The name Ken Gros Louis was articulated through generations of students as a man they needed to know, one that rivaled Herman B Wells.
In his time as vice president and chancellor of IU-Bloomington, Gros Louis created the Wells Scholars program. He also focused on advocating for film, Jewish and African-American studies departments; the School of Journalism; and the Office of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Student Support Services, now the LGBTQ+ Culture Center. Gros Louis even received the GLBT Distinguished Alumni Award in 2015 for his support.
Gros Louis died in his sleep on Thursday night. He was 80.
IU Associate Professor of Law Steve Sanders introduced Gros Louis before he received the GLBT Distinguished Alumni Award and described the qualities he embodied.
“The grace with language of a Romantic-era poet,” Sanders said. “A late-night talk show host’s mischievous wit and ability to find delight in absurdity. The equanimity and self-discipline of a Zen master. And most importantly, the soul of Herman Wells himself."
“Wells and I became good friends (we also happened to share the same fraternity, Sigma Nu) when I myself became active in administration,” Gros Louis wrote in the article.
To the many students and colleagues who Gros Louis connected with, he was a teacher and friend, and his dedication to the university was palpable.
“He was one of my most important mentors, but I think you would find hundreds of people who would say the same thing,” Sanders said.
Gros Louis celebrated his 80th birthday in February in the Federal Room of the IMU.
Dan Niersbach, president of the IU Student Association, said many people flew back from across the country for the event.
“That’s really a testament to the relationships he made with people,” Niersbach said.
Gros Louis never forgot a name, Niersbach said, but more than that, he remembered the person’s story as well. At his birthday party, Gros Louis talked to everyone like an old friend.
“These stories are what I loved most about him,” Niersbach said.
Gros Louis earned his bachelor’s degree in English and math, as well as a master’s degree in Renaissance literature at Columbia College. He earned his Ph.D. in medieval and Renaissance literature in 1964 from the University of Wisconsin.
Gros Louis began his career at IU in 1964 as a professor of English and comparative literature, and, he won the Ulysses G. Weatherly Award for Distinguished Teaching, an award from IU that acknowledges outstanding teaching.
“He was always a popular teacher when he was a professor,” Sanders said.
He then went on to become Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1978 and served in that role for two years.
“Even when he was a high level university administrator, he was known for making time to talk to students,” Sanders said.
In 1980, he was promoted to vice president of the Bloomington campus. Eight years later, he was promoted to vice president of academic affairs for all seven campuses.
In 1988, Gros Louis was also designated chancellor of the IU-Bloomington campus. His role as chancellor was similar to that of the current provost, said IU historian James Capshew.
Gros Louis retired in 2001, but he came back to IU in 2004 as interim senior vice president and chancellor.
In 2006, he was named University Chancellor, an honorary designation that had only been held by Herman B Wells before him. When Wells died in 2000, the designation went away, but the trustees brought it back for Gros Louis, Capshew said.
“The trustees designated him as University Chancellor to honor him for everything he did for the University,” Capshew said.
His largest focus was centered on the students, Gros Louis said in one of his . He said he wanted students to never feel like they were a number but rather individuals, and he made many connections with students throughout the years.
“It wasn’t really a conscious effort,” Gros Louis said in the podcast. “To get to know the student leaders, I really had to get to know them as people.”
Gros Louis would have dinner with students or go to workout sessions with them, and he said he got to know who these students were, what their goals were and who their family was.
He would work out with athletes and coaches many mornings, and everyone would call him "Coach," thinking he was just one of them.
Niersbach made his own connection with Gros Louis when a friend of his introduced them. Niersbach said he and Gros Louis would usually work out together twice a week and have dinner together once a week.
“During workouts was a time to talk about life,” Niersbach said, adding that Gros Louis would ask him things such as how school was going. “At dinner, I just loved to talk about him.”
Niersbach said it was during this time that Gros Louis would talk about his life and the University. He said Gros Louis gave advice about how to be a better student leader also, but the conversation usually led back to stories of mutual friends.
Sanders said Gros Louis would have end-of-the-year parties at his house, inviting student leaders, and he stayed in touch with those students. In one of his podcasts, Sanders said many of them as alumni would stay at his house when they came back to Bloomington.
“For many, Ken simply was IU, and this is especially true for generations of IU student leaders,” Provost Lauren Robel said in the press release, “He was their best and truest guide and mentor, and stayed in touch with them long after they left campus.”
Gros Louis is survived by his two daughters, Amy Gros Louis and Julie Gros Louis. Public visitation will take place 4-8 p.m. Oct. 25 at Day & Deremiah-Frye Funeral Home. The family requested any memorial contributions to be sent to the Kenneth Gros Louis Scholarship fund.
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