AIB Bids Farewell After 95 Years

May 16, 2016

A Des Moines school that has trained people to enter the business world for 95 years holds its final graduation ceremonies Sunday.

Then known as the American Institute of Business, the school was at 10th and Grand in downtown Des Moines for 37 years.
Credit AIB College of Business

The American Institute of Business began in 1921 in a single room with 30-dollars-worth of used furniture and one borrowed chair. Two college roommates, Ray Hansen and E.O. Fenton, had an idea, says Fenton's son, Keith.

“They started a teacher placement agency," he says. "I don’t know if it was hard to get teachers or if it was hard for teachers to get jobs.”

The vision for the business school has shifted over the years, as has its location. One thing has remained constant, however. A Fenton has led the school for its entire history.

“As I say, I’m a slow learner," says Keith Fenton. "I stayed 42 years.”

Keith Fenton took over from his father in 1957. He handed the reins to his daughter, Nancy Fenton Williams, in 1999.

Portrait of AIB founder E.O. Fenton.
Credit AIB College of Business

“I’m on the AIB Christmas card at one-year old with my parents," she says. "So truly it’s been part of my life my entire life.”

This lifelong attachment to the school, now named AIB College of Business, will soon end. Eighteen months ago, the school’s board decided to shut it down and give the 20-acre campus and most of its 17 buildings to the Regent’s schools. Williams says AIB fell victim to student recruitment pressures within higher education in Iowa.

“We have 29 private schools," she says. "And we have the community colleges, there are 15 of them, and they all have branches, so it was literally a lot of competition.”

News of the pending closure resulted in an outpouring of affection among AIB graduates. They include some of Central Iowa’s most prominent business leaders, such as real estate developer Bill Knapp and the founder of Casey’s General Stores, Don Lamberti. Around a thousand alumni gathered recently for what was billed as a fond farewell reunion. Justin Collier graduated in 1966 and remembers when the entire school fit into a four-story building with a single elevator at the corner of 10th and Grand in downtown Des Moines.

The AIB College of Business campus south of downtown Des Moines.
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

“We’d either have to catch the elevator or run up floor flights of steps and everything,” recalls Collier.

Back in those days, enrolling was fairly simple, says another member of the Class of ’66, Carol Baehr Schrote.

“They called me on a Friday and said come interview Monday and if you’re accepted, you start school on Tuesday," she says. "And I did.”

By the time 2013 graduate Jessica Lepird Zebedee arrived, AIB was where it is now, on Fleur Drive between Des Moines’ downtown and the airport. She says as soon as she stepped on campus, it felt like home.

“I’m from a small town and coming here to the big city it was overwhelming," she says. "Here you’re in the middle of everything, but you don’t feel like it.”

The memories shared at the fond farewell reunion were tinged with melancholy. Ann Polito not only graduated from AIB, she worked there for 38 years.

“It’s going to be very different to not come to this campus on a daily basis,” she says.

No one shed more tears or received more hugs than Keith Fenton, who returned from retirement in Arizona to take part in AIB’s last hoorah.

“Lots of fond memories," he says. "But time moves on, and education moves on.”

The official end of AIB College of Business is June 30th. A detailed plan for what the state universities will do with the campus awaits a consultant’s report on the educational needs in the Des Moines area. It will be delivered to the Regents next month. In the meantime, the University of Iowa will begin offering programs there in social work, political science, sport and recreation management and enterprise leadership beginning in the fall.