The Des Moines Register
GRINNELL, Iowa (AP) — When Grinnell College's new president Raynard Kington bikes over to the Danish Maid Bakery a few blocks off campus, he doesn't play the VIP card.
He doesn't mention the medical degree he earned at 21 or his centuries-old vacation home in Crete. He doesn't point out his directorship at the National Institutes of Health, where he had to figure out how to spend $10 billion of federal stimulus money.
“Oh, gosh, I wouldn't have wanted that job,” bakery owner Suzi Hansen said, clearly surprised.
Nope, he's just one of the regulars, here for a glazed doughnut (80 cents), a twist ($1) or a few cookies for his two sons, whom he adopted with his partner, Peter Daniolos.
But word spreads quickly in a small town and the more locals learn about the man who moved his family into the president's house this summer, the more they say they like him.
“This guy is just amazing,” said Saints Rest coffee shop owner Jeff Phelps, who grew up in Grinnell and graduated from the college in 1973. “One of the things we've needed is someone who can help re-establish good relations between the town and the college and he's really made himself available to the community. He's a great communicator and he really, truly, seems to enjoy being in a small town.”
Kington's first trip to Iowa, however, did not begin well. He and his family had flown to Florida for a few days in February to see a space-shuttle launch.
From there, he planned to fly directly to Des Moines for interviews with the college's search committee while partner Daniolos took the kids back home to Washington.
But the blizzard that walloped the East Coast changed their plans. Flights to D.C. were either postponed or canceled, so the family flew to Iowa together.
Their luggage did not. “We arrived in Des Moines with a cranky 4-year-old and a cranky 1-year-old and nothing but the Florida clothing on our backs,” Kington, 50, said.
He dropped off Daniolos and the kids at a downtown hotel and made a late-night trip to Walmart for diapers, formula and something to wear to the interview the next morning.
Whatever he found, it worked. The board of trustees unanimously chose him, out of more than 200 candidates, to become the school's 13th president.
“Dr. Kington is really a remarkable individual,” said search committee chairman Paul Risser, a former president of both Oregon State University and Miami University in Ohio. “Just his presence and stature will be important not only for Grinnell but the whole state. … I think Iowa will be very proud.”
The installation of a black, gay man to lead one of the state's top colleges would have raised eyebrows in Iowa not so long ago. Kington himself said as much in a speech on campus shortly after accepting the job.
“I feel compelled to acknowledge the special pride I feel as the great-grandson of slaves to be here today at this institution whose founders were active participants in our country's abolitionist movement,” he said in the address, which the college posted to YouTube.
A framed issue of the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator hangs in his office to remind him, he said, “that change may require great courage and creativity, rigorous thinking, hard work and significant sacrifice, but it can occur.”
The world changed dramatically for Kington's maternal great-grandparents in northeast Texas. As slaves, they taught themselves to read and write when it was still illegal to do so. They received a plot of land from their former owner after the Civil War and, in a single generation, pulled themselves into the middle class.
On the other side of the family, Kington's Jamaican father boarded a ship for Ellis Island in 1924, went to medical school and became a doctor in Baltimore, where Kington grew up. “Early on, it became clear to me that education meant something to me,” he said.
By a fluke of the calendar — he was born in July — he started kindergarten at the age of 4. He condensed grades 7, 8 and 9 into just two years and enrolled in a fast-track high school program that encouraged him to start college early.
He entered the University of Michigan at 16, polished off a medical degree by 21 and earned both an M.B.A. and a doctorate in health policy and economics at the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School a few years later.
His research on how social factors such as race and income affect long-term health distinguished his work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the RAND Corp. and, most recently, the National Institutes of Health, where he held leadership roles for the last 10 years.
But until now, he never spent much time at a liberal arts school like Grinnell.
“It's a new world to me in a lot of ways,'' he said.
Daniolos and Kington were married two years ago in Massachusetts. The Iowa Supreme Court's decision to recognize same-sex marriages wasn't a big factor in their decision to move here but it didn't hurt and the recent ouster of three of the court's justices hasn't changed their opinions.
“If anything, our experiences to date have reinforced our expectation that Iowa is full of open-minded and fair people,” Kington wrote in a recent e-mail.
Even so, many of the couple's East Coast friends and colleagues were stunned when they announced their move to Iowa last spring.
“People would have been less surprised if I had said Dakar,” Kington said, referring to the capital of the African nation Senegal.
Two parts of Kington's tenure at the NIH prepared him particularly well for his new job: He presided over an ethics scandal and, also, had to decide, in a hurry, what to do with an extra $10 billion in federal grants.
First, the scandal: The Los Angeles Times broke a story in 2004 about a handful of NIH scientists who were quietly working on the side for pharmaceutical companies. In some cases, they made recommendations in the name of NIH — about, for example, the best pills to reduce cholesterol — while receiving consulting fees from the very companies that made those pills.
As the NIH's chief ethics officer, Kington got pulled in different directions by Congress, the Bush administration and NIH scientists in what turned out to be a lesson in leadership: Get the facts first. Don't take things personally. Make trade-offs “but never compromise core values,” he said in a characteristically measured tone. “At NIH, credibility was part of our core, so we made decisions to protect that.”
Later, as the NIH's acting director, Kington learned he would have just nine months to spend the $10 billion stimulus, on top of NIH's $30 billion annual budget. He gathered advisers, sent out a call for grant applications and divvied out the funds accordingly, with tighter than usual guidelines to minimize risk.
“It was a huge responsibility in a ridiculously short timetable,” current NIH director Francis Collins said. “I wouldn't say he failed to break a sweat but he certainly has a lot of stamina. He was reasonably unflappable in almost every instance.”
Now finishing his first semester at Grinnell, Kington hopes to attract a broader pool of applicants, rethink what a library should be in the 21st century and tap into the school's network of alumni, like two he bumped into in Washington after he accepted the new job.
One, a runner in Grinnell shorts, stopped him on the sidewalk to offer congratulations.
Another, a woman at his old church, the All Souls Unitarian congregation near the National Zoo, told him: “You know, you look just like the guy who's going to be the president of my alma mater.”
He took it as a good sign — one of many, in fact, that helped make the transition that started with a blizzard a little easier.
He recently took Emerson and Basil (pronounced the Greek way: “ba-SEEL'') over to the coffee shop to hear a local blues band's monthly jam session. The kids were antsy at first but quickly settled in.
“He figured they'd probably have to leave after a few minutes,” owner Phelps said. “They stayed for the whole show.”
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com.
Jim Heemstral/www.Grinnell.edu. At the Helm: Raynard Kington is finishing his first semester as president of Grinnell College in Iowa.