July 30, 2003
For the Father
Calvin College chaplain Dale Cooper's midwest tractor trek has come to a satisfying conclusion.
Cooper and his brother-in-law, Glenn DeJong, left the Calvin campus on July 23 for an approximately 675-mile trip from Grand Rapids to Alton, Iowa, on a pair of vintage John Deere tractors: Cooper's from 1941 and DeJong's from 1938.
Just six days later, after averaging about 13 miles per hour and putting in 10 to 12 hour days, the daring duo pulled into DeJong's farm in Alton, completing what Cooper calls a journey of "1,000 waves and 2,000 smiles."
For Cooper the seemingly quixotic quest had been intended to operate on two distinct yet related levels.
He expected that it would be fun. He also planned it as a tribute to his late father who loved John Deere tractors, but gave up farming at a young age to care for his wife when she became ill with polio. Paralyzed from the neck down at just 26 years of age, she lived the rest of her life, nearly 40 years, in an iron lung. During those four decades, John Cooper remained faithfully at Marjorie Cooper's side. He was her full-time nurse and caretaker - feeding and bathing her, brushing her teeth, rubbing her back to prevent bedsores.
Prior to the trip Dale Cooper noted that his parents were "big gifts" to him. "Through a trip like this, he said, "I want to savor the gift and say thanks to the Giver."
Having completed the journey, Cooper says it fulfilled all that he had hoped it would
"It gave me a lot of time to think back over my life," he says. "I spent one morning thinking about teachers I've had, about meeting my wife Marcia, about our kids. All rich things that help me realize how my life is full. And realize that, like my father before me, I am a grateful man."
Cooper says having to slow down was a valuable experience and that he'd recommend life at 13 miles an hour to anyone. But life on the tractors wasn't all introspection.
Both Cooper and DeJong were struck by the friendliness of those they encountered on the backroads of Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. DeJong once waved at 50 people in a single hour. Cooper counted a stretch in which 96 of 100 motorcyclists waved at the pair.
They also had fun with each other, engaging in mock races at various stretches during the trip. On downhills DeJong would slip his machine into neutral and get up to 25 miles per hour. Cooper, meanwhile, played the tortoise to DeJong's hare and maintained a wide-open 14 miles per hour for most of the trip, eventually catching DeJong whose Deere topped out at 13 miles per hour.
It all was, says Cooper, "crazy fun." And, he adds, likely the grist for many sermon illustrations and Chapel talks this coming school year at Calvin!
BELOW IS THE MAY 2003 NEWS RELEASE PREVIEWING THE TRACTOR TRIP
It's about 650 miles from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Alton, Iowa if you take the scenic route.
Calvin chaplain Dale Cooper plans to make the trip this summer. He'll leave July 23 and head north from Grand Rapids about 100 miles to Ludington, Mich., where he'll take a four-hour ferry ride across Lake Michigan on the S.S. Badger to Manitowoc, Wis. From there it's about 550 miles due west from Manitowoc to Alton.
Cooper figures he'll get from Grand Rapids to Alton in about a week, averaging 10 to 12 miles per hour and driving 10 to 12 hours a day.
It seems slow, he admits, but it's about the best he can expect from his vehicle of choice: a 1941 John Deere B tractor.
Yep, Cooper, who in the past has bicycled from Vancouver to Mexico and run the Chicago Marathon, has a new challenge in his sights: a midwest tractor ride. Which, of course, begs the simple question: why?
The affable chaplain is eager to explain his seemingly quixotic quest, noting that the trip will operate on two distinct yet related levels.
"First," he says, "I expect that this trip will be enormously fun. I've always maintained that a two-cylinder John Deere produces a sound than which none greater can be imagined. So to be on that green machine for an entire week, to hear its putt-putt-putt, to feel the snap of the breeze and the warmth of the Iowa sun, to slow (my) life down for a while - that's going to be a delight in itself."
But there's a deeper purpose to the trip too.
"It's got something of a sacramental quality to it," says Cooper. "Taken by itself, of course, a ride on a tractor, even a vintage John Deere tractor, is something perfectly ordinary. But for me the 'why' of the trip is connected with where I've been in life and what, deep-down, I want to affirm. I intend my trip to be religious act, if you will."
For Cooper the religiousness of the ride rests in his relationship with his father, John Cooper, who died 17 months ago, on Christmas eve.
"My Dad was an ordinary little fellow," he recalls. "At 5'5" he wasn't very tall. He wasn't all that famous. He never made a lot of money, held a lot of power, wrote influential books or gave memorable speeches. He reached only eighth grade. But in my book he was a giant of a man. He left a lasting impact on me and I want to honor his memory."
The events of November 1, 1945 shaped John Cooper's legacy.
That day Marjorie Cooper (John's wife and Dale's mom) became ill with polio. Paralyzed from the neck down at just 26 years of age, she lived the rest of her life, nearly 40 years, in an iron lung. During those four decades, John Cooper remained faithfully at his wife's side. He was her full-time nurse and caretaker - feeding and bathing her, brushing her teeth, rubbing her back to prevent bedsores.
"And my Dad did it all so uncomplainingly," says Cooper, who was three when his mom got sick. " He gave not even a hint that he thought life had cheated him, or given him a raw deal. On the contrary, he was life-affirming and so full of joy. Without ever saying so, he considered caring for my Mom a sacred vocation, something God had called him to do."
When Marjorie died on August 29, 1985, Cooper remembers that his dad tried his best to alleviate her breathing distress, but nothing helped.
"Mom took her last shallow breath," he says, "and then died. I shut the lung off - the first time in 40 years. For a brief few moments, the room was deathly quiet. Then my Dad punctuated the silence. With eloquent simplicity he spoke words I shall never forget: 'Margie was a wonderful wife.'"
Those simple words, says Cooper, are why he's doing this summer's tractor ride. He calls his dad's wonderful eulogy "the charter of my Dad's entire life." And he wants to pay homage to that charter this summer.
But why the tractor?
In the early 1940s John Cooper was a budding farmer. He had purchased 10 acres of muck land in Grant, Michigan. And with his two hands, and his trusty John Deere B, he cleared that land of brush and stumps. Before his wife became ill he enjoyed four seasons of onion farming. When she got sick he gave up farming and devoted his life to caring for her. But he kept the land. And among Dale Cooper's favorite boyhood memories are the trips to Grant and the rides his dad gave him on the John Deere.
Years later, after his mother had died and the little farm had been sold, his dad offered his son the beloved tractor. But Dale Cooper lived in Jenison at the time and says: "Where was I going to park a full-size tractor?" He still regrets not having accepted his dad's offer. When, two summers ago, Cooper's brother-in-law located an identical model up for auction in northwest Iowa, the chaplain did not pass up the opportunity.
Since purchasing the tractor he has been content to drive it around Calvin's campus. But now comes a much longer journey - a tribute to a father and an echo of gratitude to God.
"My Dad's life was a sheer gift of God to me," says Dale Cooper. "I'm so proud to bear my father's name. Taking a ride on my John Deere was the best, and most fun, way I could think of to say thanks."