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The one-time home of late chemistry professor Fred Gruen, Ph.D., will soon serve as the nucleus of relationships-based education at Olivet College

This Old House

As a little girl, Carol Gruen ’76 loved growing up in the town of Olivet. It wasn’t just because of its small, safe atmosphere, or because her family’s house had a huge backyard where she and her sister, Evelyn, could play. As the daughter of one of Olivet College’s most beloved professors, Carol had the advantage of being immersed in college culture her whole life.

“Olivet was a wonderful place to grow up, especially as children of one of the college professors,” she said. “The faculty members were very bonded, and the college did many things to enhance the feeling of community among its employees.”

Some Olivet College professors gain legendary status during their careers. Carol’s father happens to be one of them. Fred Gruen, Ph.D., taught chemistry from 1951 to 1991, and during that time, he and his family lived in the big yellow house on Yale Street. It’s a place, Carol says, that will forever remain close to their hearts.

“What I remember most about the house is that it was a place where my parents always loved to entertain. Most of that entertainment was geared around students and faculty,” Carol said. “My dad loved teaching and believed in relationships-based education. He was a people person and therefore loved to engage with his students beyond the classroom.”

Because of Dr. Gruen’s exceptional ability to engage students in outside learning, many of his former pupils remember the home fondly as well. “Dr. Gruen wanted his students to do well,” said Stephen Burton ’68, M.D. “At the beginning of each semester, he would give all the students his home address and phone number. He always treated us as equals, and he was glad to talk about his philosophy of life and learning.

“I worked hard as a student,” Burton continued. “But I am sure his encouragement and help were a large factor in my admittance to medical school.”

In fact, Olivet College’s commitment to providing relationships-based education, still a rich part of its culture today, was fostered through the years by professors like Dr. Gruen, Prof. Ed Speare, Ph.D., Prof. Cecilia Campañá and many others. Dr. Gruen believed that learning took place in a social setting as much as in the classroom, and he was right. Research consistently indicates that outside student/faculty interaction has multiple, positive outcomes for both the student and the institution. These include improved retention and academic performance, personal and intellectual development, educational aspirations and overall satisfaction.

Dr. Gruen was himself a product of relationships-based learning – as a German, trilingual college student in Italy. In his memoirs, he recounts how socializing with his English instructor helped him sharpen his language skills. “My English teacher was highly refined,” he said. “And, as my English was very good, I was allowed to have tea and conversation with her and her mother.”

Eventually, those valuable learning experiences would carry over to his own teaching career at Olivet College. “The most positive aspect of my work at Olivet was the relationship between faculty and students,” he said.

Building a New Legacy

And so, as the years passed, the house where Dr. Gruen and his wife Marian loved to host dinner parties, and where students would drop by for extra help with their homework, would become as legendary as the professor himself. For decades it served as a beacon of the relationships-based education that Olivet College so strongly provides.

“My heart is always warmed when I run into my father’s former students and they tell me what an influence he had on their lives,” Carol continued. “They have become doctors, dentists, optometrists and science teachers at all levels of education.

“Students were frequently in our home not only for help, but for dinner, socializing and relaxing,” she said. “My mother also loved the interaction with the students and was always eager to have them, as well as faculty members, over for dinner or simply to chat. As I reflect back, I realize my parents even became close to students’ families. I remember many times having students’ parents in our home and also visiting their homes all over Michigan.”

The Gruen house would remain a cherished space for faculty, students and their families throughout Dr. Gruen’s tenure and his family’s residence. Today the house sits vacant, but soon current Olivet College students will have the opportunity to experience the nurturing environment that the Gruen family once provided in their home.

Thanks to lead support from Carol and her husband, James Cash, and Evelyn (Gruen) and her husband, Ron Cortesi, as well as Dr. Gruen’s former students, Burton and Timothy Hodge ’83, D.O., the house will soon be restored to its original glory. As part of the college’s Master Plan, the Gruen Engagement Center will serve as a place where today’s students and faculty can collaborate in a social setting, while also serving as a lodging and hospitality space for visitors such as professors-in-residence, campus speakers and special guests.

According to Carol, it’s just what her father would have wanted.

“I am excited about my parents’ home becoming a place where faculty will be able to meet with students outside the classroom,” she said. “It is definitely a way to carry on the legacy of my parents and what they valued so much about Olivet. Having my undergraduate degree from Olivet and then going to a large university for my master’s degree, I can certainly see the advantages of a small liberal arts education. The type of personal relationships my father had with his students is incomparable.”

 

PHOTOS: Top – Carol Gruen ’76 and husband James Cash in front of the Gruen House. Bottom – Marian and Fred Gruen (center) with students.

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