maybe our texts were out of date and in need of revision.

When we arrived at Grinnell in the fall of 1968, most of us faced nearly 50 credit hours of required coursework. Reform of this “requirements curriculum” became another area of activism. During the Student Government Association (SGA) campaign in the spring of 1970, the leading and winning candidate, Andy Loewi ’71, campaigned on a “no requirements curriculum” pledge that appealed to me. Loewi argued that to spend so much effort in required classes lost the value of coming to Grinnell with its rich and multi-faceted curriculum. (In my case, this meant two semesters of Humanities, three semesters of French, two semesters of everyperson’s science—Biology 101 and Physics/Chemistry, two semesters of American Civilization, together with the basic ROTC courses that I “elected” by my participation in that program) which took way too much time before I ever really came in contact with something for which I had passion.

Loewi argued that Grinnell should offer a first semester writing tutorial and allow the professor of that course to be the academic adviser until the advisee selected a major. Beyond that, the course selection should be up to the student freely to choose, consistent with the academic level (i.e. 100 & 200 level courses in the first year), in consultation with his/her adviser. The “no requirements” curriculum promoted by Loewi was adopted by the entire faculty, as I remember just after Loewi won his election as SGA President. Mary Brooner ’71 as the female executive and Bill Thomas ’72 as male executive flanked Andy in the Executive Committee of SGA. Andy appointed me as the student coordinator-ombudsman and so I served on the SGA executive committee. To this day, now more nearly 40 years later, the no requirements curriculum essentially survives. This curriculum victory may be my greatest and most profound local politics contribution ever, as it has permeated Grinnell’s educational philosophy since its adoption in 1970.

My anti-war and curricular reform debate during the critical formative years before I definitely declared my major in the History Department helped me see both (or all) sides of issues. This ability prepared me very significantly for the study and practice of law that began after my graduation in 1972. The most critical skills of a lawyer are to see the issues, marshal facts to fit precedent or laws, argue one’s best points, and write and speak persuasively. I credit my “activist” work with largely providing the foundation of my later career path.

In the fall of 1972, I enrolled at the University of Iowa College of Law. During law school, I focused mostly on estate and business planning and the accompanying tax issues. During my law practice, I specialized primarily on litigation—the argument and settlement of factual and legal disputes. Interestingly when I left the Air Force, I was the fifth person in a small law firm whose members were respectively graduates of Harvard, Michigan, California-Berkeley and Harvard. I was blessed to associate with such a high-powered and ethical group of lawyers.

My legal career ended at age 43. My departure from law practice and move into my “next career” of nonprofit fund development, which continues to the present, was motivated largely by my belief in the power of local activism. This belief had been nurtured primarily by my service on two nonprofit boards that were open to me because I was a young lawyer. 

Senior Companion Program in Kansas City and throughout America provides respite care for elderly families. Funded by federal grants, the program allows poor elderly persons, a majority African-American, to stay in their homes instead of going to assisted living or other care facilities. This approach saved families disruption of their lives and the community the very high cost of Medicaid or other public resources. When I first joined the KC Senior Companion Board in about 1980, the budget covered about 60 “volunteers.” I chaired the Kansas City Senior Companion Board and helped raise a lot of local funding, so the Program grew to 85 slots. To this day, Senior Companions quietly continues to serve seniors and Kansas City, primarily in its poorest neighborhoods.

The Coterie Theatre in Kansas City’s Crown Center serves young families and “children of all ages.” The Coterie presents a 7-play regular season, usually including a world premiere and at least one musical. In the more recent past, The Coterie also supports year-round theatre classes in several locations in the KC metro area, a spring showcase of young theatre writers and other community minded programs for youth and their parents. 

While chairing the Coterie Board of Directors, I helped conceive and raise funding to support the Coterie’s strongest outreach program—the Dramatic AIDS Education Project (DAEP). The award winning DAEP provides free live AIDS education through theatre performances for area high schools. The plays portray how young people might become infected with AIDS/HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The DAEP has reached nearly 200,000 students over the years and is a national and research proven model of AIDS Education. I am most proud of the unknown young lives that it has saved through its preventive message.

My current job reflects my activist roots at Grinnell as well. I have served for the past nine years as the Planned Giving Director for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. I work primarily with mature Catholics to encourage them to consider their mortality and to do something about it. I encourage folks to design an estate plan that includes a will and/or trust, a durable power of attorney, and a health care directive. We strongly encourage charitable giving in the estate planning process. My work impacts families in very intimate ways and enables charities to receive gifts of from very small to much larger amounts (like the over $3 million that the death of a donor in July of 2010 yielded). My work helps not only the Catholic Church, but Catholic Charities and many other nonprofits that benefit from the charitable giving at the death of our donors.

So how does all of this local activism relate to the Grinnell education that began in that tumultuous fall of 1968? Through the example of mentors like Alan and Jean Jones, Joe and Bea Wall, Don Smith, and many fellow students too numerous to name, one finds a thread of service to the local community. 

The seeds of a lifetime of activism may have been planted, believe it or not, in 1967 in my hometown of Stanton, NE (population 1317). Then as the oldest of seven children, I sat down to read the Objectives of Grinnell College. The dusty Handbook still sits on my bookshelf. The Objectives state, among other things, “Above all, the College tries to emphasize the force of ideals, the relationship between private and public responsibility, the saving qualities of art and laughter, and the sense that knowledge, wisdom, and understanding come from an awareness of others.”

I have attempted to live out this objective.

This essay was submitted as part of an effort led by David Hechler ’72 and AJ Morey ’73. For their 40th reunion in 2012, they solicited essays from dozens of their classmates for an exhibit on activism at Grinnell from 1967 to 1973. To learn more about Greg’s incredible life, view his full obituary.