As each person walked into the Federal Room, their eyes were drawn to an older man sitting in the corner of the room at the Indiana Memorial Union. Many would walk over at once, stick out their hands and greet Ken Gros Louis, a former chancellor of IU, like the old friend he was to each of them.
Gros Louis remembered every one of them by their names and occupations. Each of these people had come together to celebrate Gros Louis, his achievements and his recent 80th birthday.
“I’ve been here long enough that the sons and daughters of graduates from the 80s come to me,” Gros Louis said. “Being with students has been the greatest experience.”
As chancellor for 25 years, Gros Louis was responsible for communicating with students, faculty and staff about concerns they might have. Gros Louis said his job was always about the students.
“The goal was for students to have the best experience possible,” Gros Louis said.
Luke Fields, an old friend, former IU student and the organizer for Gros Louis’ party, said he wanted a quiet evening with alumni who Gros Louis left his mark on the most. Fields compared Gros Louis to Herman B Wells, whose position he filled as chancellor.
“You and I never knew Herman B,” Fields said. “He’s as close as we’re going to get.”
Gros Louis came to IU from from the East Coast in 1964 when he was applying for an English professorship. He said he never expected to find himself in Indiana, which until he came was only an image of cornfields in his mind. Gros Louis said when he was interviewing at different universities he was always introduced to people by their titles.
When he came to IU, Herman B Wells and the faculty introduced people by their first names, and Gros Louis said that seemed so “collegial and humane” to him.
“I never thought I’d end up in Indiana,” Gros Louis said. “But it just seemed a different atmosphere.”
Gros Louis was one of the advocates for the creation of the Office of Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Student Support Services and the School of Journalism. Despite all this activity, Fields said there was never a time when he was unable to walk in and talk with Gros Louis.
Fields, who is now an attorney in Washington, D.C., said he remembered asking Gros Louis for advice about job searching, relationship problems and all the issues that came up during his own time as IU Student Association president.
“Unequivocally, he’s the best set of listening ears I’ve ever known,” Fields said. “He knows how it works, and he is so ready to invest in you.”
Alex Shortle, an IU alumnus and the vice president of Meridian Street Capital, a venture capital firm based in Indianapolis, said no one was more approachable than Gros Louis.
“He was the one administrator who always believed we’re here for the students,” Shortle said. “The joy for him was really the students.”
Shortle echoed the recurring theme of the evening and called Gros Louis a mentor, a teacher and “life-altering.”
This sentiment was shared by those present but also those who could not make an appearance. Damon Sims, the vice president for student affairs at Pennsylvania State University, sent Gros Louis a letter for his birthday expressing how thankful Sims was to Gros Louis for helping him reach his goals
“I cannot overstate the influence you have had on my life, both personally and professionally,” Sims wrote.
After dessert was served, Fields stood up and offered a toast to Gros Louis, and glasses clinked throughout the room. Gros Louis stood up to thank all of those in attendance from across the country.
“You’re pretty great,” Gros Louis said. “Thank you for your friendship.”