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Nollen, John Scholte
(January 18, 1869–March 13, 1952)

–scholar, professor, and college president—was born in Pella, Iowa, the son of Jan (John) and Johanna (Scholte) Nollen, and the grandson of Hendrik Pieter Scholte, the nonconformist minister who led 800 Hollanders to the Iowa prairies in 1847 to found the colony and town of Pella.

    Born to a family rich in religious, intellectual, and cultural traditions, John was schooled at home by his father in mathematics, physics, history, and modern and classical languages and literature. When he was 14, Nollen entered Central College in Pella. After receiving a bachelor's degree in 1885, he stayed on for two years to teach physics and chemistry, then went on to the State University of Iowa to continue his study of physics and chemistry. After obtaining a B.A. from the State University of Iowa in 1888, he spent two years in Switzerland as a tutor for an American family. That experience committed Nollen to a lifelong cosmopolitanism and internationalism.

    After graduate study in German literature at Zurich and Leipzig, he received a Ph.D. from Leipzig in 1893. He was particularly attracted to Goethe, Schiller, and Kleist, and he later published editions of their poetry. In 1893 he returned to Iowa as professor of modern languages at Grinnell College. In 1903 he became professor of German at Indiana University, and four years later was selected as president of Lake Forest College just north of Chicago. His former colleague John Main, at that time president of Grinnell College, had recommended him as "sane, easily approached, sympathetic, and quick to appreciate in difficult situations the exact thing to do."

    Nollen stayed at Lake Forest for 10 years, resigning in 1918 after he had taken leave to go back to war-torn Europe under the auspices of the International Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) as General Secretary of War Work with American troops and with the Italian army; he also served until 1920 with the American Red Cross Commission to Europe. He then returned to Grinnell as dean of the college and professor of German.

    Grinnell College had prospered under John Main's presidency, but Main's impressive building program had burdened the college with debt, and the Great Depression exacerbated the school's financial woes. After Main died in 1931, Nollen was named president. He inherited an institution with little endowment, an unbalanced budget, and declining student enrollment. In that difficult situation, Nollen was quick to appreciate the exact thing to do–increase the endowment, balance the budget, and enroll more students.

    Nonetheless, Nollen's inaugural address as president, "The Function of the College," was as much concerned with the college's intellectual and cultural character as with its financial situation. Asserting that "we specialize in liberal education," he contrasted Grinnell with universities and graduate schools with their specialized programs. Liberal education aimed at "highly developed personality and high social competence."The university preferred the "contraction of the individual interest to a single impersonal effort to advance special knowledge."

    In his annual baccalaureate addresses to the graduating classes of the 1930s, the usually approachable and affable Nollen displayed an aggressive discontent with the state of the world, protesting in 1932 that "selfishness and greed seem to be the master passions of our day."In 1936 he lamented that "all the liberties of the liberal philosophy... are hated and derided by the totalitarian state and systematically suppressed by its government."In the prophetic language of his grandfather, he condemned the materialism and nationalism of his age.

    With the assistance of Charles Payne and in association with the American Friends Service Committee and the Congregational Council for Social Action, Nollen made Grinnell College a center of internationalism in the Midwest. A summer institute and a new Rosenfield Lectureship in International Relations brought national and international scholars and statesmen to the campus and to Iowa.

    In 1940 Nollen retired from the presidency but remained in Grinnell as an active participant in the intellectual and social life of the campus and town. In 1939-1940 he was the Iowa chair of Finnish Relief, and when war came in 1941 he was the Iowa director of war bond drives. He continued to write, and was working on his history of Grinnell College when he died in March 1952. He was survived by his wife, Louise Bartlett Nollen, and two daughters from his first marriage to Emeline Bartlett, Louise's sister, whom he had married in 1906 and who died in 1910.
Sources Nollen's Grinnell College (1953) includes his personal reminiscences.
Contributor: Alan R. Jones