Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 1996 | Features

Song Sung True

By Carol Harker

A song is being heard on the Iowa campus. This is no fight song to build excitement at sporting events, no snappy march or rhythmic rap chant. This is a little hymn, a melodic toast to the University of Iowa and to the lifelong relationship alumni share with their alma mater.

For more than 30 years, the Old Gold Singers have been performing "Alma Mater, Iowa"—also known as "The Hawkeye Hymn"—and in recent times they've been singing it while signing the words for the hearing impaired. The presentation is a powerful one, just as it must have been back in the early 1960s, when [opera singer] Simon Estes was a member of the troupe and the song was introduced at a Dad's Day Luncheon in November 1961.

But the story behind the haunting melody and gentle words goes back to 1943, when a 21-year-old electrical engineering student from Iowa was riding a troop train to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Like many other young men across the country, Gene Mills was going off to war, his education interrupted by the imperative of service to his country.

Sitting on that troop train as it rumbled across the landscape, Mills says he must have been thinking of the University of Iowa as he listened to the sounds around him—the steady hum of the wheels on the track and the cadenced clicking as they crossed the joints in the rails—because suddenly a song came into his head.

"I heard the song completely," Mills recalled this summer. "I didn't consciously want to compose a song."

Even more surprisingly, Mills remembered the song, hearing it in his mind for almost 20 years before he wrote it down.

A televised Hawkeye game in 1960—when Iowa played Ohio State at Homecoming—prompted him to put his music and lyrics on paper and to send it to the UI Alumni Association. Mills had been chagrined to hear a halftime rendition of "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms" passed off as Iowa's alma mater. Yes, the tune carried the words to "Old Gold" ("Oh, Iowa, calm and secure on they hill."), but Mills thought his song was better.

Alumni Director Loren Hickerson agreed, and he wrote to ask Mills if he would give the UI the rights to his music. Mills said yes. Soon, the Old Gold Singers adopted Mills' song—the tune he called "The Iowa Alumni Song"—as a signature piece in their repertoire.

A retired electrical engineer in Houston, Texas, Gene Mills, 47BSEE, can hear Iowa students perform the words and music that he composed in 1943 at any time, just by turning on his computer.