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D. C. Spriestersbach

Alumnus and longtime faculty member spent five decades helping UI faculty and students enjoy moments in the spotlight.

Duane C. Spriestersbach never saw himself as the star of the show as the dean of the Graduate College or as vice president for educational research and development at The University of Iowa.

Though his accomplishments during a five-decade-long career on the UI campus earned him a place in the spotlight, the only time Spriestersbach felt he took center stage was when he was acting in Iowa City Community Theatre plays in his free time.

Helping to bring in more than $1 billion in grants and gifts to the University was, in his opinion, simply part of his job. Spriestersbach, known as “Sprie” (pronounced “Spree”) by even casual acquaintances, says he placed the aspirations of students and faculty ahead of his personal glory.

“We were the choreographers, but we never got to dance,” Spriestersbach says about the role of his staff. “When the students and faculty got to dance and danced well, we smiled.”

Spriestersbach, who received an MA and PhD from The University of Iowa in 1940 and 1948, respectively, served as Graduate College dean from 1965 to 1989, and vice president for research from 1966 to 1970, when he was named vice president for educational research and development. He also was interim UI president for seven months from 1981 to 1982, between the administrations of Willard “Sandy” Boyd and James Freedman.

To recognize excellence in doctoral research, the Graduate College awards its most prestigious dissertation prizes each spring in his name: the D.C. Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize, an honor established by Boyd in 1981.

“Sprie was a great teacher and a very successful researcher on cleft palate, and was extremely committed to graduate education,” Boyd says. “He is exceedingly bright and hardworking, and he had vision.”

Described by Freedman as a “custodian of academic values,” Spriestersbach focused his efforts on developing the University into a major research institution and rallied people around ideas articulated by Boyd, Freedman, and former Graduate College dean Carl Seashore. He championed such efforts as the University of Iowa Press and the Technology Innovation Center, and helped with the development of the University’s Oakdale campus. Over the course of his tenure, he supervised 34 units.
Spriestersbach played a big role in helping the University enter the computer age in the early 1980s. On April 1, 1983, the Office of Information Technology announced a program whereby faculty, staff, and students could purchase computers at the Weeg Computing Center for personal use at significant discounts.
“I lived during the time when we went from the big central computer, where people had to come to have data run, to fighting through a philosophy that people could use a computer on their own,” Spriestersbach says. “(James) Van Allen and his crew were with the times and they knew how to use computers, but there were a lot of people who didn’t know how to. You see how far we’ve come. Everybody’s got one.”

Spriestersbach’s influence extends beyond campus as well, says David Skorton, UI vice president for research from 1992 to 2002 and UI president from 2003 to 2006.

“I’ve applied lessons learned from Sprie to every administrative job I’ve had,” says Skorton, now president of Cornell University. “As a faculty member and researcher at Iowa, I ran into policies he set and had a chance to see the really wonderful approaches he had to making things work. His interest was looking outward toward people on campus as opposed to looking inward to gain an advantage in his office.”

Spriestersbach says he picked up leadership skills from 25 years in the military. He was a U.S. Army personnel officer from 1942 to 1946, serving under General George Patton during World War II. He also served in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1952 to 1967, achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel.

“I learned how to take initiative, how to keep people involved and going in the direction you want them to go in,” says Spriestersbach, who was awarded the Bronze Star in 1945 and the Army Commendation Medal in 1946. “It’s subtle, but you just learn to take charge. There were many occasions when I was told, ‘Here’s a problem, go figure out what to do about it.’”
At Iowa, Spriestersbach was an authority on helping children born with cleft lips and palates. A professor of speech pathology and audiology and of otolaryngology, he started the UI Cleft Palate Research Program in 1955. When the program was terminated in 1991, the 36-year, $13 million project represented one of the longest partnerships between the University and the National Institutes of Health. The program focused on the surgical, dental, speech, and biological development aspects of the impairment.
Spriestersbach says is humbled by having such a prestigious award named for him in the Graduate College.
“I was totally taken away when I heard that Sandy Boyd had established this prize. It makes me feel unworthy—I don’t think I deserve to be given that kind of honor,” Spriestersbach says. “But I’m really pleased to present the dissertation prize because it publicizes the value that the Graduate College places on that degree.”
Not too bad for a 1939 graduate of Winona State Teachers College who originally came to Iowa to study acting.
“(Spriestersbach) was selfless. His happiest moments were when the institution was working well,” Skorton says.
story and photo by John Riehl


June 3, 2010


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