Iowa State Namesake Passes Away

Carly Mckinney

Russell Gerdin, Iowa State University namesake, donor

and honorary alumnus, passed away on Friday, Oct. 14, but will not

soon be forgotten.

Born in Princeton, Minn., in 1941, Gerdin grew up

helping his father with his trucking company. As soon as he was old

enough, young Gerdin was assisting with washing trucks, and later

gained his license and began trucking. After graduating from high

school, Gerdin joined the U.S. Coast Guard, and later attended

Morehead State University, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in


Two years following his graduation from Morehead,

Gerdin married Ann Mikkelson, who would be his wife of 44 years.

Shortly after, Gerdin’s business career began. Through a series of

purchases and sales of trucking companies, Gerdin eventually ended

up purchasing Scott Transportation in Swisher, Iowa, in 1978. He

renamed the company Heartland Express, which became an extremely

successful business. 

Before the couple ever experienced great business and

financial success, Gerdin and Ann decided that if they were ever to

earn a great deal of money, they would donate much of it, 50

percent going to education and the other 50 percent to wildlife

programs. Dr. Ben Allen, current president of the University of

Northern Iowa and longtime friend of Gerdin, said Russ “always had

a strong interest in education.”

Later, Gerdin moved more toward education and health

care assistance, and has made a great impact on both areas of need

right here in Iowa. Within his own company, Gerdin set up an

educational trust fund to help educate the children of his

employees. The fund has already helped to assist over 300


In Iowa City, the couple donated $4 million dollars

to the Hope Lodge, a center for cancer patients and their

caregivers. The Gerdins have also assisted in education in Iowa

City. The University of Iowa also claims Gerdin as a namesake on

their Gerdin Athletic Learning Center, and the couple donated $5

million in sports scholarships to the university. Gerdin has also

assisted his alma mater. Morehead State University claims Gerdin as

a namesake on their Gerdin Wellness Center, which the Gerdins

assisted in funding.

At Iowa State, the Gerdins also have made numerous

contributions. After meeting Allen, previous vice president of

academic affairs here at Iowa State, Gerdin served on the Dean’s

Advisory Council. Allen believes Gerdin’s time on the council made

Gerdin aware of the needs for a new facility for the business

department. Referring to Gerdin as an “extraordinary business

person,” Allen requested in 1998 that Gerdin donate money to the

College of Business since Gerdin had the resources to donate.

The Gerdins made the decision to donate $10 million

to the cause relatively quickly. Allen believes Gerdin saw good

things happening within the business program here at Iowa State and

that aided the decision. Gerdin agreed to donate the money on some

conditions, however, and his donation began a $35.5 million


The university would be expected to raise a certain

amount of money following the initial donation.

“I‘m sure that’s where many of the other name spaces

in Gerdin come from,” said Dan Ryan, program coordinator for the

College of Business.

Money from the state was also used in the funding of

the Gerdin Business Building, which was finished in 2004.

Why did this man, not even from Iowa, decide to

donate all of this time and money to Iowa State?

“He wanted to help the kids of Iowa,” Allen said. “He

was just a good person.” 

When asked to put his name on the building, Gerdin

was reluctant. He wished to remain anonymous in his donation

because he did not want to take credit for the money which his

employees helped him to earn. He was asked to put his name of large

stature on the building to attract more donors to support the

building initiative. Because of the positive effect their name

would have, the Gerdins agreed to have the building named after


The business building was only one of many donations

the Gerdins have made to Iowa State. Later, the couple would donate

$100,000 to both the Citizenship Program and Cyclone Athletics. $1

million was given to the first doctoral program for the College of

Business. Both Gerdin and Ann later became honorary ISU alumni.

Allen says Gerdin had the firm belief that “it’s not who we are,

but what we do and what we believe.”

Gerdin became very close with many of the people he

served, especially Labh Hira, dean of the College of Business, who

was unavailable for comment.

But how can a business man of such stature keep such

close personal relationships with his colleagues?

“He didn’t separate the two,” Allen said. He was a

tough business person but would tell you exactly how he felt.

Everybody knew exactly where he stood, which led to Gerdin and

Allen becoming closer when expressing their feelings.

Allen described Gerdin as “bigger than life.” He

worked hard, enjoyed life, was a great people’s person, was

“compassionate and passionate,” and was a loyal friend.

“When he met a person and liked a person, you became

a friend for life,” Allen said.

Gerdin pushed that he was “just an old trucker.”

While a leader in the trucking industry, Gerdin cared

deeply about his family. Upon Gerdin’s retirement on September 2

due to his liver cancer, his son Michael took over as CEO and

President of Heartland Express. Gerdin spent most of his last days

at his company and with his family. “Smart, wise, and

kind-hearted,” as Allen described him, this old trucker managed to

make an impact on more students, faculty and business people than

he could ever imagine. He passed away at the age of 70 in his home

with his family by his side.