Monday, March 23, 2020

By Lois J. Gray

Scholarships honor life of testing pioneer who always put people first

Image caption:  Daughter-in-law Beth Hieronymus; daughter-in-law Antonia Hieronymus holding a photo of her husband, the late William H. Hieronymus; and daughter Ruth Ottesen; (Standing, from left): Son-in-law James Ottesen; son-in-law Robert Hall; daughter Sally Hall; son-in-law Jimmy Nunnally; daughter Peggy Hieronymus Nunnally; and son John Hieronymus. Photo by John Emigh

Albert “Al” Hieronymus (MA ’46/PhD ‘48) was the true definition of a renaissance man.

Though most renowned for his pioneering role in educational testing, Hieronymus was a prolific scholar, tireless mentor, jazz musician, gardener, entrepreneur, and an avid sports fan.

But many who knew him might say his most important roles were those of a devoted husband, Dad, “Grandpop,” as family lovingly referred to him, and cherished colleague and friend.

Over the course of his life, Al touched thousands of lives, professionally and personally.

Black and white headshot of Al Hieronymus
Al Hieronymus

To honor this legacy, a half million-dollar gift has been made by his children and their spouses through the Hieronymus Family Partnership LCC, creating the Albert Hieronymus and Family Scholarship for the UI College of Education.

The scholarship will support graduate students who have classroom experience and an interest in research or innovation to improve the field of education. The first scholarships are being given in spring 2020.

“We got together and talked about it as a family and wanted to do something that carried the character of our Dad and what was important to him,” says his son, John Hieronymus, (BA ’73/MA ’85). “What was important to him was always the people, the students.”

Al taught both undergraduate and graduate students his entire career. John says his Dad’s ability to recall personal details about his students was impressive, even years after they had graduated.

“Particularly about his graduate students, he could tell you their families, he could tell you where they ended up going after they left here, and he followed their careers,” John says. “He remembered countless stories about them, and so it just seemed appropriate to us that we try to do something that would benefit students in the College of Education.”

John adds that his Dad often encouraged graduate students to go out and get some real-world experience before they came back for a doctoral degree.

“What we’re trying to do with this scholarship is to encourage not only the individual students who might benefit in their own education, but to go beyond that and help improve the methods and instruction that is available,” John says, “and knowing that everything is changing, it’s going to take brilliant minds and creative people to help with that.”

Al taught and mentored hundreds of students over the course of his four-decade career at the University of Iowa College of Education. Those students are now scattered across the state, nation, and globe, continuing to make significant contributions to their field and communities.

Stephen Dunbar, co-director of Iowa Testing Programs, was one of those young colleagues inspired by Al, saying he had a huge impact on his life.

“Al’s legacy has been something worth continuing to work toward. Though he did not love the limelight, his contributions to our testing programs were almost as great as those of E. F. Lindquist,” Dunbar reflects.

Dunbar adds that Al was one of several reasons that compelled him to come to the University of Iowa College of Education – and ultimately to put down roots here.

John says that his Dad’s focus was always on doing his best and putting people first, even as he became a world-renowned scholar and inventor.

“I was a child during most of my Dad’s career. We all were,” says John, who carried on his Dad’s legacy as a teacher for 36 years, 25 of those at City High School. “None of us were involved in the Iowa Testing Programs directly.”

But they all knew about their Dad’s exceptional career. In fact, many of them had the opportunity to witness him at work, observing his interactions with everyone from parents, principals, and the press, to students and colleagues. Al worked very closely with Paul Blommers, J.B. Stroud, and Leonard Feldt. He always made time for people, no matter how busy he was or how much he was juggling. In fact, his direct phone number was published for anyone to call him directly, unusual in those days.

Al worked closely with E.F. Lindquist, founder of the Iowa Tests, to develop the optical scanner that revolutionized test scoring and helped to make Iowa City a world-renowned center for educational testing. In the late 1950s, Al worked with Lindquist, James Van Allen, and others on the design and assembly of the campus’ first computer.

“I remember, as a child, when they were working on that in the basement of East Hall, literally right underneath his office. I’d go down and see what they were working on, and that’s where they developed the optical scanner,” John says. “I remember going over and watching him work with the engineers in particular on some of the equipment they were working on and helping them problem solve. “

Professor Emeritus H.D. Hoover (MA ‘67/PhD ‘69) was another of those students mentored by Al, who first served as one of his graduate research assistants and later became a colleague.

“Al introduced numerous innovations in test design and score reporting, and under his leadership, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills grew from a test battery created for use primarily in Iowa to one marketed by a major publisher and taken by millions of students worldwide,” Hoover wrote in a tribute to Al at the time of his death in 2007.

Al inspired and influenced not only his students and colleagues, but especially his own family. Although different family members have pursued a variety of careers, the education seed didn’t fall far from the family tree.

“In fact, four of us went to the University of Iowa, and three of us got teaching degrees,” John says.

Educators, musicians, and scientists are represented throughout the Hieronymus family tree as well as construction workers, silk screen printers, and business owners. Their Dad and Grandpa was proud of all of them.

Daughter Sally Hall (BA, ’70) worked in both gifted and special education over the years with a hiatus in between. She taught special education at Longfellow Elementary School and managed Gifted, a family gift store in Iowa City. She then returned to teaching in adaptive music at City High and now volunteers at Bickford Assisted Living

Sally reminisces that she would sometimes bring her special education class to her parents’ acreage in eastern Iowa City for an afternoon excursion. The kids would explore the farm, and have a picnic lunch, sitting out on the patio with Al, or he’d set up the croquet set and play with them or give them tractor-pulled cart rides.

Other students came out to the Hieronymus acreage to learn about leaf identification during school field trips. The family acreage created a space for both education and enjoyment. In the early years, Al maintained and landscaped with just a wheelbarrow, shovel, a hand-pulled cart, and other hand utensils. Eventually, he bought a little garden tractor to help him with the acreage.

Al’s oldest daughter, Ruth (BA ’65), taught to help put her husband through law school. She was a fifth-grade teacher at Kirkwood Elementary in Coralville. She then made a career out of raising eight children and overseeing piano and violin lessons and practices for all of them. Now she volunteers at Friendly House in Davenport in the preschool program and kids gardening program through Master Gardeners.

Al’s oldest son, the late William Hieronymus (BA ‘65), obtained his Ph.D. from Michigan at a very young age and worked as an economist. His wife, Antonia, remains very involved with the family. The youngest daughter, Peggy, has worked in a variety of jobs and enjoys gardening, plants, and animals.

John’s wife, Beth (IED, ’94), has had a long teaching career in special education. She is a National Board-Certified Teacher, and she now works as an instructional coach and special education teacher at Liberty High School in North Liberty, Iowa.

Al was an educator in every facet of his life, whether formally or informally. He loved to share his knowledge with other people – whether about tests and predictive validity or trees and plants. This also included fun educational activities with his grandchildren, like teaching them how to make maple syrup.

His devotion to his family and his career was strong, and Al never sacrificed one for the other. He juggled a productive and prolific career as a scholar, professor, and entrepreneur with a deep devotion to family, neighbors, colleagues, and friends. His family often marveled at how little sleep he needed. The only time he closed his office door, they say, was later in his career when he would do a power nap, literally under his desk.

Al distinguished himself outside of the field of education as well. John shares that his Dad had humble beginnings as the son of a tenant farmer with six kids.

Sally says, “His parents both valued education in spite of the fact that they…" John finishes the sentence, “….didn’t have much of their own.”

Drafted into the Army in 1942, Al was decorated with the Bronze Star and the French Croix de Guerre for his service as battery commander of the Third Army in World War II.

“He was humble about his service awards and all awards he received,” John says. “He was a reluctant participant in the war and almost never talked about it, but still his approach was to be the best officer he could be.”

After the war, he came back to school at the University of Iowa, obtaining his Ph.D. Though John says his Dad expected to stay just long enough to get a degree and go somewhere else, he accepted a position as professor of Educational Psychology and Measurement in 1949 and he and his wife, Wilfreda, put down deep roots in the Iowa City community, raising five children here.

Al eventually served as director of Iowa Basic Skills Testing Programs and chief editor of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills until 1987 when he retired to his family, friends, and his love of gardening for the next 20 years. During those decades, they had literally hundreds of colleagues, former students, and neighbors visit their property. Al was involved with countless charities and he and his wife helped create Project GREEN. He had 17 grandchildren at the time he passed away.

Though Al would be honored and happy to know of the gift to the college in his name, Sally says he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to make a fuss about it or formally recognize him. Knowing that it was helping students would be gift enough, his family says.

While it has been many years since Al walked the halls of the College of Education, his impact will reverberate for generations to come. The family gift in his name will ensure students continue to have access to educational opportunities, fueling future innovations in education.

“It’s something that will always be needed, no matter how many machines we have and no matter how many iPads, we’re always going to have to be an educated population,” Sally says, “and whatever we can do to further that, the better off we’ll all be…Helping people, especially students, was always his priority.”

IMRF pledges major renovation gift in Hieronymus’ honor

In honor of Al Hieronymus’ contributions to the college and to Iowa Testing Programs, the Iowa Measurement Research Foundation (IMRF) has pledged a donation to assist the college’s upcoming renovation projects.

In addition to the many accomplishments noted in the family story, Hieronymus was instrumental in establishing IMRF, which was founded in 1970 to advance and extend knowledge and practice in the field of educational measurement. This is accomplished by providing financial assistance to the University of Iowa, the College of Education, and Iowa Testing Programs. The IMRF continues to actively support students, staff, and faculty in the college.


Read more from our 2019-2020 alumni magazine