By Tom Larson
The term "Renaissance Man" gets thrown around a lot, most times with little merit. Jim Gremmels is one who truly deserves to be remembered as a man of diverse interests and talents.
Gremmels was a basketball player and coach, a tennis lover who played into his 70s, a dedicated academician who delighted in teaching "Moby Dick." A printer. A sailor. A committed political party member who cast one of Minnesota's 10 Electoral College votes for America's first black president in 2008.
Gremmels, one of the original 13 faculty members at the University of Minnesota, Morris, died Sept. 25 at his home near Glenwood. He was 82.
Following a private family memorial, a public memorial will be held at UMM. Details of the memorial will be released when finalized.
"I very much liked working with him as a colleague, and I count him as a good friend," said fellow retired UMM professor Laird Barber, who joined the faculty in 1964. "He gave a lot to UMM."
"From the first time I met him," said UMM colleague Bert Ahern, "he was a presence."
Gremmels taught American literature, and the team-building experiences he gained from his love of sports translated well into his academic career.
Gremmels officially retired in 2000 but continued coaching and teaching with a genuine love for both. Although some of his students maybe didn't always appreciate the depth of his commitment.
"His great love was teaching 'Moby Dick,'" Barber said of the 822-page Herman Melville classic. "He'd make that the students' assignment over the Thanksgiving break. He was really into American literature and he taught it very well. He was always accessible for students."
Gremmels helped bridge factions between academic disciplines and generations, said Ahern, a history professor who came to UMM in 1967.
UMM at the time did not have a large enough faculty to incorporate an American studies program, and there existed a split between the humanities and the social sciences, even though the American history Ahern taught and the American literature Gremmels taught overlapped in many ways.
Those differences were evident in other areas, such as campus politics. Nonetheless, Ahern said he and Gremmels remained close friends and colleagues.
"One thing is, those in the social sciences may think of the English faculty as formal or rigid, but that wasn't Gremmels," Ahern said. "He was very student-centered."
As the years passed and newer faculty arrived on campus, Gremmels was able to overcome the generational frictions between the old guard and the new, he said.
"I was always impressed by how Jim connected with and had the respect of younger colleagues," Ahern said.
Dedicated athlete and coach
Gremmels, a Sioux Falls native, was well-known in that area for his athletic skills. A 1945 graduate of Washington High School in Sioux Falls, he lettered in football, basketball and track. After leaving the military in 1947, he played a year of basketball at the University of Iowa and was a starter on the freshman team.
He transferred to Augustana College, where, as a 6-foot-4 post player, he won back-to-back North Central Conference Most Valuable Player awards in 1951 and 1952, joining such luminaries as Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson as NCC two-time MVPs. Gremmels averaged almost 22 points per game his senior season.
He also competed in track and established himself as a formidible tennis player. He played tournament tennis into his 70s, many times winning age-group titles.
Gremmels started coaching during his undergraduate years, and after moving to Glenwood, he spent six years as a high school coach, leading the Lakers to the 1956 Minnesota state tournament.
He became a founding faculty member at UMM in 1960 and also became the university's first head basketball coach, guiding the team until 1964. His first team had only nine players, meaning he had to suit up so the team could practice five-on-five.
Gremmels was inducted into the Augustana and UMM sports halls of fame, and the South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame.
Before his induction in the UMM Hall of Fame, Gremmels said he enjoyed small college athletics because it was just as much about teaching young people values as it was about winning games.
"He always had a level head about him," said UMM Athletic Director Mark Fohl, who worked with Gremmels since 1985, and knew of him even before that as a football assistant coach at Mayville State with Gremmels' nephew, Chuck.
Gremmels stayed connected to the UMM basketball team, serving as an assistant coach to Jim Severson beginning in 1996, and then continuing on as a consultant for current coach Paul Grove up until this fall.
"Winning was important, but it was for other reasons he was doing this," Fohl said. "He saw the value beyond the wins and losses."
A teacher and learner
But it's not that Gremmels wasn't competitive. He devised his own charting system to evaluate players, and he especially concentrated on working with post players, Fohl said.
Years ago, he would come in and shoot around and you could tell he was a veteran player," Fohl said. "He'd also come in and work with tennis teams. He just loved coaching, and I don't think he ever left it behind. It was in his blood."
Grove said Gremmels was an invaluable resource for him when he became head coach in 2002, a living, breathing history book of the program and its opponents.
"The best thing is, he just loved to talk about it," Grove said. "I didn't have to ask him about anything."
Gremmels' "two babies" were working with UMM's post players and teaching rebounding, Grove said.
Gremmels would pull the post players aside to work on skills during practices, and he'd work with players one-on-one before practices.
"He related to the players very well," Grove said. "He was a great teacher. He could be tough on them at times, but the players don't mind if you're fair and he was."
In the last couple of years, Gremmels couldn't move around much at practices, so the team set up a stool for him on the baseline."
"Physically, he lost a step, but he didn't miss a thing that happened on the court," he said.
That Gremmels didn't have a discriminatory bone in his body is evident in his other pursuits.
He learned the printing press arts from a student who worked as a professional printer. As managing editor of the Prairie Gate Press, Gremmels perfected his skills on a letterpress and he ardently gathered up donated type and other equipment over the years as the printing industry changed.
Prairie Gate Press printed tickets, flyers and even a hardcover book of poems. Gremmels worked to get students interested in the trade as it became clear he'd have to curtail his work.
"We might need a replacement part for me," Gremmels said, with a laugh, in a 2004 Morris Sun Tribune story.
"It's a great thing to have on campus, especially a liberal arts campus where students are creative," Gremmels said in the 2004 story. "It's a lot of fun when you have a good project. It's a lot of work, but when you get done, when it looks good, it's very enjoyable."
Seeking social justice
Politics was another pursuit that gave Gremmels joy. His long-time affiliation with party politics grew from what Ahern called "a strong sense of social justice."
Gremmels was an ardent advocate of retired professor Miriam Frenier, who was a 1984-85 nominee for the Horace T. Morse Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate education, an award Gremmels received in 1968. Frenier, who taught women's studies, was one of the first women on the UMM faculty to receive the award, Ahern said.
"Jim had great respect for Mimi (Frenier) but he also firmly believed that women must receive recognition for their work, and there were some obstacles," Ahern said.
Gremmels' advocacy for diversity and devotion to the political process was rewarded last year when he was chosen as one of Minnesota's 10 Electoral College voters.
"One of the things we as his friends took special joy in was Jim being an electoral member," Ahern said. "He was so happy that he got to vote for Obama."
A snowstorm hit the day of the electoral vote and some of Gremmels' friends were worried that he might not get to the event. But their friend already had checked the forecast and left for the Twin Cities days before, Ahern said.
"No way was he going to miss that."