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John F. Ely

John F. Ely: Secretary to the Board

In the original ledger books for Coe's Board of Trustees, the minutes of meetings are often written in a clear, smooth, legible penmanship, signed at the end, "John Fellows Ely." This civic leader, the first secretary of the Board of Trustees of Coe College, served Coe College and its series of predecessors--Cedar Rapids Collegiate Institute, Parsons Seminary, and Coe Collegiate Institute--for over 50 years.  And during most of those years, it is only his official records that enable us to know much of occurred in the college's early history.  

Born in 1821, in Rochester, New York, Ely began his schooling when he was three years old.  He was ready for college by age twelve.  But Ely's interests were never limited to the narrowly academic.  Prior to attending college, he worked in a mill, served as a Deputy County Clerk and Deputy Town Clerk, and was the publisher and editor of The Allegan Record in Michigan.  In 1845 he moved to New City where he became a student in a surgeon's office, attended lectures at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and received him M.D. degree in 1848.

In the same year that he earned his medical degree, his brother--who had been living in Cedar Rapids--died and John came to Cedar Rapids to help the widow arrange her affairs.  Although Cedar Rapids was only a small village of 300 people, he apparently saw the potential of the community since he decided to stay in Iowa and eventually married Mary Weare Ely, his brother's widow.

During the next fifty years, his professional life focused on boosting the economic, social, cultural, educational, and religious life of the Cedar Rapids community.  The only significant interruption during these decades occurred in 1862 when he was commissioned a Surgeon in the 24th Iowa Infanty (the "Temperance Regiment").  In 1863 Ely was helping to tend the thousands of wounded resulting from Grant's seige of Vicksburg.  Ely suffered a physical collapse and was sent to St. Louis, where his wife found him and brought him back home for a period of recuperation that lasted several years.

The number of organizations and businesses that benefited from Ely's support is unparalleled in the history of the city, as is evident in this sample of his varied contributions:

  • Large medical practice
  • Member of Cedar Rapids' first Board of Health (1850)
  • Charter member of the Linn County Medical Society (1859)
  • Elder and tenor in choir of the First Presbyterian Church
  • Director of the Cedar Rapids & Missouri Railroad (organized in 1859)
  • Vice-President of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Minnesota Railroad Company
  • President of the Cedar Rapids Northwestern Construction Company
  • Member of the first company to build a toll bridge over the Cedar River (1856)
  • Member of the company building the steamboat "Cedar Rapids" (1858)
  • First President of the Farmers' Manufacturing Company, manufacturer of agricultural implements (1873)
  • Secretary of the Board of Directors of the Oak Hill Cemetery Association.
  • Treasurer of the Union Bank and member of the Board of Directors of the First National Bank.

During all these years, while maintaining his medical practice and involvement in dozens of commercial and community affairs, he served as secretary for various boards attempting to establish an institution of higher learning.  On July 18,1853, it was John Ely who was named as the trustee authorized to act for Daniel Coe in selecting the land on which the Coe campus would be located; three weeks later he was a signatory to the Articles of Incorporation for the Cedar Rapids Collegiate Institute. After the Civil War, he diligently worked, while a Trustee and Secretary of the Board, to convert Parsons Seminary into Parsons College.  Although those efforts failed, he later had the honor of serving on the Coe College Board, a position he held until his death on March 14, 1902.

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