April 4, 2002
Former Music Professor Dies
Calvin professor of music emeritus Harold Geerdes has passed away at the age of 85. His death is a significant one for the music scene at a local and a state level.
Geerdes, a Chicago native and a 1937 graduate of Calvin, was a professor of music at Calvin from 1955 to 1979 and was an important member of that department who not only led the growth of the strings program and the Calvin band, but also conducted the Calvin Orchestra for over 20 consecutive years and was a long-time director of the Calvin Oratorio Society. He also was active in local and state music societies and was a much-respected acoustical consultant.
His involvement in the local music scene began early. As a Calvin student already, in 1935, he auditioned for a spot with the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and was immediately signed, beginning a tenure that would last over two decades. In fact, in the early 1940s he studied conducting with Nikolai Malko who had fled the Soviet Union and become conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony. Geerdes once told a reporter that "Malko didn't speak English; he spoke music."
It was a language Geerdes also spoke and loved. And working with Malko convinced Geeredes of that. So he abandoned his plans to become a social worker and in 1947 began what would become an eight-year stint at Grand Rapids Christian High School where he taught and directed the Orchestra and Band programs. He also set up an instrumental music program in the Christian school system which became a model. In 1955 he moved to Calvin where he would stay until retirement.
He made a life-changing impact on his many students. And in 1992 the Calvin Alumni Association awarded its first Faith-and-Learning Award to Geerdes. The award is granted by the Calvin Alumni Association to honor a current or former Calvin College faculty member who has successfully and consistently integrated faith and learning in the classroom. This recipient is a master teacher, making a significant impact on Calvin students in training for a life of service in God's Kingdom. The criteria for selection consists of: excellence in teaching, spiritual impact, concern for students and lasting influence.
In addition two scholarships at Calvin bear the Geerdes name: The Harold Geerdes Violin Award and The Harold and Gladys Geerdes String Award.
Calvin professor of music emeritus Howard Slenk remembers Geerdes as a versatile and active musician who encouraged the local Christian schools to begin instrument instruction. At Calvin, Slenk says, the band and the orchestra "grew in both skill and size" under Geerdes. Slenk notes too that Geerdes was "very dedicated to his students and they thought very highly of him."
Frank VanHaven, owner of Meyer Music Center in Grand Rapids, is one of Geerdes' former students. He recalls coming to Calvin's campus in the fall of 1964 as a somewhat timid freshman from Utah and being put immediately at ease during a music audition with Geerdes when Geerdes began spinning anecdotes about people in the Utah Symphony.
"It was amazing to me," says VanHaven, "that his knowledge was that wide. I was immediately impressed. But that was Harold. He was such a people person and was able to make that personal connection with everyone. I remember when the FAC (Fine Arts Center) was being planned he would sit down with us students and he was so effusive about his dreams for the FAC and the music program at Calvin. He was a tremendous motivator. Those years were quite magical."
The Geerdes touch also was felt away from Calvin's campus. In fact, upon his retirement from Calvin he accepted the position of executive director of the Saint Cecilia Music Society in Grand Rapids. That was just one of many efforts he made to impact music at a broader level than just the college. He also served across the state as a judge or adjudicator at musical competitions. Those efforts were recognized in 1986 when he won the prestigious Award of Merit for outstanding service to the Michigan Music Educators Association over a long span of time. As an acoustical consultant he helped design the Fine Arts Center on Calvin's campus, still considered one of the finest music halls in the state, and consulted on the Gerald R. Ford Museum Theater plus many colleges, Aquinas and Olivet to name just two, and churches around the country. And he was on the advisory board for the Christian Instrumentalists/Directors Association.
Geerdes and his wife Gladys, also deceased, have three children: Paul, Rick and Judy.