Books

REVIEW | 'A Life on the Middle West's Never-Ending Frontier'

Sandy Boyd's memoir reveals remarkable life

By Les Garner

Willard L. “Sandy” Boyd is a remarkable man. He has lived a remarkable life and has now written a remarkable book about his life and career, A Life on the Middle West’s Never-Ending Frontier. The book is characterized by all of the insight, charm, wit, intelligence and grace we have come to associate with Sandy, and it is an important chronicle of our intellectual and cultural life.

In his foreword, former University of Iowa President David Skorton describes Sandy as a “friend, mentor, and exemplar of integrity and wisdom.” He writes, “Sandy embodies a life well lived.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Raised in St. Paul, Minnesot, during the Depression, Sandy is proud of his roots in the Middle West. His father, who became head of the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, was born in Iowa. Sandy served in the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II, assigned to the medical corps by virtue of having taken a Preventive Medicine and Public Health course as a student at Minnesota.

Following Law School at the University of Minnesota and advanced legal study at the University of Michigan, Sandy practiced law with the firm founded by James Dorsey, a distinguished Minneapolis lawyer. He was recruited to the faculty of the University of Iowa Law School in 1954, shortly after he met the love of his life, Susan Kuehn. They moved to Iowa City after they were married.

Sandy proved himself to be an engaging teacher, dedicated adviser to the Iowa Law Review and accomplished scholar. After 10 years on the Law School faculty, he “descended into the oblivion of academic administration,” becoming Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculties, first in an interim role and then on a permanent basis.

Sandy became the President of the University of Iowa in 1969. There is much that can be said about his extraordinary tenure as Academic Vice President and President, but three points seem essential. First, his was a time when the U of I developed into the university we know and admire today, strengthening existing academic programs and adding graduate and professional education in several fields. Second, he always assured that the University would stay true to its mission of serving the state through excellent teaching, meaningful research and outreach. Third, Sandy presided over one of the most turbulent periods in higher education, when protests against the Vietnam War and advocacy for greater diversity and inclusion on campuses tore many institutions apart. The University of Iowa emerged from this period as a stronger institution, in large part because of Sandy’s abilities to listen, navigate and solve complex problems and build consensus where others only saw division.

Sandy left the University in 1981 to become the President of the Field Museum in Chicago, one of the nation’s most prominent museums of natural history. One of his first tasks was to roam the halls of the museum to make sure he understood the functions of each department and the perspectives of the staff. He emphasized the research role of the Museum and led an effort to mount innovative exhibits that brought visitors in closer contact with the natural world around them. He displayed remarkable sensitivity to the cultural heritage and points of view of populations represented in the collection and became a national advocate for cultural institutions. His influence was recognized in 1989, when he received a Frankel Prize in the Humanities (now the National Humanities Award).

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Sandy returned to the faculty of the Law School at the University of Iowa in 1996, where among his other accomplishments, he founded the Larned Waterman Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center. Sandy writes, “Nonprofit organizations represent the essence of community.” He sees nonprofits as the organizations through which citizens come together to provide the programs and services that define the quality of our collective life. Through its programs and publications, the Waterman Center has strengthened the Iowa nonprofit community in multiple ways.

While this book tells a wonderful story of the life of an academic and cultural entrepreneur, its value lies as much in being a resource for the future as a record of the past. Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “The farther back you can look, the father forward you are likely to see.” By that standard, Sandy Boyd is one of our great living visionaries.

Sandy’s memoir looks into a past that has shaped Iowa and the Midwest as we know it today. He doesn’t claim to predict the future. Rather he offers through his words and example the way we can make the most of the future before us. He advises that while we should remember the past, we should not try to reclaim or re-create it. “Nostalgia,” he writes, “masks the reality of the past.”

Sandy reminds us that an open and inquiring mind is critical to “navigating the unpredictable vicissitudes of the future.” He reminds us that knowledge is the key to seizing our future and that institutions of higher education, as centers for research and instruction, are the places that will develop new talent and generate new ways of thinking and knowing. He reminds us that these institutions have served us well as avenues for economic and social mobility and that we have an obligation to future generations to preserve broad access to them.

Sandy’s career has demonstrated the value of cultural institutions in helping us “understand each other and the world we share with each other and with nature.” These institutions deserve our support and advocacy, and Sandy’s career shows us how we can serve our communities through them.

Sandy shows us that as we look to the future, we must be guided by “enduring values that serve all people.” For Sandy, honoring that principle meant acting at the highest standard of ethical conduct and seeking a higher level of liberty and justice for all. As he quotes from his final commencement speech at Iowa in 1981, “The world is filled with others as well as you. It belongs to everyone without regard to race, sex, creed or other differences. Be affirmative about others. Others give meaning to life.”

Sandy’s memoir documents a full life. Therefore, it should not surprise us that Sandy’s advises that we approach life in a similar way. “If you seek fulfillment,” he writes, “utilize all the time of your life. Participate fully. Avoid snug harbors. Complacency is deadly. Look forward. Continue to grow. As long as you live, you have a future. Seize it.”

Who should read this book?

If you know Sandy Boyd, you should read this book. It will remind you of how much he has meant to his friends. If you don’t know Sandy, you should read the book as a way to get to know him.

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If you love the University of Iowa, you should read this book to enhance your understanding of the path that has brought the University to national prominence. If your allegiance is to another institution, you should read this book for its insight into how dedicated people build great institutions.

If you care about the future of Iowa and the Midwest, you should read this book to help you navigate that future.

If you want to read about an energetic and charming human being who has made life better for so many of us, you should read this book.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

• Les Garner is president and CEO of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.

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