Skip navigation

You are here

Walbran finishes where his Grandmother started

Author: 
Sue Dieter
Publication date: 
July 15, 2022

When Joe Walbran ‘22 walked across the stage during the commencement ceremonies at the University of Minnesota Morris this past spring, he was part of a 62-year-old legacy stretching all the way back to the very first days of the college.  

black and white photo of a young woman wearing glasses with her hair pulled back Walbran’s grandmother, Mary Vogel Kowles, was the first student to enroll at UMN Morris. 

Kowles heard from her high school's home-ec teacher that the West Central School of Agriculture in Morris was being converted into a University of Minnesota campus, and her history teacher, Margaret Halvorson, encouraged her to apply as early as possible. 

The 1961 campus yearbook, ‘The Venture,’ notes:  "Mary Vogel, pretty co-ed from Henning, Minnesota; The first to enroll in the University, Mary officially opened the school for business."

Kowles started classes at Morris in the fall of 1960 and lived in Camden Hall, which was a dormitory at that time. 

English professor James Gremmels was her adviser. Additionally, she sometimes babysat for the Gremmels children. She remembers the Gremmels having a very cool house in Glenwood. It was a modern building, in the shape of two cubes, with a walkway connecting them. Prof. Gremmels lived in one cube, and his parents lived in the other cube. 

Kowles’ undergraduate education included two breaks. The first was during her junior year (1963-64), when she spent part of the year working in the Twin Cities, before returning to Morris to finish out the school year. Then in 1964, she took a longer break to marry John Kowles, an electrical engineer. 

After their wedding, the couple moved to Minneapolis and started a family. In the late 60s, Kowles worked to finish her education, taking summer classes and night classes at the Twin Cities campus.  Kowles earned a degree in English literature, with a minor in psychology.  

In 1970, Kowles returned to the Morris campus for her college graduation. Her oldest child, Matt, who would have been five at the time, attended the ceremony while her younger children, Teresa and Regina (Joe’s mother), stayed with their grandparents in Henning. Kowles remembers that Matt wore a cool bow tie for the occasion. Kowles welcomed a fourth child, Adam, after her college graduation.  

However, Kowles’ history with the campus did not influence her grandson’s decision to attend UMN Morris. In fact, Walbran had no idea of his grandmother’s place in the campus history until after he applied.   

A woman with white hair, with glasses, wearing a black sweater

“I grew up in the Twin Cities, and the University of Minnesota has always been a big cultural force around here. Everyone I know in Saint Paul passes through the University at some point or another—either for medical care at the hospital, or to see plays at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, or to buy food from the Meat Science Laboratory, or to visit the birds at the Raptor Center. 

“So, when I wanted to go to a liberal arts school, Morris felt familiar and comfortable. For my entire life, I had seen the University of Minnesota be a good neighbor to the community, and I didn't doubt that they would be just as solid in Morris as they were in the metro area.”  

In addition to UMN Morris, Walbran considered Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline, and UMN Twin Cities. 

As it turns out, Walbran’s experience at Morris lived up to his expectations, providing engaging and uncommon experiences on his way to earning a degree in computer science and mathematics.   

Walbran was named a scholar of the college, graduating with high distinction and with honors.  He worked with Associate Professor of Computer Science K.K. Lamberty on educational materials for a project funded by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). In this work, he contributed significantly to the development of an augmented reality participatory simulation that allows for either in person or remote learning for children to help them understand more about native bees and flowers in West Central Minnesota. Additionally, he  is a co-author on a publication about this work, Pandemic Pivot: Designing a Participatory Simulation to Support Social Distancing and Remote Learning, that was presented at Interactive Design and Children (IDC) 2021, an international conference which was held virtually in 2021.

Walbran was also able to complete an internship between his junior and senior year with a web-infrastructure company called VMware.  He’ll be returning to work fulltime with the San Francisco Bay area company later this summer.  

Asked to name a class that made an impact, Walbran cited a computer science class called ‘Software Design and Development.’ 

“It's like no class I've ever taken before—frenetic, but a ton of fun. Students are divided into a few groups, who work together to build a web app. Then, every few weeks, students are shuffled around between groups—they have to pick up somebody else's project, and work on it as if it were their own. It was an incredibly useful lesson in teamwork and communication.”

Walbran found support among the campus staff as well as the faculty. “Ann Kolden is amazing. The Science and Math division is a busy, frenetic place on the best of days, and she keeps it all running smoothly like it's nothing.”

Walbran appreciated the wide range of experiences available at Morris. “The university choir was especially fun! There were a few semesters where the choir was a mix of community members, professors, and students, and I got to chat with a lot of people I wouldn't have met otherwise.”  

The COVID pandemic impacted Walbran’s college experience, which made him appreciate the return of social events on campus for his senior year.   

“I was able to attend the drag show this past year and really had fun there. Many of my friends either helped organize the event or performed in it, and it was really cool seeing what they had put together! The show had a really energetic audience, too — everyone was cheering and shouting.”

Three people standing togetherThe family legacy includes Walbran’s younger brother, John, who joined his brother at Morris for this past year and will be starting his sophomore year in the fall. 

The two recently visited with their grandmother about Morris. Kowles hasn’t visited Morris for some time, but was delighted to learn that Louie’s Lower Level is still part of the campus. Louie’s Lower Level was located in the basement of the dining hall (now Behmler hall) when Kowles was a student and has been part of the campus in one form or another ever since.     

Walbran offers this advice to new students:  “Go to the movie theater! They usually have something interesting showing. But besides that, it's just a beautiful old building, and the walk there from campus is really pleasant.”