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Parks, Ellen Sorge

Published onJul 30, 2021
Parks, Ellen Sorge

(April 20, 1914 – May 9, 1999)

Quick Facts

11th “First Lady” of Iowa State University, lifelong scholar, and key advocate for the upkeep and expansion of the library on ISU campus. Eventually, the building was named the William Robert Parks and Ellen Sorge Parks Library after her husband and herself.

Ellen Sorge and W. Parks portrait, 1999 by Kurt Anderson. Installed in the Parks Library.

In 1914 Ellen Rowe Sorge was born in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, and during her high school sophomore year, her family moved to Madison, Wisconsin. From a young age, her formidable intelligence shined. She was valedictorian of her class at Madison High School and at the University of Wisconsin, and an elected member of Phi Beta Kappa. While Sorge’s undergraduate degree was in journalism, in 1937 her academic passion led her to study political science in University of Wisconsin’s master’s program. She later said that she “hated deadlines for one thing… and hated that fast writing.” After receiving her master’s degree, Sorge continued her political science studies in Wisconsin’s PhD program. Given her academic success, her professors encouraged her to apply for a Rockefeller Pre-Doctorate Field Scholarship, which she won as the first woman recipient.

As a graduate student, she met a fellow political science graduate student from Tennessee, W. Robert Parks – they were assigned as graduate school office mates. As time passed, romance followed – the couple married on July 1, 1940 in Reedsburg, and in the fall moved to Washington, D.C. where they would conduct their respective dissertation field work in agriculture administration. Sorge Parks kept her social science research grant, and Parks was hired by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE). In 1943, Sorge Parks gave birth to their first child, Andrea, and four months later, the Bureau of Budget hired her as an administrative analyst to write a history of the War Manpower Mobilization.

World War II dramatically changed their lives. In 1943, Parks received a direct commission as an ensign in the U.S. Navy. They moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and later to Norfolk, Virginia, where Sorge Parks continued working for the Budget Bureau. After his military service, Parks resumed his BAE administrative position.

In 1947, Sorge Parks completed her dissertation and received her PhD. She was the first woman to earn a PhD in political science from the University of Wisconsin with her thesis, Experiment in the Democratic Planning of Public Agricultural Activity. In 1948, the family faced a major career decision – Iowa State College (now University) had offered Parks a joint appointment as a tenured associate professor in political science and agricultural economics. He accepted, and the family moved to Ames, where their second daughter, Cynthia, was born in 1953. In 1956, the family returned to Madison, Wisconsin for two years, where Parks taught graduate courses in agricultural economics, and Ellen Parks joyfully concentrated on raising their daughters.

In 1958, another critical decision faced the couple – should Parks refocus his academic career in university administrative leadership at Iowa State? The family returned to Iowa State with Parks as the new Dean of Instruction; in 1961, President James H. Hilton promoted him to the new position of Vice President for Academic Affairs. The return to Ames halted Sorge Park’s eighteen years of nomadic life as a scholar, wife, and mother.

With the retirement of 10th President, James H. Hilton, Parks applied for the presidency with unanimous family support. In 1965, W. Robert Parks was appointed the 11th President of Iowa State University. In his inaugural address on March 22, 1966, he called for a “new humanism” within a broad-based university. Ellen Sorge Parks assumed the informal title of “First Lady” of Iowa State. While the Iowa Board of Regents had approved building a new campus home, Sorge Parks chose The Knoll as their home and focused on its major renovations. The Knoll became a welcoming venue for a wide variety of campus gatherings. Over the years, Sorge Parks’ recipe for hot chocolate became famous and showcased her personal touch as the campus hostess.

Sorge Parks had two campus homes, The Knoll and the Library. She would reminisce that in 1958 when the family returned to Iowa State, the Library was the first place she wanted to go, stating, “I love to handle books” and that the Library is the “essence of the university.” She pursued research on the private lives of the British aristocracy – in particular the Honorable Caroline Fox (1767-1845), cousin to Charles James Fox, and Fox’s wife, Elizabeth Armistad Fox (1751-1842). The Library supported her research by purchasing microform copies of their extensive personal letters from the British Library. Her own wide-ranging library included almost 600 18th and early 19th century British letters and diaries. Sorge Parks quickly recognized the limitations of the Library’s humanities collection and throughout her public life; she called for its financial support and continued support for the social sciences and sciences. Her interests mirrored Parks’ inaugural call for a “new humanities.”

The greatest tribute to Ellen Sorge Parks was the official naming of the University Library as the William Robert Parks and Ellen Sorge Parks Library. It was a brilliant sunny day on June 8, 1984 when then Iowa Governor Terry Branstad formally dedicated the third library addition with the Library’s new name to a large and enthusiastic crowd. As Parks referenced in his formal dedication remarks, “I am pleased to be sharing this honor with her, not for sentimental reasons alone, but because her devotion and concern for this library have been so steadfast and so long standing.” Following Parks’ retirement in 1986, they shared a research study in the original 1924 library building, desks side by side. She would often be spotted briskly walking to the Parks Library to delve into her studies. Sorge Parks died of pneumonia in her home on May 9, 1999.

Ellen Sorge Parks’ contagious love of conversation, current events, scholarly pursuits, and reading books encompassed her entire life. She engendered this passion in her daughters, Andrea Parks Van Houwelings and Cynthia Parks Hamilton, who obtained ISU bachelor degrees and their respective doctorate degrees in history from Indiana University and University of Iowa. Ellen’s loving and fierce intellectual legacy lives on.

Selected Sources

Ellen Rowe Sorge Parks, April 20, 1914 – May 9, 1999. Obituary,” Ames Tribune, May 10, 1999.

Sally Dietrich, “The Lady on the Knoll,” Iowa State Daily, April 18, 1983.

W. Robert Parks, “Response by W. Robert Parks, President, Iowa State University at the Library Dedication, June 8, 1984.”

Robert Underhill, Alone Among Friends: A Biography of W. Robert Parks. Ames, IA, Iowa State University Press, 1999.

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