Roy Grow’s wisdom on achieving a fulfilled life was handed down from one Carleton College student to the next over the decades.
“Love, adventure, money,” he said. And money, he always added, was the least important of the three.
This week Grow’s former students from all over the globe posted Facebook photos of themselves in backpacks to honor the professor who inspired them to explore the world both in person and in the classroom.
Grow, a China scholar and Carleton professor for 33 years, died June 16 of melanoma. He was 71.
His own first adventure — the defining experience of his life — was largely accidental, said his wife, Mary Lewis Grow. In the 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, he dropped out of college because he was about to flunk Spanish; he was dyslexic. The U.S. Army offered him a deal: If he signed up voluntarily instead of being drafted, they would assign him to intelligence work and send him to language school.
“I think the three choices were Arabic, Burmese or Chinese,” she recalled. He chose Chinese and found, surprisingly, that he had an aptitude for it. The Army sent him to Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and other countries as an intelligence analyst. He described himself as a “fly on the wall,” a kid allowed to listen in on history.
At one point he was sent to the jungles of Vietnam to eavesdrop on communications between the Chinese government and the Viet Cong. The Americans were convinced that the Viet Cong “were puppets of the Chinese,” Grow said. “But he never picked any of that up.” Each of his reports saying so were stamped “rejected” and sent back, she said.
Grow came back to Michigan, where he grew up, and returned to college to study political science at the University of Michigan.
“You don’t look at being drafted in the Army as a boon,” she said. “But the Army gave him his focus.”
The antiwar movement was in full swing, especially at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. That made it difficult for him to be there, she said, because he was himself conflicted about the war. He had witnessed the politics first hand, but also had friends who’d died in Vietnam. He had been wounded himself.
But he loved Ann Arbor, a gracious university town, and he attended graduate school there, where he earned a Ph.D. in political science. For nine years he taught at Brandeis University in Boston, where he met Mary Lewis.
In 1979, he joined the faculty at Carleton College in Northfield, where he taught courses in Chinese politics, the Vietnam War, international relations, political economy, Marxist thought, insurgency and counter-insurgency movements and the history of terrorism.
But, Grow said, her husband believed that students could learn the most outside the classroom. Along with another professor, he launched a program to take students to China where they could experience the society for real. While other students went to art museums and other cultural sites, he took his students to factories and hospitals, and required them to talk to Chinese people on the job. They were there eight months after the Tiananmen Square student-led protests in 1989 where hundreds were killed.
Altogether, Grow took about 400 students to China over the years, and befriended many Chinese and other international students at Carleton attending college in a cold and foreign place.
His own research focused on international trade, and he was a frequent adviser to American companies. He was also a regular guest on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midday Program with Gary Eichten.
“He had great integrity, he was a kind and generous guy,” Eichten said. “It was a delight to have him on the program.”
His cancer was diagnosed in 2005; he had several operations, but continued to teach and travel. Then last year, Grow said, she began notice he was having difficulty with movement, and subsequent tests showed the cancer had spread to his brain. He refused more surgery because he wanted to finish teaching his last class on the Vietnam War — which he did.