Tuesday, September 30, 2014

By Jay Semel

In January 1986, just days before the nation and the University of Iowa were scheduled to celebrate Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday for the first time, the Obermann Center was asked if we could “put together something” as part of the University’s observance.  I was panicked, but then remembered that Bruce Gronbeck, a new guy at the Obermann Center, had been talking at coffee about his work on the rhetoric of American speeches, including Dr. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech.  I asked Bruce if he could possibly make a presentation of his work to a public audience with only a couple of days’ preparation.  He agreed, and his talk was terrific. I thanked Bruce for the smart presentation, for helping me out, and for making a contribution to UI cultural diversity.  Bruce laughed loudly, explaining that, “In the tiny northern Minnesota town where I grew up, everybody was Norwegian – and cultural diversity was represented by the one Swedish family in town.” 

That first success at the Obermann Center set the stage for years of much greater accomplishments.  Bruce credited the Obermann Center with many of his publications, participated in a large NEH-funded POROI research project at the Center, collaborated on an Obermann Interdisciplinary Research Grant, and even housed his own Center for Media Studies and Political Culture within the Obermann Center. He also directed one of the most important events in the life of the Obermann Center:  Bruce’s proposal for an inaugural Obermann Summer Research Seminar on Presidential Campaigns and Self Images helped to attract Dr. C. Esco Obermann’s very first major gift to the Center, which helped persuade the University to designate the center  (originally called “University House” ) as the University of Iowa’s Center for Advanced Studies. And the success of the seminar itself and the publication of its resulting peer-reviewed book convinced UI administrators that the Center was a scholarly powerhouse deserving of its new designation and convinced Esco to bequeath to the Center the better part of his estate. 

Over time, Bruce became a coffee companion, a drinking buddy, a tennis partner, a close friend. Some years ago when I was speaking at one of the many receptions that honored Bruce for his distinguished scholarship, I emphasized both his extraordinary productivity at the Center and our long friendship. Afterwards, a faculty member came up and asked me whether it was problematic that one of my best friends would have enjoyed so many Obermann appointments. I explained he had confused cause and effect:   Bruce’s Obermann projects did not happen because he was my friend; he became my friend because he had so many successful Obermann projects. I suddenly realized,  “How lucky am I to work at a Center that, not only helps advance scholarship, but helps create such strong friendships.” How lucky am I to have been the friend of Bruce Gronbeck, the very embodiment of scholarship, of  friendship. 


Jay Semel served as the Director of the Obermann Center from 1980-2010. He was also the University of Iowa's Vice President for Research. In retirement, he has continued to serve on NEH review panels and as an external reviewer for humanities centers.  He is writing a book on school.