Iowa State creating biographical dictionary featuring hundreds of influential Cyclones

Allison Sheridan, Margaret Curry

Allison Sheridan, right, collections manager and Farm House Museum manager, and Margaret Curry, senior in journalism and mass communication, worked to compile biographies of the Cyclones who have left a mark on the world. Iowa State University is only the third university in the world to create its own biographical dictionary. Photo by Christopher Gannon. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa – University Museums is nearing the end of a massive effort to collect biographies of the Cyclones who have left a mark on the world. Iowa State University is only the third university in the world to create its own biographical dictionary.

The project was born several years ago after University Museums created a publication about the Morrill Act, including short biographies of influential alumni, faculty and staff.

“We thought, we shouldn’t lose this information,” said Allison Sheridan, collections manager and Farm House Museum manager. “It evolved into a book project.”

Typically, biographical dictionaries only include biographies of people who have died – in particular, people who have been dead for quite some time. That practice wouldn’t work for Iowa State’s biographical dictionary.

“You’d miss a good chunk of our 160-year history,” Sheridan said.

The book will include more than 550 biographies of transformative Iowa Staters. That’s narrowed down from hundreds upon hundreds of candidates reviewed by a small committee. To be included in the book, candidates had to meet certain criteria: they had to have made an international, state or local impact; and their ISU connection had to be exceptionally strong.

Each biography is about 1,000 words, including citations. University Museums sought out authors for each biography, which means that to date, the biographical dictionary has 275 authors. They include current staff, department heads who want to understand their predecessors, alumni, community members with a passion for ISU history and more.

“What’s so great about Iowa State is there are so many people who have done great things,” said Margaret Curry, a senior in journalism and mass communication from Robins who interned for University Museums and has conducted significant research for this book. “It’s not a complete document, either. It will keep living.”

From famous Cyclones to Cyclones you’ve never heard of

The book will include Cyclones you would expect: President Wendy Wintersteen, retired Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Warren Madden, former president William Beardshear (for whom Beardshear Hall is named) and many more.

But it also includes lesser-known characters who, in one way or another, left their mark on the university.

For example, did you submit a thesis at Iowa State between 1961 and 1991? Then it was reviewed by editor LaDena Bishop, whose red pen gave scores of graduate students anxiety. 

Betty Lou Varnum

In 1954, Betty Lou (McVay) Varnum went to work for WOI-TV,
which at the time was owned and operated by Iowa State University.
Within two days on the job, she took over as host of “The Magic
Window” and remained until its last episode in 1994. It became the
longest-running local children’s TV program in American history.
Photo courtesy of Special Collections/University Archives.

“My student experience is mine, so to see this evolution of what everyone’s ISU experience was has been amazing,” said Curry, who graduates next year.

University Museums has had help from the University Library’s Special Collections and University Archives – a “treasure trove,” Sheridan said – as well as Iowa historians, current faculty and staff and Leo Landis, museum curator for the State Historical Museum of Iowa. Another goal is for this work to augment the biographies already in Special Collections, or to create biographies for those who are missing.

The biographical dictionary is expected to be published in 2019, first in limited edition and then printed on demand. Volunteer to author one or more of the remaining 100 biographies by contacting Allison Sheridan at