Cover Feature – Pen > Sword

When asked if she has any regrets in life, Coleen Grissom responds quickly: “Two. One is that I didn’t get a dog until I was 35. The other is that I didn’t get a cat until I was 52.” Now with 3 cats and 4 toy poodles, Grissom continues her tenure at Trinity University in the English Department, a school she was worked at for over 50 years. Respected lecturer, professor, and author, Grissom also has an amazingly sharp wit that has made her a legend on campus and in the Cordillera Ranch community.

She begins, “I was born in Mount Pleasant, Texas on January 19, 1934. It was in the middle of the first great American Depression. My father was a civil engineer, and my mom was a homemaker. My dad was ultimately city manager in Carthage, Texas before his death.” Growing up, Grissom had simple aspirations: simply to be Tarzan. “I wanted to be Johnny Westmiller from the old Tarzan movies. I organized the kids to play Tarzan all the time. I was always Tarzan. I made a neighbor boy be Cheetah. I covered all my walls with movie posters because it made it less boring than Carthage, Texas. And because there was always a happy ending in the movies. I’m still looking for that in real life.”

Early on, Grissom found the escape she sought in the books she read ferociously. “I loved to read. I read fast, because my mother would have me sit at the table and I’d ask if I could finish my chapter. I finished them as quickly as I could. I sucked lemons and read like a crazy person. Somewhere, in my case, it was the 8th grade, a teacher made me think I was bright. He wanted me to know that I could understand and do well with books and literature. The first day of 10th grade, there was a spelling bee, and I won it. From there, the rest is history.”

Grissom went on to various levels of leadership as a youth, from church organizations to the girl scouts to organized sports. Each time Grissom would ultimately find herself as the leader of the group; a position she has always found to be natural for her. That love of leadership and books naturally pushed her toward teaching. “I was valedictorian and ‘Most Witty’ for the graduating high school class of ‘52. I was given a full scholarship to Texas State Teachers College in Commerce, Texas. It was $50. That was the per year cost. No kidding. The school is now part of the Texas A&M campus, so I’m an Aggie now. This upsets me very much.”

“I worked in the campus library, and I also earned $0.40 per hour that was applied to my tuition. I majored in English and history. I got into campus leadership and became President of the Women’s Government Council and the dean of women came in my senior year and said she’d like me to apply for a fellowship to continue my education. I applied for and won a fellowship in Syracuse.”

As she continued her education, Grissom was able to hone in on the direction she wanted her career to go. “By the time I made my way to Syracuse, I wanted to be an administrator. I wanted to work on women’s education outside of the classroom. I wanted women to be able to develop their leadership skills and to do something in addition to being wives and mothers.”

Grissom, always one to challenge the status-quo, frequently clashed with the administration at Syracuse, and was unabashed about it. “I loved Syracuse. But there were some problems.  I was a little casual and post-modern, and had real trouble that the women could not be on upper campus unless they were dressed up. Going to a tea-party was the highlight of one’s life. I didn’t like that. I thought it was unnatural and restrictive. It wasn’t right. Shorts had been invented, and I would literally run to my room so as to not be seen in my shorts, because they were not allowed. We knew times were changing, and if women were going to have opportunities in roles of leadership, they needed changes in the restrictiveness. So I set out to change that.”

After Syracuse, Grissom found a job as the Head Resident and English Instructor at Trinity University in San Antonio. She was 24 years old, and quickly found that she would like Trinity University. “When I first took the job at Trinity after Syracuse, the student handbook said “A campus woman never leaves campus without gloves, hose, and heels.” So one of the students walked down the stairs one night wearing only that. I knew I was in the right place. I had worn shorts to the campus. We stopped at a gas station to change into a dress so we could enter campus on my first day.” However, Grissom’s initial tenure at Trinity was brief. “I worked for a woman that was the epitome of what a woman in the 50s should be. Pearls, perfect hair, gloves. And I’m wearing shorts. It was a conflict, and didn’t work well. Three and a half years later, and I left and said I’d never ever be back.”

Grissom took a teaching assistantship in Austin at the University of Texas. Pursuing her Doctor of Philosophy in English, Grissom was going after the one thing that she had always wanted to do: teach and help women. As she neared graduation, Grissom took the phone call that would ultimately change her life. “I was looking all around and looking for where I want to go, and my phone rang and I basically sold out for money. The President for Trinity called at my apartment and said ‘Your previous boss is no longer here – we’d like you to come back as Associate Dean of Student Life. And you can teach English. We’ll pay you $6,000 per year’. I was astonished. I didn’t have to live in the dorms anymore. This was 2 years after I left Trinity. So I went back to Trinity in 1964, and I’ve never left.”

Quickly moving up the ladder, Grissom relished her new environment and the caliber of students that Trinity University presented her with. “I became Dean of students, and then VP for Student Affairs. I was the first female Vice President at Trinity. I was fully tenured as professorship in 1975. In the academy of teaching, most people don’t pick a school and stay there forever. But Trinity is like a family to me. All my friendships, my close relationships, they all come from there. I’ve always taught one class in addition to my administrative work, but I’m currently teaching three. I have always loved the quality of people on that campus. The university has a covenant relationship with the church. Trinity always attracted really bright gifted students and staff. The trustees decided we would become a selective institution and that we would realize all students would have equal academic potential. And I believe that whole-heartedly. All my students are smart, I’m smart, and it’s so much nicer to teach students that are smart.”

In talking with Grissom, it’s obvious where her passion comes from: the people. Teaching is a core passion for hers, but it pales in comparison to her unending fascination with the human race. The books seem to just be an extension of that. And are the vehicle that sparks the conversation. “Contemporary Literature is my favorite class to teach. I like the more mature students. They’re surer of themselves. It will not surprise you to know that I am weird. I have spent my life taking notes being given out in lectures and I hate it. So I tell all my students that it is up to you to develop your literature aesthetics, and most importantly, I make them think for themselves.”

But she also feels bad for those same students. “It was harder to get in trouble in those older days. I’ve spent the better part of my life in higher education, and I tell kids all the time I don’t know how you do it. There are so many ways for kids to get in trouble now. I never had these influences or options as I was growing up. Heck, we didn’t let kids have cars at Trinity for a long time. We had curfews. Kids are also more concerned economically now. They question everything. They have more distractions than any generation. I have rigidity about their writing, and won’t bend. Yes, I enjoy their curiosity, and how they question the rules, but I will not allow deviation from proper grammar. Make it simple, make it clear, and make it sound good. That’s how I teach grammar nowadays. If you get into the specifics of grammar rules, you’ll lose them. If you attack it from the three rules above, it’s simpler and they stay with you.”

And that love and respect for literature is fierce and as unwavering as she is. “Good triumphs over evil. That’s why I love literature. You can read about errors in judgment, and in choices, and you can read about the mistakes other people make so you don’t make them. One of the many joys of my life is introducing young adults to challenging, enriching fiction. And if they don’t like it, that’s ok. But they have to convince me WHY they don’t like it.”

Recently, Grissom published A Novel Approach to Life, a collection of her speeches that span more than 50 years. Comical, serious, and in her “pull no punches” way of talking, it’s vintage Colleen Grissom. However she’s not done writing. “I am celebrating my 78th birthday in January. I’m signed on to teach for this year. I’ve requested an academic leave for spring 2013. I’m going to research a 2nd book, a list of lists. It will be about the 10 things that I love the most. The 10 songs that are on my playlist. The 10 movies I want to see again. The 10 behaviors at a dinner party that I find disgusting.”

One of the perks of her career with Trinity University was being able to live in school-provided housing. There was one problem, however, it was too big. “I called it THE MANSION. I was in the mansion 18 years. It was 5,000 square feet, and it was just me, two dogs, and one cat. I entertained all the time. I loved it, but it was just too big. I’ve always loved the hill country my whole life. When I needed to get away, I came to the hill country. In 1998, I stopped at the Dairy Queen in Boerne. I saw an ad for Cordillera Ranch and headed out here. We drove in and I didn’t like it because they stopped me at the gate and told me I had to have a reason to be here; I couldn’t just drive around the neighborhood. I never could believe I could afford it. Tracy (Harris) showed me several lots, and I’ve been here ever since. I paid cash for that sucker. I made a list of 15 things I wanted for the house; a wraparound porch, a cedar post fence line, a door off my bedroom…stuff like that. I wanted a great room, high ceilings, and a walk-in shower. And I got everything I wanted, and moved in 1999.”

Since, Grissom has been happy she moved. “I’ve never regretted moving to Cordillera Ranch one moment in my life. It is exceedingly professionally well-managed because there are many individuals that endeavor to create a great sense of community. Mostly, I love it because of the serenity of the area. It’s the sound of silence. I hear only my fountains bumbling, the dogs barking, and the sounds of nature. I love my purple martins. It’s the most beautiful place. It is just physically and spiritually beautiful.”

Heavily involved in the community, both inside Cordillera Ranch and outside, Grissom continues to be active in both literature and teaching. Outside of her leave of absence in 2013, she has no plans to slow down. “I get asked to come to lots of events and if I don’t want to go I just say I’m too old and don’t like to drive at night, but seriously, that so rarely happens. The people are so incredible at Cordillera Ranch, and I love every aspect of the community. And as for work, it didn’t ever cross my mind that people didn’t love what they do for work. And this is one of my bigger blessings. I love it so very much. I’m 77 years old, and I can’t wait for the 1st day of class. And I know my students think I’m ancient, but I don’t care. I can’t wait for it, and I love it.”

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