The Elbert Files: An unusual mentor
Joe Rosenfield was a rare bird.
George Drake explains just how unusual the Des Moines businessman was in a new biography, “Mentor: Life and Legacy of Joe Rosenfield.”
Rosenfield is remembered today as the guiding force behind Grinnell College’s nearly $2 billion endowment.
But he also knew virtually every Des Moines business leader of consequence from 1925, when he graduated from Grinnell, until his death in 2000 at age 96. He counseled many on matters of business, finance and philanthropy, often invoking his own key to success: “Make sure the other guy gets a better deal than you do.”
Throughout his long life Rosenfield acquired an impressive list of “surrogate sons,” ranging from Warren Buffett and John Ruan to Bill Knapp and Jim Cownie. In each, he inspired a passion for giving back, as well as ideas for making money.
Rosenfield helped guide the early careers of Marshalltown natives Martin and Matthew Bucksbaum, who created General Growth Properties, the nation’s largest owner of shopping centers. He did the same for 1949 Grinnell graduate and Intel Corp. co-founder Robert Noyce, whose silicon chips launched the modern computer age and served as a launching pad for Grinnell College’s phenomenal wealth.
Drake is the perfect author for a book about Rosenfield. In addition to being a 1956 Grinnell alumnus, he was Grinnell College president from 1979 until 1991.
The book is as much a history of the private college as it is a business biography, largely because from the time Rosenfield set foot on campus in 1921, he and the school were inseparable. He was a Grinnell trustee from 1941 until his death.
Family members told Drake that one reason Rosenfield loved the school so much is that it did not have fraternities, which meant that as a Jew he did not feel ostracized at a time when Jews were banned from most fraternal societies.
Drake explained that while Rosenfield was a mediocre student, his Grinnell years helped develop the analytical and social skills, as well as an unusual sense of humor, that were hallmarks of his career.
Much of Rosenfield’s professional life was tied to Younkers department stores. His mother was a Frankel, a merchant family with deep retail roots whose businesses merged with Younkers in 1927, two years after Rosenfield graduated from Grinnell and two years before his father died.
Rosenfield became a lawyer in 1929, the same year that he succeeded his father on the Younkers board of directors. Upon graduation from the University of Iowa law school, Rosenfield joined Des Moines’ Gamble law firm, where a good portion of his work was related to the finances and expansion of Younkers. He joined Younkers full time in 1947 and was named chairman in 1948.
Rosenfield led a charmed life growing up. He played tennis at his family’s south-of-Grand home with a young neighbor, Henry Wallace, who went on to become Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of agriculture and vice president.
At Grinnell, a young man from Montana named Frank Cooper, who later won an Academy Award as Gary Cooper, lived across the hall. “I got to know him reasonably well,” Rosenfield once confided, although Cooper was “kind of a recluse.”
The book is full of salvation stories, including how Grinnell College’s investment in Intel saved the school when Rosenfield, a colleague and the school each invested $100,000 in the startup, eventually earning a profit of $16 million for the school. Ruan made a similar investment, held it longer and walked away with $300 million, part of which he later used to endow the World Food Prize.
Rosenfield also helped save Heritage Cablevision twice, which is why Heritage co-founder Cownie recruited Drake to write about the rare bird that Rosenfield was.