By Christopher Poore '14
Since its earliest graduating classes, Knox has produced alumni who have left Galesburg and the prairie to become pioneers in their own right, breaking ground in politics, journalism, the arts and humanities, sciences, business, and medicine. What follows are a few of Knox's pioneering alumni, who have left Knox to change their communities, the nation, and the world.
The Senator from Mississippi
After the Civil War, the Mississippi State Senate needed to fill two US Senate seats, one of which had been formerly occupied by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. They elected two men, Union General Adelbert Ames and Hiram Revels, Knox College Class of 1857. On February 25, 1870, Revels was sworn in as the first black man to serve in the United States Senate. For his part, Revels saw himself as "a representative of the state, irrespective of color."
Born to free parents of African, Scottish, and Croatan Indian heritage in 1827, Revels spent his childhood in North Carolina, a state where it was illegal to educate black children. Nonetheless, Revels attended a school run by a free black woman and worked as an apprentice in his brother's barber shop. In 1844, Revels moved north to study at the Beech Grove Quaker Seminary in Liberty, Indiana; he would also study in Ohio and at Knox College.
Before and after his year in the Senate, Revels worked as a pastor, often navigating community tensions between blacks and whites -- in 1854, he was even arrested for preaching the gospel in a black community. Revels also served as the first president of Alcorn University, a school opened to avert integration at the University of Mississippi. Despite this, Revels remained a proponent of desegregation all his life. As he put it, "Let lawmakers cease to make the difference, let school trustees and school boards cease to make the difference, and the people will soon forget."
Journalist, Philanthropist, Anomaly
As historian Molly McClain notes, Ellen Browning Scripps, Class of 1859, knew that her love of knowledge made her a bit strange in an age when women were expected to faint from too much Ovid. "She says she's an anomaly, she doesn't fit," McClain told The Voice of San Diego in 2010. "She had a sense of not quite fitting into categories that the 19th century had set out for women."
It's not surprising, then, that Scripps studied at a college that didn't fit the pedagogical mode of the 1850s, a college that subjected its applicants to tests in algebra, Latin, English, and other subjects -- no matter that applicant's gender. True, Knox divided its students into male and female classes, but Scipps' time at Knox would prove essential as she built her newspaper empire.
After college, Scripps taught for several years, living frugally on $9 a month and putting much of her money into savings. When her brother, James Scripps, founded Detroit's Evening News, she invested her time, her skill, and her money. The returns were astounding, and with increased funds, she founded even more newspapers, usually in partnership with one of her brothers.
By the end of her life, she had amassed a sizeable fortune, much of which she gave to charitable and educational institutions, many of which bear her name, such as Scripps College, the Scripps Research Institute, Scripps Memorial Hospital, and the Scripps Clinic.
The Herald of the Muckrakers
When Samuel S. McClure, Class of 1882, died in March 1949, the country was struck with fierce weather across the Midwest. To those who knew McClure, the tornadoes and massive rainstorms seemed fitting ambiance for the funeral of a man who was as stormy, vivacious, and dangerous as the Midwestern sky.
Known for his erratic behavior and infectious enthusiasm, McClure was a Scottish immigrant who revolutionized the journalism and publishing industries during the early twentieth century. Not only did he found a syndication service that published the works of Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling, but he also founded the magazine that bore his name, McClure's Magazine, with the help of a few Knox graduates in 1892. In 1903, the magazine heralded in an era of muckraking journalism and progressive reform with articles by Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker. While McClure's reigned supreme among magazines for a time, Samuel McClure's mismanagement of financial matters and haughty temper eventually led to schisms with his best writers and, later, to the collapse of the magazine itself. McClure spent most of his later years in relative obscurity.
Yet his professional life seems to be prefigured in his student days. While at Knox, McClure lived frugally, all the while penning a thesis on "enthusiasm." It was also during this time that he founded the Western College Associated Press, edited The Knox Student, and met his future wife, Harriet Hurd, daughter of interim Knox College President Albert Hurd. McClure and his wife now share a headstone in Hope Cemetery, just north of Knox on Academy Street.
The Oldest Living Emerging Poet
Dorothea Tanning '32, an artist who transcended the boundaries between media, never wanted much to do with Knox, and in 1930, frustrated by girls who wanted husbands and Greek society boys who loved their football matches, she left the College for Chicago. Hardly blustered by the Windy City, she worked a series of odd jobs until, 13 years later, she found herself in New York, playing chess with Max Ernst, who would become her husband and fellow traveler.
Over the 70 years since, Tanning has created a living body of work that speaks to her flexibility of perception, no doubt a result of her diverse experiences. In the 1940s, for instance, the Sedona desert seeped into her work, allowing for the open, desolate space of paintings like Maternity. Later, in the late '60s, Tanning heard a symphony that inspired a new direction in her creative adventure; she began making strangely corporeal sculptures from cloth -- a medium, she noted, that would last about as long as a human life before deteriorating. Tanning dedicated herself to the literary arts, publishing her last book of poetry, Coming to That, in October 2011, four months prior to her death on January 31, 2012, at the age of 101. She called herself "the oldest living emerging poet," proving that if anything, emergence is perennial.
The Man Who Made the Doughboy
If not for this alum, you might have a gnu on your Frosted Flakes box. But luckily, in 1952 Donald Tennant '44 set his pen to paper and created Tony the Tiger. Originally, Tony had to share the cereal boxes with some other animals, including a kangaroo, a gnu, and an elephant, but boxes with Tony outsold the rest, ensuring the tiger's greatness. Tennant's other anthropomorphic creations included the Jolly Green Giant, the Keebler elves, and the Pillsbury doughboy.
Tennant was of a generation that went to college as World War II heated into a rage. "With the nation at war," Tennant recalled in the '60s, "I suppose reality for us was that we lived each day at Knox with the knowledge that something dear and something valuable was happening to us-and might never happen again." Tennant eventually joined the Navy, and received his degree in absentia while training for the invasion of Iwo Jima. Tennant died in 2001 at the age of 79.
The Boot-Up Heard Round the World
Late in the 1950s, Dartmouth College students were struggling to learn the complex computing languages that were then in use. Hoping to make computing more accessible, Thomas Kurtz '50 and fellow Dartmouth professor John G. Kemeny began drafting and redrafting simpler computer codes. On May 1, 1964, at 4:00 A.M., Dartmouth's General Electric GE-225 mainframe started running using Kemeny and Kurtz's new language: BASIC. Think of it as the boot-up heard around the world.
Due to the language's user-friendliness and some proselytizing on the part of its inventors, BASIC became computer vernacular -- and when three firms (MOS Technology, Apple, and the Tandy Corporation) raced to introduce their commercially viable personal computers in 1976, they all used BASIC.
Kurtz's innovations in computer technology would be unimaginable, however, had it not been for his time at Knox, when he fell under the mentoring influence of Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Rothwell Stephens. "My academic major was physics," said Kurtz, "but Rothwell encouraged my interest in statistics and suggested that I apply to the graduate school at Princeton. And it was during my graduate program there that I became interested in computers."
The Mind behind the Honor Code
It is no small feat to become the president of the United Nations General Assembly, but it was a feat of special diplomatic skill for Iraqi Ismat Kittani '51. Before his election to the presidency, Kittani served as Iraq's representative in New York, defending his nation's war with Iran and Saddam Hussein's violent oppression of the country's Kurdish minority. Despite this, in 1981, Kittani won the election, assuring his fellow delegates that he was Kittani of the United Nations and not Kittani of Iraq.
After his retirement from diplomacy, Kittani distanced himself from Iraq's government, never returning to Baghdad. He was invited back to Knox as a Commencement speaker in 1990, and used his speech to call for nuclear disarmament.
Kittani first came to Knox at the age of 17, after winning one of 300 scholarships available to Iraqi youth for study abroad. Moving to the USA was a culture shock for Kittani, who had lived 12 years of his childhood before seeing a light bulb. "The first time I saw Chicago," he said, "it was like leaping forward two or three centuries."
While at Knox, Kittani was instrumental in initiating the school's Honor Code, which demands that students take responsibility for their own academic honesty.
The Defender of Human Rights
It was a little more than 21 years ago that Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court by George H.W. Bush. The nomination gave way to controversy when Anita Hill, then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, accused Thomas of sexually harassing her while she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Some considered Hill's accusations to be nothing more than political maneuvering, but not professor and lawyer Susan Deller Ross '64, who was an expert in sexual harassment law. She represented Hill during the Senate hearing.
"She did a great service in that she got people to thinking of sexual harassment as an issue," said Ross of Hill. "As a result, Congress passed a new law giving victims of sexual harassment the right to sue for monetary damages, and employers and courts began taking the issue very seriously indeed."
Yet this is not the first time that Ross has been at the forefront of women's rights issues. She has dedicated her career to shaping legislation, litigating to give women greater rights, lobbying for the effective enforcement of existing laws, and producing articles and books to make women more aware of their rights. In the 1970s, Ross worked with Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and was co-chair of the national coalition that won passage of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. In the 1990s, she co-chaired a special committee that investigated the roles of gender bias in the work-life of a federal court of appeal.
Currently, Ross works as a professor of law at Georgetown University, where she also directs the International Women's Human Rights Clinic.
A Rarity in the Business World
When James Kilts '70 was working his way through business school at a General Foods manufacturing plant, he received a call at home one night from the foreman saying that, because Kilts had forgotten to order a certain kind of carton, they were shutting down the production line. In fear of losing his job, he called the carton supplier at home and begged for extra cartons. That same night, he loaded a truck and got the cartons to the factory.
"You have to have accountability," Kilts told Fortune magazine in 2002. "People always like to say, ‘Management made me do it.' Well, we all are management."
Accountability has been Kilts' forte; over the years, he's led three Fortune 500 companies, taking ailing companies and brands -- everything from Oreo to Duracel -- and making them attractive for takeovers by larger companies. When he was CEO of Nabisco, for instance, he engineered a dramatic turnaround that eventually led to a takeover by Philip Morris Cos. It happened again when he was CEO of Gillette Co. There, sales were sinking in 2001 after a heyday in the '90s, but by 2004, after Kilts had been with the company for three years, sales rose dramatically. Soon after, Procter & Gamble bought Gillette for $57 billion.
Kilts currently serves as a partner at Centerview Partners, a New York firm that provides senior-level counsel to domestic and international clients. In 2007, Kilts authored Doing What Matters: How to Get Results that Make a Difference, a book that tells of his time at Kraft, Nabisco, and Gillette and proffers business advice to CEOs.
"He made as much sense in terms of talking about business in general as anybody I've ever talked to," said Warren Buffet. "If you listen to Jim analyze a business situation, you get absolutely no baloney. And frankly, finding someone like that is a rarity."
Rx by Text
Matt Berg '00 has never really settled in one place. Born in Cameroon, Berg grew up in Senegal, attended high school in Springfield, Illinois, studied abroad in Zimbabwe, and graduated in Galesburg. Since graduation, he's continued his globetrotting -- from Mali to New York City -- seeking to transform communities around the world.
Berg began doing exactly this when he signed on to work for Geekcorps, an organization that's been called the Peace Corps for young tech workers. With Geekcorps, Berg helped develop online presences for Mali's radio stations, allowing important reports to be broadcast more quickly. When he became the Geekcorps' Mali director, he created the Last Mile Initiative, which brings basic information and communication technologies to rural African villages.
He continued to link African communities with technology as he developed ChildCount+, an open source mobile health system that enables networks of community-health workers who treat local children to register and then text back the status of every sick child they find. This technology ensures doctors easy access to immunizations while also allowing for better health monitoring and more effective treatment campaigns. For his work with ChildCount+, Berg was included in Time magazine's 2010 list of most influential people in the world; he was #19 in the magazine's list of "leading thinkers," a group that also included the likes of Zaha Hadid and Steve Jobs.
Currently, Berg works as the director of information and communications technology for the Millennium Villages Project at Columbia University's Earth Institute.