Close up headshot of Coleen Grissom in front of her bookcase.
Live by the Word
Professor, author, and Trinity icon Coleen Grissom leaves behind legacy of wit, compassion, and transformation

Trinity’s foremost literary icon, former trailblazing dean of students and vice president for Student Affairs, and professor emerita of English, died January 28, 2024 after a brief illness. She had just celebrated her 90th birthday on January 9.

Her favorite book was E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, which teaches the importance of strong friendships and the realities of life and death. Her favorite color was blue, inspired by the big Texas sky. Her favorite spot? Right where she spent most of her time: in a rambling Hill Country house, surrounded by tall oaks and the sounds of birds and fountain water splashing, sitting beside her many dogs and cats.

And perhaps her favorite pastime? Passing on her knowledge of the power of language, even after an alleged retirement from Trinity University in 2019.

“I still find teaching Trinity students challenging, demanding, exhausting, sometimes frustrating, but almost always fun. And I feel like what I do does matter,” Grissom wrote in The World According to Coleen, one of her books. “With each passing year, perhaps the reason I don’t become nostalgic is that I am still doing what brings me the most joy.”

Grissom first came to Trinity in 1958 (just six years after the opening of the Skyline Campus) as head resident and counselor for the McFarlin dormitory complex. Grissom quickly became equal parts harbinger and usher of a series of new social paradigms for the students under her wing.

As she rose to the post of associate dean of Student Life (and concurrent assistant professor of English) under Trinity President James Laurie, then dean of students in 1972, Grissom’s steadfast advocacy for women on campus stood in bold juxtaposition to an outside world that still lagged behind in many social conventions and norms.

Starting in a world where “girls” did not leave campus without “hat, heels, hose, and gloves,” Grissom engineered a general dismantling of dual social standards for men and women on campus. Of particular note was Grissom’s dispatching of “acceptable attire” regulations for women at the University, as well as her discontinuing of an unpopular practice of the University sending letters to parents rating their daughters on such qualities as popularity, frequency of dating, study habits, and housekeeping.

Grissom ended up expanding and refocusing Trinity’s Residential Life staff to encourage education through on-campus living. She ultimately achieved perhaps her biggest goal in Student Affairs, that of integrating campus living, with men and women being housed in the same residence halls on different floors.

Grissom often implemented policy changes that placed more responsibility and ownership in the hands of students, and she led many initiatives that encouraged a sense of community and multiculturalism at Trinity.

Grissom was eventually named vice president for Student Affairs in 1979, becoming the first woman at Trinity to rise to such a level and lending verisimilitude to the notion that the University was wholly committed to a student-centered, forward-thinking approach to campus life.

“My love, admiration, and hope for my students overwhelmed me,” Grissom said in a 2018 interview.

Coleen Grissom, Ph.D., taught courses in the English department alongside her administrative roles.

Throughout the decades, Grissom remained a passionate advocate for her students both through the power of her office and from the inspiring space of her classroom. “I always taught one course in the English department,” she said during a 2016 interview. “My ‘expertise’ usually resulted from whatever the department needed at the time—courses in the continental novel, seminars for first-years, and, finally, a focus on contemporary American novels and short stories.”

In 2001, Grissom stepped away from administrative duties to teach English full time.

Her courses, such as “Contemporary Literature” and “Literature and the Imagination,” were always hot-ticket items, stemming from her straightforward style and candor and also from her ties to many of the authors she taught. Margaret Atwood, for example, was a personal friend of Grissom’s who spent 1989 as a writer-in-residence at Trinity and visited again in 2018 for an evening conversation with Grissom and the University community. She also hosted twice at Trinity another favorite, John Updike.

Grissom (left) held a conversation with Margaret Atwood in Laurie Auditorium in 2018.

“I have long been inspired by the writings of favorite contemporaries—Atwood, Updike, Munro, Kingsolver, Russo, Erdrich—because of their genius with prose and their deep understanding of what's important in life,” Grissom said.

Trinity University Press published Grissom’s books (A Novel Approach to Life—2008, Coleen at 80—2014, and The World According to Coleen—2015), and she offered her own reading selections regularly for Trinity magazine, noting that she reads “for fun, not so much for enlightenment.”

Grissom hosted a book signing for her book A Novel Approach to Life, published in 2008 by Trinity University Press.

Grissom’s energy regularly spilled out into the San Antonio and South Texas communities. She was a regular resource for The San Antonio Public Library Foundation, the Boerne Public Library, literary nonprofit Gemini Ink, and initiatives such as the University of Texas Health Science Center-San Antonio Book & Author luncheon, which she emceed for more than twenty years.

Retirement, if one can call it that, was not Grissom’s style. Though she announced a step back from full-time teaching in 2019, she remained close to the University, teaching an occasional course as an adjunct professor. During a Trinity-sanctioned April Fools prank in 2019, Grissom feigned a return to Student Life as the supposed new dean of students, bemoaning the free time of her retirement as an embarrassment of riches she was unwilling to spend on herself.

“I sleep at night. I go home to the Hill Country, and I don’t have to come back for the weekends. I have a life outside of the campus,” Grissom said during her day-long stint as dean. “It’s miserable.”

After such a life, even death will be hard-pressed to keep Grissom out of the lives of Trinity students. Leaving a missive describing her hopes for the rest of us, Grissom reminds us of her own most cherished literary thoughts that serve as guidance and comfort.

“I believe I’ve come to be associated with quotations from others that I have used through the years. My favorites (quoted frequently in my published speeches and essays) that have guided my life come from:

Barbara Kingsolver (having something or someone to love)
E. B. White (being a good friend and a good writer)
John Hoyt (figuring out what you care about and living a life that shows it)
Kurt Vonnegut (on being kind)
Mary Oliver (what is it you plan to do with your one and precious life?)
Janis Joplin (don’t compromise yourself; it’s all you’ve got)

And more recently, the perfect expression of what I would want people to know about my feelings at the end of my life is expressed in the words of Oliver Sacks in his final publication, Gratitude:

My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much, and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.'"

She will continue to inspire and ignite a love of learning in future students through the Coleen Grissom Endowed Scholarship. Those with a mind to continue Grissom's legacy are encouraged to support her scholarship by making a gift online.

Short of reincarnation—Grissom said in 2016 that she wouldn’t rule out a new life as a cat or one of her beloved poodles—Grissom’s impact will continue to trickle and flow through the bedrock of Trinity’s culture, academics, and vision for the future.

A celebration of life will be held at the Margarite B. Parker Chapel on Trinity University's campus at 2 p.m. CST on Friday, February 23, 2024. Those who cannot attend in person may watch a livestream of the service at

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