Iowa State is known for many accomplishments. Less well documented is the fact that Iowa State possesses one of the oldest university cemeteries in the nation.
The first burial recorded in the university’s archives is that of Tom Lee Thompson, a member of Iowa State’s first graduating class of 1872. In the spring of 1875, Thompson died of pneumonia while employed as winter caretaker of the poorly heated Old Main. With no family to claim his remains, Thompson was buried near his alma mater, beneath a canopy of trees overlooking Clear Creek. The following year the Board of Trustees ordered that "five acres of land be surveyed under the direction of President Welch; that the same be set aside for the purposes of a College Cemetery and be transferred from the department of Horticulture and Forestry to the department of Ornamental Grounds."
In 1883 the grounds were fenced in at a cost of $75.00 to separate the cemetery from other college land. Construction in 1888 provided an access road running east from the entrance. This would later form a portion of Pammel Drive. The sum of $100.00 was provided in 1895 in order that "the cemetery be beautified, ornamented and thoroughly cared for."
The most obvious structural improvement on the grounds is the entrance gate. Action to create an attractive entry was initiated in 1915 by the Faculty Women’s Club (then known as the Priscilla Club). A donation of $55 from the Club, $50 from a friend and a letter to President Pearson resulted in the completion of a pair of sturdy brick pillars defining the entrance in 1918.
In 1936, eight acres of land between Hyland Avenue and the west end of the cemetery were transferred to the university by the Charles Olsan family. This family owned a nearby greenhouse from the turn of the century to the early 1950’s. Included on the deeded land were three family graves which became part of the University Cemetery.
Three improvements were made more recently. Wire farm fencing of unknown vintage extending along the south side was replaced in 1994 by a black, wrought iron fence. The 25 foot flag pole which commands the central area was presented by the Iowa State Retirees on May 31, 1999. A flag is flown on the day of a burial, on Memorial Day, other national holidays and significant occasions. In the spring of 2002, the retiree committee presented the gift of reconstructing the brick columns and the entrance gate.
The burial grounds presently cover 1.7 acres overlooking Clear Creek tucked away in the northwest corner of campus. It is nestled near the west end of Pammel Drive and north of the Town Engineering Building. You can view the cemetery’s location on the campus map. Maintenance and management are currently performed by Facilities Planning and Management.
Few, if any, other United States universities today have an official cemetery as extensive as Iowa State’s. A walk through the cemetery provides a snapshot of Iowa State’s history. Many of the names on the headstones are the same ones that denote buildings and streets on campus. Currently, there are more than 900 graves. Included among them are six university presidents; one acting president; numerous administrators, faculty, staff, their spouses and children; veterans of five wars; two students; and a beloved night watchman and his dog. It is a testament to their dedication to the university that so many staff have chosen to be near it in death. Read more about the noteworthy deceased buried in the Iowa State Cemetery.
The university Cemetery Committee oversees the administration of the cemetery. This group comprises three university administrators and one Iowa State Retiree Committee member. The committee meets as necessary to consider special burial requests and approve projects.