The new Harkin Center is a liberation movement

August 29, 2022 3:32 pm

Ruth and Tom Harkin with Drake President Marty Martin, left to right, cut the ribbon for the new Tom and Ruth Harkin Center on Drake’s campus Aug. 20, 2022. (Photo by Huey Photography/Courtesy of the Harkin Center)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.No, it’s not just another new building. It is a liberation movement.

Usually, a dedication to a new building isn’t big news except for those with a personal stake in the construction. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies are pro forma events that give those involved a deserved acknowledgment. Funders show up and congratulate one another.

Last Saturday, Aug. 20, was all of that but oh, so, much more.

The historic change brought by the construction of the Tom and Ruth Harkin Center and what it means to those with disabilities was evidenced when Kevin Nordmeyer, an architect with BNIM, wheeled up to the podium that was mechanically lowered to meet his needs as a speaker.

Kevin Nordmeyer, architect with BNIM, which designed the Harkin Center, speaks at the building’s grand opening Aug. 20, 2022. (Photo by Huey Photography/Courtesy of the Harkin Center)

Little wonder he choked up when he began his remarks to tell the audience about this once-in-a-lifetime design process that would make this building genuinely accessible, far beyond current accepted practice.

Tom Harkin represented Iowa for 40 years, first in the House of Representatives (1975-85) and then in the U.S. Senate (1985-2015). Tom Harkin’s signature accomplishment was the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA. This landmark legislation was the first big step in a liberation movement for the community. Harkin said it is now just the baseline for what can come. Correction: This paragraph has been updated to correct the dates of Harkin’s tenure in the Senate.

Harkin Center interior. (Photo courtesy of the Harkin Center)

Visitors to the Harkin Center will understand what this means when they enter the building and see an encircling ramp that is part of the design. It creates common access to building levels, not just an elevator primarily used by some.

Says Nordmeyer:

“The Tom and Ruth Harkin Center embodies a spirit of empathy and inclusion that embraces the broad spectrum of abilities and the human need to allow construction to go beyond the ADA. It includes principles of Generous Space, Clear Path, Equitable Experiences, and Individual Empowerment, as we defined with The Harkin Institute.”


At this point, the newest addition to the Drake campus has established a gold standard in new construction design, pushed to an extent by a Disability Policy Committee. As a result, electrical outlets are different colors, so the visually impaired can find them more easily. That’s just one of the dozens of ideas they inspired to create the final product.

Groundbreaking ceremony for the Harkin Center 2800 University Ave., Drake Campus, on May 17, 2019. From left are Joseph Jones, outgoing director of the Harkin Institute; Ruth and Tom Harkin, President Marty Martin, and Marsha Ternus. (Photo by Julie Gammack)

And BNIM documented the process and put it into book form that will help guide future architects worldwide to embrace inclusivity.

Marsha Ternus was the first director for the Harkin Institute when it launched in 2013 and a former Iowa Supreme Court Justice. Harkin retired in 2015, and his papers are stored in the Drake University Archives & Special Collections at Cowles Library.

It was Ternus who was credited with suggesting there be a building on campus:

“The immediate concern was that we had outgrown our store-front space,” said
Ternus. “We needed more room for offices, meetings, and — if we were dreaming — events. On a more fundamental level, it was important for the Harkin Institute to be accessible. Tom cares passionately about accessibility, and the Institute’s space should exemplify that passion at work. We also wanted a facility that would allow us to tell Tom’s and the Institute’s story so those who visit the Institute would appreciate the importance of our mission and be inspired to take action themselves.”

Drake President Marty Martin adds, “The new Harkin Center is a model of accessibility for our campus and beyond. This beautiful new space will welcome anyone and everyone, regardless of ability, for lectures, workshops, and other gatherings of many forms.”

Ruth and Tom Harkin speak at the opening of the Harkin Center on the Drake University campus. (Photo by Huey Photography/Courtesy of the Harkin Center)

Ruth Harkin was the primary driver of the Institute before Tom retired. She envisioned creating a way for students and community members to understand the significance of public policy in our daily lives. The building dedication was a capstone to their 50-plus-year partnership. Said Ruth Harkin:

We were fortunate to have an architect who understood from day one how liberating a building as this could be for people with disabilities.”

Here are more photos from the grand opening by Huey Photography, courtesy of the Harkin Center.

For more information about the Harkin Institute and Tom and Ruth Harkin Center, call: 515-271-3623  or visit

About this column

This column was originally published by “Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck” and is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Julie Gammack
Julie Gammack

Julie Gammack is an Iowa native, whose media career included a stint as the morning talk radio host on WHO AM radio and as a former Des Moines Register columnist. She was a business coach with Vistage International in Annapolis, Maryland, and Chicago. Gammack and her husband moved back to Iowa in 2020. She is the founder of the Okoboji Writers’ Retreat and Iowa Writers' Collaborative. She is the author of Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck.