‘Unsung hero’ of the American theatre inspires gift for future Grinnell College thespians

Feb. 5, 2018 — Though they are from different places and eras, the stories of Hallie Flanagan 1911, Jean Doub, and Pam Hunt ’71 are intertwined by a love of a theatre and a spirit of giving back.

Hunt recently made a contribution to the Hallie Flanagan Endowed Scholarship Fund at Grinnell College. The fund provides support for students either majoring in, or involved with, theatre at the College.

But that’s the end of the production. Let’s raise the curtain and start from the beginning.

Act I: Hallie Flanagan

Flanagan gained national prominence heading The Federal Theater Project of the Works Progress Administration. She was recruited to the position by her former Grinnell classmate, Harry Hopkins 1912, who was instrumental in many aspects of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

She was selected despite considerable pressure to choose someone from commercial theatre. However, Roosevelt and Hopkins believed that the project should be led by someone with academic credentials and a national perspective.

Flanagan had taught theatre at Vassar, where she became the first woman awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study theatre in Europe. She also founded the Vassar Experimental Theater.

Her vision of the federal project was to bring theatrer to the great mass of the American people who had never witnessed it, both presenting high-quality theatrical material and supporting those who produced it. It was also a way to give struggling directors, actors, designers, and others an opportunity to continue their careers during difficult economic times.

The Federal Theater Project is estimated to have enabled 12,500 people to find jobs across 28 states and Washington D.C. and to have brought live theatre to millions of Americans for the first time. The program also nurtured theatre artists such as Arthur Miller, Orson Wells, Elia Kazan, and John Houseman.

Following the conclusion of the federal project, Flanagan returned to her teaching career at Vassar and later at Smith College where she retired as dean and a theatre professor. Recognition of her contributions to the American theatre included an honorary degree from Williams College in 1941 and the first National Theater Conference Citation award in 1968. Flanagan passed away in 1969.

Act II: Jean Doub

Dick and Jean Doub
    Dick and Jean Doub

Flanagan paid visits to her niece, Jean Doub, in Chicago. But that wasn’t her only Chicago stop.

Jean says Aunt Hallie was a great fan of President Roosevelt and a good friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Flanagan visited Mrs. Roosevelt regularly at Hyde Park, and Jean recalls just missing the opportunity to accompany her aunt on one of those visits. When Jean met the former first lady years later at a journalism event in Chicago, she mentioned her aunt to Mrs. Roosevelt, who remembered her warmly.

“Aunt Hallie was an immensely talented person, blessed with a wonderful sense of humor,” Doub says. “She was interested in everything and everyone.”

While Jean and her husband, Dick, are generous supporters of their own alma mater, Northwestern, they also wanted to contribute to her aunt’s and father’s alma mater. Jean’s father and Hallie’s brother, H. Kenneth Ferguson ’22, also graduated from Grinnell. Thus, the Hallie Flanagan Memorial Scholarship fund was born.

“Dick and I hope that it honors and preserves Hallie Flanagan’s memory, as one central to the creation of the only truly national theatre program ever in America,” Jean says. “We also hope the scholarship fund will assist Grinnell students gain an understanding of and appreciation for theatre, by providing opportunities to learn and love the theatre arts.”

Act III: Pam Hunt

Pam Hunt '71
   Pam Hunt '71

Hunt grew up in California. She credits her initial connection with Grinnell to her great aunt, Viva Craven Irwin 1920. When Hunt was considering where to attend college, Irwin campaigned vigorously regarding the benefits of a liberal arts education and the quality of the education available at Grinnell.

Pam was an English major with a minor in American studies. She also participated from time to time in College theatre productions. Following her graduation, and after brief experiences with a farming commune in Iowa, a summer in San Francisco, and travels to Mexico, Central America, and South America, Pam went to Cape Cod to write fiction. She subsequently moved to New York City to enter the publishing business.

Later in her career, Pam worked at New Mexico State University. Among her achievements there was landing a National Science Foundation Advance Grant supporting women in Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics education.

With the benefit of Irwin’s example in philanthropy, Hunt has maintained an interest and commitment to Grinnell College since graduation. She has attended reunions and recently returned to Grinnell to speak to professor Doug Caulkins’ anthropology class on creative careers. That gave her the opportunity to interact with current students, whom Hunt describes as “delightful.”

Hunt views Flanagan as an unsung hero of the American theatre. Her decision to contribute to the Hallie Flanagan Scholarship Fund reflects Hunt’s involvement in theatre during her years at Grinnell and her discovery of Flanagan during post-graduate studies.

And that’s the story of her our three heroines intersect, and how Grinnell College students will benefit for years to come. Take a bow, Hallie, Jean, and Pam.  

—by Jeremy Shapiro & Chris Meyer '70, Alumni Council


For your information:

Learn more about the Grinnell College theatre program and its upcoming productions. For additional information about the Hallie Flanagan Endowed Scholarship Fund or other endowment opportunities, please contact the Office of Development and Alumni Relations at 866-850-1846.