The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Main, John Hanson Thomas
(April 2, 1859–April 1, 1931)

–classical scholar and president of Grinnell College—was born in Toledo, Ohio, the son of Hezekiah Best Main and Margaret (Costello) Main. He received a B.A. and an M.A. at Moores Hill College, Indiana, and taught ancient languages at that college from 1880 to 1889. Main then went to Johns Hopkins University as senior fellow in Greek and took seminars with the great classicist Basil Gildersleeve, receiving a Ph.D. in 1892. That same year he became Carter Professor of Greek at Grinnell College (then Iowa College). His colleague and presidential successor at Grinnell, John S. Nollen, said, "Like the good Greek that he was, he remained a follower of Plato, an uncompromising idealist... and his clear eyes were unwaveringly fixed on... the Good, the True, and the Beautiful."

    Main's idealism was needed at Grinnell in 1892. The college's physical plant had been destroyed by a tornado 10 years earlier. The college also was on the eve of a crisis of leadership: trustees were questioning President George Gates's Social Gospel, a gospel fervently preached by the charismatic professor of Applied Christianity George Herron, who arrived on campus in 1893 and the next year gained publicity as a "polished anarchist" for his commencement address at the University of Nebraska. The trustees criticized Herron's "intemperate exaggeration and violent condemnation of persons and institutions."Eventually, in 1899 his radical ideas on society, concerns about his teaching, and rumors about his personal life forced Herron to resign. Gates, whose resignation soon followed, wrote to Main, "I wish the Faculty could run Iowa College; then I could leap for joy."

    Gates had gathered a new and talented faculty, and Main, a tall and commanding figure, was recognized as one of its leaders, becoming secretary of the faculty and a key figure in a curricular reform that created a group system of requirements, ironically slighting the traditional classics in favor of the modern sciences. He was a steadying influence during the Herron affair and was appointed acting president when Gates resigned. The trustees hesitated to appoint him president and asked for his "attitude toward Mr. Herron and his teachings."Main replied with a defense of academic freedom. The trustees chose a "safe" clergyman, Dan Bradley, who did not last. Finally, in 1906 they made Main president.

    In his inauguration address, Main emphasized the duty of service: "If the end of life is service, as we believe, it is the duty of the college to do more than hold up the ideal of Service."A practical idealist, he knew that colleges needed more than ideals, and he began his presidency with a successful campaign to raise $500,000. He quickly started another, and continuing campaigns brought a provincial Iowa college to national rank and some of its 1911 and 1912 Iowa graduates– Harry Hopkins, Chester Davis, Joseph Welch, Paul Appleby, Hallie Flanagan, and Oliver Buckley–to significant national service, exemplifying Main's comment in his 1912 annual report: "Nothing can be more important in the education of our youth than to give them admission to their heritage as social beings, to liberate them from enslavement to themselves as individuals."Main secularized Gates's Social Gospel to give Grinnell a distinctive ethos.

    Main also gave Grinnell its distinctive architectural form. Opposed to fraternities and sororities, he built separate women's and men's quadrangles. Main's ambitious building program included a chapel, an alumni recitation hall, a heating plant, and an athletic field and grandstand.

    He was responsible for other innovations as well. A Harvard exchange relationship brought distinguished visitors; an endowed Gates Lecture Series brought leading interpreters of the Social Gospel to the campus. In 1913 a Grinnell-in-China program began. World War I brought a halt to programs and plans: male students became members of a Student Army Training Corps; and Main went to Syria and Armenia in 1918-1919 to investigate famine conditions as a member of a Commission on the Near East.

    In 1917 Main had started another endowment campaign. But the war and its aftermath had diminished the million dollars in pledges that had been the basis for a grant of $500,000 from the General Education Board. He labored tirelessly in the 1920s to secure the pledges. The college doubled the number of students to 785 in 1925, but the advent of the Great Depression in 1929 prevented completion of his last campaign.

    John Nollen thought Main rather autocratic; Main was patriarchal, justifying his women's quad by commenting, "Women's work as a home maker, as spiritual leader and guide of the rising generation, has received scant notice in the classroom or in the general life of the College."Main died in 1931, remembered by a faculty member as personifying "the driving force of ideals."
Sources Main's papers are in the Grinnell College Archives, Grinnell, Iowa. See his Baccalaureate Addresses (n.d.); John Nollen, Grinnell College (1952); and Alan R. Jones, Pioneering: A Photographic and Documentary History of Grinnell College (1996).
Contributor: Alan R. Jones

Cite as: Jones, Alan R. "Main, John Hanson Thomas" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017