Celebrating 50 Years - 1966-2016 - #IowaLakes50Years

50 years of history

Iowa Lakes Community College: Endless Possibilities

The picturesque Iowa Great Lakes region provides the setting for Iowa Lakes Community College. The college is located in the heart of the northwest quadrant of the state of Iowa and encompasses the counties of Clay, Dickinson, Emmet, Kossuth, and Palo Alto.  This region is home to the famous Lake Okoboji, one of only three blue water lakes on the planet and the only blue water lake in the United States (Iowa Great Lakes Association, 2014).  Opportunities for work and recreation in this area are unlimited, and Iowa Lakes Community College prides itself on being an innovative institution that is responsive to the needs of local communities.

The 1960s: Laying Foundations

Iowa’s community college system took root when a locally elected legislator, John P. (Jack) Kibbie, chaired the Education Committee for the House of Representatives. During his tenure in the House, Kibbie authored the bill to create Iowa Community Colleges.

“The best thing we ever did with this bill was to marry the Arts and Sciences with the Vocational Education programs,” Kibbie (2014) reflected as he looked back on the landmark legislation. “The states that did not do this continue to struggle because of that decision today.”

Kibbie, a resident of Palo Alto County, floor managed the legislation in 1966.  He has remained a steadfast supporter of Iowa Community Colleges and is often referred to as the “Father of Iowa Community Colleges.”

After the foundation of the community college system, the Iowa State Board of Education selected campus sites in each area.  Merged Area III, however, was an exception.  The state allowed this particular area’s Board of Directors to choose the location for a main campus.  Selecting this location proved challenging as board members and community leaders alike battled for the honor.  Dr. James Coffey (1994), a member of the original Area III Board of Directors, elaborated on the issues that played into the Board’s decision:

Each city in the five-county area, openly or secretly, hoped to be named the site for the new institution. The new college meant more than added educational opportunities; to the lucky city [which] obtained it, the school meant more jobs and more business than most industries could provide. Each Board member was aware of the competing economic interests in the area and the public seemed more concerned with these conflicts than with the educational needs of our people.

In the end, the Board agreed upon two main campuses: Emmetsburg for the vocational technical programming and Estherville for the arts and sciences programming. These campuses were initially housed in what had previously been junior college facilities in each community. The only caveat included in the two-campus decision was that the administrative offices should be located in Estherville.

Iowa Lakes Community College was officially recognized by the Department of Education in October of 1966.  However, the first organizational meeting of the newly formed Board of Directors for Merged Area III wasn’t held until January, 1967, following elections.

The first college president was Doyle Carpenter, who served from 1967 to 1968.  The following two years, the presidency was filled by Edwin Cramer.

The 1970s: Establishing Programs

Iowa Lakes’ third college president, Richard Blacker, oversaw the development and establishment of programs at Iowa Lakes from 1971 until his retirement in 1993.  The two main campuses opened in the early 70s following the purchase of the land in the late 60s.  True to the plan, the Emmetsburg campus featured traditional vocational technical programming such as Automotive Technology, Collision Repair, Construction, Welding, and Small Engine Mechanics. Secretarial programming and nursing education were also adopted.  The Estherville campus featured the arts and sciences curriculum, along with a technical business education option.  Key cornerstone career and technical programs on this campus included Environmental Studies, Criminal Justice, Accounting, and Business Administration.   Athletic programs such as football, men’s basketball, and baseball were also instituted during the college’s first decade.

In the late 70s, the Iowa Lakes Foundation purchased a 360-acre farm to serve as a lab for the college’s agricultural programs.  Once a stop for the Pony Express, the farm supported dairy, swine, and cattle herds and also produced crops.  This farm acquisition exceeded the number of acres that the college could own, so the College Foundation rented the ground to the college.  After a change in the Iowa code, the Foundation deeded the farm to the college.  Today, the original farmhouse still stands on that property.  However, many changes have occurred in the working facilities and buildings.  One change was the decision to remove the dairy herd, a decision that was made in the 1980s.

The 1970s also saw the establishment of Iowa Lakes’ Aviation program, which is currently housed at the Estherville Municipal Airport.  At the airport, the college owns a hangar and a facility housing a classroom, airplane simulation equipment, and offices.  The Aviation program has grown through the decades to include additional aircraft including multiple single engine traditional training aircraft and twin engine aircraft.  This variety allows the program to provide multiple flight ratings and licenses.

The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, funded by a grant from the Corporation for National & Community Service, was instituted in Clay and Emmet counties to offer a range of volunteer opportunities and create a positive impact in regional communities.

The 1980s: Technology and Expansion

Like many other educational institutions, the 1980s featured the adoption of new technology for Iowa Lakes.  The college integrated desktop computers, mediated classrooms, fax machines, and copy machines into its daily functions. Demonstrating its commitment to innovative and visionary programming, Iowa Lakes was the second community college in the state to build an Instructional Television Fixed System (ITFS) in 1982.  This system provided interactive television access to five college sites and 14 secondary schools.  Out of the growth of technology came the advent of the Iowa Lakes Computer Center along with the Area III & IV Computer Consortium and teaching labs.

As Iowa Lakes experienced a steady increase in both full-time and part-time student headcount and credit hours, new campuses and facilities became a necessity.  The college established campuses in Algona, Spencer and Spirit Lake in the 80s. On the Estherville campus, new facilities included the Career Options building, the airport classroom, additional housing and Printing Services.  New academic offerings on this campuses included Television Broadcasting, Graphic Design and Computer Aided Drafting and Design. On the Emmetsburg campus, new farm lab equipment was purchased and the Career Orientation and Special Needs centers were opened.

In the realm of academics and programming, Iowa Lakes was expanding and pursuing opportunities to better serve its communities.  In 1985, Iowa Lakes became the first Iowa community college to mandate entrance assessment and placement for all new students.  These tools paved the way for increased student success as well as improved retention and higher enrollments at all campus locations.

Grant funding through the U.S. Department of Education also allowed the college to institute TRIO, Carl D. Perkins Vocational-Technical, Tech Prep Education, and Title III programs to support program development and the success of students from a wide range of backgrounds.  The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program expanded to Palo Alto and Dickinson counties in 1980 and to Kossuth County in 1989.  In addition, the college further developed and increased its already strong workforce training and continuing education presence in the region.

The 1990s: Growing Within Communities

During the 1990s, the college’s continued growth focused specifically on marketing and facility improvement and expansion.  A new college president, Jim Billings, led this movement from 1994 until his retirement in 2001.  President Billings was remarkable for his commitment to lead by example and for valuing accountability and responsibility.  One of his first orders of business was to develop consistent branding and elevating the college’s public image as a professional institution of higher learning.   He also condensed the College Foundations office with alumni and scholarship programming into a centralized Institutional Advancement office.

As demand for the college’s services continued to grow, Iowa Lakes found new ways to meet the communities’ needs.  Iowa Lakes was one of the first community colleges in Iowa to connect to the statewide Iowa Communications Network (ICN) system.  The ICN complemented the college's own internal television system by allowing individuals to take college classes from anywhere within the state of Iowa.  The college also secured funding through Iowa Economic Development to implement the Accelerated Career Education (ACE) program.  This program allowed the college to respond to enrollment growth by expanding facilities in the areas of welding, agriculture, nursing, and workforce training.

An opportunity to expand academic offerings in the area of Allied Health occurred when Iowa Lakes purchased programs from the former Spencer College, a private institution, and located those programs at the Spencer campus.

The 1990s brought new state legislation which supported concurrent enrollment, offering Iowa Lakes yet another way to serve its citizens and communities.  Iowa Lakes established its Secondary Programs office to support students and instructors in this venture.  Concurrent enrollment allowed high school students early career exploration and the ability to earn high school and college credit. This enabled them to complete a high school diploma while beginning their college journey early. As partnerships with area secondary schools expanded, Alternative High Schools were hosted on Iowa Lakes’ campuses starting in 1992.

During the 1990s, the Emmetsburg campus became host to several significant community partnerships.  The first involved the addition of the Arthur and Audrey Smith Wellness Center that offered the community the benefits of a year-round swimming pool and fitness center.  The second involved a merger between the college library and the Emmetsburg Public Library.  Both sets of employees had to learn new skills to better serve the public: college staff members learned to use the Dewey Decimal System and the public library staff learned to use the Library of Congress numbering system. The Smith Wellness Center and the newly merged libraries opened in 1997 allowing for expanded wellness options – both for the body and the brain.

The relocation of the college library allowed the nursing program to be centralized in what eventually was named the Dr. Jim Coffey Hall on the Emmetsburg campus.   At the same time, in 1998, the Board of Trustees formally recognized contributions made by Senator John P. (Jack) Kibbie by naming the main campus hall and offices in Emmetsburg in his honor.

New Millennium: Reaching New Heights

The new millennium reshaped the landscape of Iowa Lakes and propelled the college to new heights.  On the technology front, seven Iowa community colleges banded together in 2001 to create the Iowa Community College Online Consortium (ICCOC).  Conceived as a grant project, the ICCOC has served thousands of students and is now used as a sustainable model for other online learning consortia.  This consortium serves the college’s mission by expanding access to education worldwide.

In 2002, Dr. Mike Hupfer became the college’s new president.  Under his leadership, the college reached for the sky in 2004 when it commenced its nationally renowned Wind Energy and Turbine Technology program.  Utilizing an actual wind turbine that went online on February 14, 2005, the college’s wind energy program was featured in a national Duracell commercial which debuted Jan. 1, 2010. Leaders of the program also established the Iowa Wind Energy Association (IWEA). In 2011, the wind energy program became one of the first recipients of the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) Seal of Approval, a coveted award that recognizes prestigious wind energy educational programs in the United States.

College programs and facilities continued to grow throughout this decade. A Massage Therapy program began in Spencer in January of 2004 and then expanded to Algona. Another Allied Health program which responded to industry needs was the Surgical Technology program which is also based at the Spencer campus.   In 2004, the college renovated its food service facilities and created the MAX, a dining and congregation area in the hub of the Estherville campus. Named after Max Pelzer, a local attorney and strong college supporter, the MAX also serves as the meeting place for the Student Senate.  In 2005, Iowa Lakes was the first college to acquire a Cirrus SR20 aircraft for its Aviation program.  The Cirrus SR20 is one of the most advanced single-engine aircraft in the world, featuring state-of-the-art electronic technology, a glass cockpit, and a safety parachute.  This aircraft’s modern construction and features complemented the program’s growing fleet.

In 2006, Harold Prior was elected the new president of Iowa Lakes.  Prior had been employed previously as an area school superintendent, and he had worked closely with Iowa Lakes in that role.  When he became president, he pushed the college toward new heights in athletics.

Since 2000, the college welcomed wrestling, swimming, soccer, cheer, and dance as competitive sports.  With the expansion of athletic opportunities, the number of student athletes increased from 75 in 2000 to over 300 in 2013.

In 2009, the college celebrated some important firsts.  Valerie Newhouse was named the seventh college president and the first female president, and Janice Lund was named the first female president of the Board.  Trustee Lund also held the honor of being one of the first females elected to the Board in 1993. During her tenure as the President of the Board, she served on the Iowa Association of Community College Trustees Board and chaired that organization from 2012 to 2013. Lund also played an active role with the American Association of Community College Trustees organization, serving on multiple committees. Lund was awarded the prestigious Jack Kibbie Award for Outstanding Trustee in July 2010 awarded by the Iowa Association of Community College Trustees.

2010: Innovating Energy

The current decade began by honoring two people who founded and shaped Iowa Lakes Community College.  The first, Jack Tatman, was a veteran board member who served on the college’s Board of Trustees for 42 years starting with the college’s inception in 1967.  In 2010, the college named the Spirit Lake facility the Jack Doren Tatman Center in his honor.  The second, Senator Jack Kibbie (Ret.), was the Emmetsburg resident and state legislator who authored the Iowa Code that made the Iowa community college system possible.  Senator Kibbie had also served on the Iowa Lakes Community College Board of Trustees. In honor of Senator Kibbie’s retirement in 2012, the college created the John P. “Jack” Kibbie Outstanding Service Award which recognizes exceptional college students for their achievements and service.

In 2011, the college established its Veterinary Technician program at the Emmetsburg campus.  In order to provide students with the best learning opportunities, the college renovated an existing structure into a modern vet-tech facility that includes advanced animal surgery equipment, classrooms, labs, and kennels. The facility received certification by the United States Department of Agriculture and accreditation by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2013.

Perhaps the most widespread current development at the college has been a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education and an expansion of sustainable energy programs.  This trend began with several grants from the National Science Foundation that provided valuable resources to the college and its students pursuing STEM-related programs.  As a result of these grants, college faculty and students have presented at national and regional National Science Foundation conferences.  Additionally, the college was named as a Bellwether Award finalist in 2006 for its innovative Wind Energy program and practices that are successfully leading community college education into the future.

In 2012, Governor Branstad named Iowa Lakes Community College as the regional STEM Hub of northwest Iowa. As a result of this honor, the college coordinated and provided STEM-related programming to educational institutions and non-profit organizations throughout the northwest Iowa region. Moreover, the college hosted two FIRST LEGO League regional qualifier events. In September 2013, the college achieved a Guinness Book of World Records title for conducting the largest practical science lesson in the world. (Guinness World Records, 2013)

The state and regional emphasis on STEM careers has led to a growing interest in ways to utilize emerging energy-efficient technology.  To address this growing interest, Iowa Lakes added Heating, Ventilation, & Air Conditioning Technology (HVAC) and Water Quality & Sustainable Aquatic Resources programming to its renewable energy curriculum in 2013.  The following year, programming for Electrical and Engineering Tech joined the energy technology suite of programs.  The growth of these programs was anticipated in 2010, when the college purchased a large, empty building adjacent to the Wind Energy and Turbine Technology facility in Estherville.  This building was renovated over several years and named the Sustainable Energy Resources and Technologies building.  In August of 2014, this facility became the new home of Iowa Lakes’ credit, non-credit, and industry training programming in renewable energy.

The Future of Iowa Lakes Community College

Over the last 50 years, Iowa Lakes Community College has grown and evolved as the community college system in Iowa has matured. Credit enrollments have steadily increased through student satisfaction, competitive pricing, and educational quality even as the number of traditional college-age students in the region has decreased.  The college, which began with just two campuses in Estherville and Emmetsburg, now has a campus in the economic center of each county it serves.  The college employs over 500 full- and part-time employees from the region, and it was recognized as one of the top 100 places to work in Iowa by the Des Moines Register in 2012.  As Iowa Lakes looks to the future, its decisions will be shaped by the same mission that has successfully guided it in the past: to provide opportunities for quality lifelong learning and promote economic development for our communities.


  1. Coffey, J. (1994, November 8). The birth of ILCC: A personal history. Unpublished manuscript, Iowa Lakes Community College, Estherville, IA.
  2. Guinness World Records, Records Management Team. (2013, October 4). Guinness World Records [E-mail to Tricia Morfitt].
  3. Iowa Great Lakes Association. (2014). Lake maps, sizes & depths. Retrieved September 29, 2014, from Iowa Great Lakes Association: Preserving a Balanced Environment website: https://iagreatlakes.com/
  4. Kibbie, J. P. (2014, July 23). [Personal interview by V. Newhouse].