Luther and Jenny Erickson’s inspiration inspires new professorship

Sept. 5, 2019 — An outpouring of support from the former students of Luther Erickson, a professor emeritus of chemistry, and Jenny Erickson, retired Forum director, has led to the creation of a new professorship.

The Luther & Jenny Erickson Endowed Professor of Chemistry will play an important, strategic role in the academic life of Grinnell College, serving to both recruit and retain generations of future faculty members that embody the characteristics so well-known and generously shared by the Ericksons.

The Ericksons came to Grinnell in 1962. Luther served as a professor of chemistry for 41 years, retiring in 2003. Jenny was director of the Forum for 20 years before retiring in 1997. Together they taught, encouraged, mentored, and supported thousands of students while also serving as pillars of the Grinnell community.

“Luther and Jenny had a tremendous impact on generations of Grinnellians,” Grinnell College Trustee Ed Senn ’79 says. “Their relationships with students are life lasting. It didn’t end with the coursework or when the job was over at the Forum. That was just the beginning of a lifelong friendship and mentorship.”

A group shot of the attendees of the reception for Luther and Jenny Erickson at Reunion 2019.
A reception for the Ericksons was held at Grinnell House during Reunion 2019 to celebrate the establishment of the professorship.

Senn, who worked as a Forum desk attendant and was a first-year student in one of Luther’s courses, was sitting with the Ericksons at a recent professorship installation when “it hit me that naming a professorship would be a terrific way to honor them and help the College at the same time,” he says.

While most professorships are set up by an individual donor or couple, Senn reached out to Kenneth ’65 and Mary Sue Coleman ’65 and Joe Oxman ’79 with a novel way of approaching the professorship – crowdsourcing. A group of more than 35 alums have joined together to honor the Ericksons by making gifts and commitments to establish the professorship.

“Having this professorship in our names is an honor, and we do appreciate it,” Luther says. “We’ve been here for 57 years, so we’ve been fortunate to get to see our former students periodically. Many of them have become good friends. This effort by Ed, Joe, and others has put us in touch with even more of our former students.”

The initial professorship will be awarded to chemistry professor Leslie Lyons, who the Ericksons have known for decades. The Ericksons and Lyons at one point lived next door to each other on College Park Road. Lyons will be formally installed as the Luther & Jenny Erickson Endowed Professor of Chemistry during a public ceremony in 2020.

“I am honored to be named the Luther and Jenny Erickson Professor of Chemistry,” Lyons says. “Luther and I both did our Ph.D.’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and taught together until Luther’s retirement. I look forward to continuing the Ericksons’ proud tradition of serving Grinnell students in teaching and research.”

Leslie Lyons with Luther and Jenny Erickson.
Leslie Lyons, left, a Grinnell College chemistry professor, stands for a photo with Luther and Jenny Erickson. The inaugural Luther and Jenny Erickson Endowed Professorship will be awarded to Lyons.

Many of those who contributed to the professorship recounted the couple’s ability to inspire students. Mary Sue Coleman says even as the youngest professor in the department, Luther would demonstrate his caring nature and ability to motivate his students. That kindheartedness continued at the University of North Carolina while as a doctoral student Coleman was invited to live with the Ericksons (and babysit on occasion) during Luther’s sabbatical. During that year Kenneth was doing research in Mexico, and Mary Sue had been living alone while doing her own graduate work in a laboratory.

Oxman says Luther was outstanding at teaching “and layered on top of was his interest for his students.” The same was said about Jenny by Senn and others who worked at the Forum. Kenneth Coleman recalls even in the first few years of their time in Grinnell, the Ericksons were hosting large gatherings of students, buying folding tables to sit everyone.

“They were community builders, and they were inseparable” he says. “You may have known Luther from chemistry or Jenny for the Forum, but you eventually got to know the other.”

As Senn and Oxman reached out to chemistry majors from the 1970s and 1980s as well as other friends of the Ericksons, they were encouraged by the outpouring of support.

“It was heartwarming and reaffirming in knowing that the Ericksons are beloved by generations of the Grinnell alumni community,” Senn says.

No stranger to the world of higher education fundraising herself as former president of the University of Iowa and University of Michigan, Mary Sue Coleman says it’s unusual to have a team approach to a professorship.

“That speaks well to both of them, and it’s a feature that should not go unnoticed,” she says. “So many people were positively touched by their lives.”

With the classes of 1979 and 1980 back in town for their 40th Reunion last spring, a reception for the Ericksons was held at Grinnell House. A majority of chemistry majors from those classes attended along with Luther’s colleagues during that era, Gene Wubbels, and Roger Gurira. Luther and Jenny enjoyed reminiscing and catching up with alums.

“We heard from a lot of people because of this fundraising project and it was nice to relive memories and find out what alumni are doing now,” Jenny says. “And one side benefit is this project has put alumni back in touch with each other. It’s encouraging to see so much togetherness.”

—by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

To learn more about contributing to the Luther & Jenny Erickson Endowed Professor of Chemistry, contact Susan Kriegel, development assistant, at 866-850-1846 or

To read more alumni news, check out our news archive.