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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Wall, Joseph Frazier
(July 10, 1920–October 9, 1995)

–historian, biographer, and college professor—was the son of Joseph and Minnie (Patton) Wall and the grandson of four native Iowa grandparents to whom he dedicated his Iowa: A Bicentennial History, saying that they taught him to "love the land."Wall was born in Des Moines and grew up in a series of Iowa towns–Marshalltown, Humboldt, and Fort Dodge–where his father moved around as a state veterinarian. After Wall graduated from Fort Dodge High School in 1837, he went on to Fort Dodge Junior College for two years. To complete his B.A., he entered Iowa's Grinnell College in the fall of 1939.

    Wall thrived at Grinnell. He joined the writing club and acted in several theater productions. Majoring in history, he was influenced particularly by Frederick Baumann, who intimidated students with his no-nonsense style of teaching and with Charles Beard's economic interpretation of U.S. history. That and the occasional presence of Grinnell's New Deal hero and trustee, Harry Hopkins, tempered Wall's Republican family tradition, as did the politics of a young coed, Beatrice Mills, whom he married in April 1944. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Grinnell in June 1941. That fall he began graduate study in history at Harvard, where he studied with the great narrative historian Samuel Eliot Morison.

    When he received his M.A. in June 1942, Wall enlisted in the navy, hoping to become an assistant on Morison's famous project, The History of the United States Naval Operation in World War II. Several times, Morison re quested that the young Iowan be transferred to the project, but the navy demurred, stationing Wall in New York, Brazil, Norfolk, and Tinian, where he witnessed B-29s heading for Hiroshima to drop the first atomic bomb.

    Demobilized in the fall of 1945, Wall entered Columbia University in January 1946. He had graduate seminars with two distinguished historians, Henry Steele Commager and Allan Nevins. Nevins noted Wall's literary talent and encouraged him to write a biography of the Kentucky editor Henry Watterson for his doctoral dissertation. Oxford University Press published that biography in 1956 as Henry Watterson: Reconstructed Rebel.

    In September 1947 Wall returned to Grinnell College as an instructor in history. His gracious personal manner and his lucid narrative lectures attracted students, and he quickly became a favorite professor. Grinnell College prospered in the years of the GI Bill, but in the early 1950s, when the college went through a crisis of governance, Wall assumed leadership among the younger faculty even as he finished his dissertation, taught large classes, and supported a growing family. He also was the corecipient of an Iowa Civil Liberties Union award in 1956 for a pamphlet on basic freedoms.

    Grinnell College flourished after 1955 under the presidency of Howard Bowen, and Wall continued to play a major role. He became L. F. Parker Professor of History in 1961 and E. D. Strong Distinguished Professor in 1972; he served as chair of the History Department, chair of the faculty (1966- 1969), and dean of the college (1969-1973). In the tumultuous spring of 1970, when the college closed early in response to the shootings at Kent State University, he played an important mediating role as dean.

    All the while he was completing his 1,150 page Andrew Carnegie (1970), which won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in American History. Wall's biography revised the dark "robber baron" image of Carnegie by portraying the young Scots immigrant and mature industrial statesman in full color–ambitious for success, calculating in judgment, philanthropic in conscience. The study of a man became an exciting history of the United States from the Civil War to World War I. Wall's later biography of Alfred duPont (1990), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was, again, a fair-minded study of a complicated man and family that enlightened an industry and an age. Wall's compelling narratives and precise details earned him a national reputa tion as a biographer and historian and an assignment as the author of Iowa's history (1978) in W. W. Norton's series of state histories for the Bicentennial of the United States.

    Wall left Grinnell for Fulbright fellowships to Scotland, Sweden, and Austria and for a two-year period as chair of the History Department at the State University of New York at Albany, but he always came back to Grinnell. In the 1980s he helped organize the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Rights, and he served as its first director. While finishing the first volume of his history of Grinnell College, he died suddenly in 1995.
Sources Wall's books are Henry Watterson: Reconstructed Rebel (1956); Andrew Carnegie (1970); Iowa: A Bicentennial History (1978); Policies and People: The First Hundred Years of the Bankers Life (1979); Alfred duPont: The Man and His Family (1990); and Grinnell College in the Nineteenth Century: From Salvation to Service (1997). See also Alan R. Jones, Pioneering, 1846–1996: A Photographic and Documentary History of Grinnell College on the Occasion of Its Sesquicentennial (1996).
Contributor: Alan R. Jones

Cite as: Jones, Alan R. "Wall, Joseph Frazier" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 12 December 2017