Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The 30 cent standoff

As Buena Vista University gets ready to tell its tales of 100 years of gridiron glories during the 2005 Homecoming, I can't resist sharing a story it won't.

The U's history resounds with fun tales, from the first - the veritable "theft" of the college from Fort Dodge by ambitious infant Storm Lake. History records the move as based on "patient and prayerful inquiry" - not to mention a tempting bribe of cash and free land.

More recently, there was the record-setting $18 million donation from Harold Seibens, a self-made tycoon who never attended the college and wanted to keep the 1980s monster gift a secret. Rumor has it, some of his ashes are "floating around" nearby, but that's another secret...

I met an artistic student who created a beautiful wedding gown as her senior project - made out of barbed wire.

And I remember that runaway deer that made a graceful leap over the three-foot wall on the Forum green - only to discover in unfortunate mid-flight that there is a 40-foot sheer drop on the other side of that wall.

Ah, but history seems to love best those twisty little tales of irony, the kind too crazy to be made up, and my favorite is the one BVU administration never really cared to admit.

It involves 1920s BV College Big Man On Campus, J. Leslie Rollins.

You know the name. The college's sports stadium and its prestigious fellowship program are named for Rollins, who - and here's the twist, folks - didn't "graduate" until 62 years after he left Buena Vista, in a bizarre standoff over 30 cents.

Rollins, a handsome scholar/athlete, came to Buena Vista at a time when the rules were taken very seriously. All students were required to attend chapel services regularly. When Rollins mischievously skipped a session, he was assessed the standard 30-cent penalty.

He refused to pay up and the college refused to hand over his "sheepskin" until he did.

Some say Rollins didn't fork it over because times were tough and he was embarrassed to admit he didn't have 30 cents. Others say he was standing up for some principle now long forgotten.

Years later, when Rollins had become a nationally-famed educator and a great supporter of his alma mater, a sheepish Buena Vista tried to quietly give back Rollins' diploma. He refused to take it - not because he held a grudge, but because he had come to appreciate the matter as a grand joke.

"Whitey" Rollins was appropriately described as the "Big Man on Campus" in the 1926 yearbook. He excelled in the classroom, served as a leader in student government and campus groups, and earned 12 athletic letters while starring as a broad shouldered, intense meteor in football, basketball, baseball and track.

The lack of an official diploma didn't hurt young Rollins. Legend has it that a track coach recognized the lad's talents and stepped in to salvage the disappointing diploma-less end to his schooling. The coach pressed $100 into Rollins' hand and shoved him aboard a train bound for Chicago, after enrolling him in Northwestern University without the youngster's knowledge. "Kid, next time I see you, you're going to be holding a graduate degree in business," he said. I'm not sure how much of that story is true, but Rollins went on to do just that, and soon became an assistant dean at Northwestern.

He moved on to Harvard, where he gained fame as crusty confidant to the Ivy League business students who became the movers and shakers of the country. He held numerous other posts and was one of the most highly respected educators in the nation. He was described by students as "an unrelenting mentor," like a character from "The Paper Chase" come to life, setting "unthinkable goals for his chosen few and then motivating them to somehow achieve them."

Meanwhile, Rollins remained a steadfast supporter of Storm Lake's little private college, which he often loudly credited for giving him his start in life. Its presidents sought his council; he demanded the best for its students and put his money where his mouth was.

He was awarded an honorary doctorate degree in 1970, but still good-naturedly refused his original diploma, and left his 30-cent fine unpaid. Grateful former students helped him to establish the Rollins Fellowship which helps cream-of-the-crop BVU collegiates travel to gain educational awareness each year. They also came up with $250,000 to build the fine stadium in his name. It was dedicated in 1987 to the 30-cent scofflaw from the days of helmetless football who never managed to graduate here.

Behind a stern facade, he reveled in the humor of life. The ultra-successful Rollins always delighted to tell of how he was holding out against the darned college over the 30-cent scrap.

Finally, as Rollins lay in a sickbed after heart surgery, his son made out a check for $14.10 - the 30-cent fine plus six decades worth of interest. Accepting the diploma for the lifelong benefactor of the relieved college were two recent student-recipients of the Rollins' fellowship.

The sheepskin was presented along with those of the other 1988 grads in the spring ceremony - exactly 62 years late.

The diploma was rushed to Rollins' family, who presented it to him shortly before his death in Athens, Ohio; making him the "oldest upperclassman in history" at 84.

"He's the type of man to appreciate the humor in a situation like this," the younger Rollins said of his father. "He's done so much for the school. He was never one to put diplomas on the wall. He didn't make a big deal out of his accomplishments, but this is something we wanted to take care of for him."

The good things Rollins has done will long outlive him - in the facilities he helped to make possible at the college, the help he has given to raise it to national respectability, the students who will continue to benefit from his scholarships, and in the hearts of all those who can appreciate one heck of a good joke.

"Whitey" Rollins, once Buena Vista College's "Big Man on campus" ...still is.