Just like that cool upperclassman in high school, Russ Motta, Campus Security celebrity, “harasses,” so he says, his underclassmen as though inducting us into the in-crowd. His smile reaches all the way to his warm brown eyes and is never broader than when he joins a group of students in the dining hall.
In fact, Russ himself is the in-crowd: since 1998, Russ has become not only the guardian of absentminded or misguided students, but also of Grinnell lore. In a sense, he is the epitome of Grinnell cool: deeply engaged and engaging and a walking encyclopedia of quirky facts.
For instance, did you know that one young Grinnellian skipped out on Harvard Law School to join the British Army during WWI, pretending to be Canadian, then retired in Tahiti where he wrote the “Great American Novel,” Mutiny on the Bounty? Russ does.
He recalled these stories in enthusiastic, voluble sentences that grew around him as he spoke. From the Spencer Grill, he transported us back to his first Grinnell job at the Burling circulation desk, where he discovered his “favorite place in all theworld,” Burling’s Iowa Room (which houses Grinnell’s collection of student and alumni publications).
Indeed, this is how he knows us. Not by our misadventures, but by our achievements. With a polite but hearty laugh, Russ avoided questions about the debauchery usually associated with security calls. If anything, he finds our less admirable quirks amusing. When “North Dakota” walked past the table, he simultaneously teased her about her boy problems and praised her cure for cancer as if she had already discovered it. He lingered cheerily at an SA’s study break after re-opening her locked door for the fourth time this semester.
“The thing you’ve got to remember is that it’s a small school; almost everyone locks themselves out of their rooms or their car, or needs their car jumped,” he said.
Those acts make up “99.9 percent of the interaction security has with students,” and Russ focuses his job on those contacts.
Yes, Russ has seen many at their less-than-positive extremes, but the topic he returns to time and time again is the greatness he expects from every Grinnell student. Ten minutes into the interview, he had convinced me to dedicate my “Great American Novel” to him. Wait—what novel? In Russ’ mind, every student may one day contribute to the Iowa Room—that shrine that he finds “just so cool.”
So next time you see Russ patrolling the Dining Hall with a mug in his hand and a mischievous expression, wave him over. Once he’s finished teasing you, ask him something. Ask him about the six hundred mating pairs of puffins that now inhabit an island off of Maine due to the efforts of one undergraduate with support from Robert Noyce ’49.
Then, as you write your novel or work to cure cancer, think of Russ Motta, the security officer who harassed and carried you through these rough four years, never doubting that who you were and what you would accomplish was “just so cool, it’s not even funny.”