Oct. 17, 2002
Tribute to a Brother
EDITOR'S NOTE: The tribute below was written in 1995 by Dale VanKley, a former professor of history at Calvin, to mark the retirement from Calvin of his brother Ed.
When Edwin I. Van Kley joined the Calvin College faculty in 1961, history was still not distinguished from “political science,” and no one from either department except Dirk Jellema had yet read a paper at a meeting of a professional organization or published anything outside church related journals. To a large degree, that situation described the college faculty as a whole. Today, thirty five years later, Calvin College leads Protestant Christian colleges in published scholarly output. This development is not of course Ed's doing alone, and in retrospect it is clear that his was the first generation at the college to be able to regard the Ph.D. as the beginning and not the goal of scholarly research. Nonetheless, Ed was among the group at the center of that development. This is attested to not only by numerous articles and a thousand-page contribution to his and Donald Lach’s Asia and the Making of Europe, vol. III, but also and perhaps more importantly by the stimulus of his example to others. Calvin College owes much of what it is and isn't to Ed's contributions and example; the History Department in particular bears the stamp of his personality.
That stamp includes the commitment to what is now called multi culturalism. Aside from courses on Russia and the classical and biblical Near East, Ed's course on the ancient and modern Far East and interims on world history represent the first concentrated curricular doses of non European cultures at Calvin College. The two semester course on the Far East is hence the original center around which the History Department's many non European courses now gravitate as well as the original reason why its “world concentration” now holds its own vis-à-vis the more traditional offerings in American and European history. As someone equally at home in European as in Far Eastern history, he will be irreplaceable. Ed's robust interests in the history of philosophy, the philosophy of history, and of course Reformed Christianity also have much to do with the department’s long standing and on going conversation about the relation between faith and the practice of history. Although work on Asia in the Making of Europe preempted most of his scholarly time and energy, it would be entirely alien to everything that Ed stands for to regard that effort apart from his determination to express his faith in his professional work. And although in this instance it tended to be others in the department who reflected in print on that subject, all of that reflection bears the imprint of Ed's frequently and eloquently articulated concern that it not stray too far from the workday of the practicing historian.
It would have been understandable and perhaps worth the price if Ed's scholarly contributions to the Calvin community had come at the expense of his teaching or administrative service. To say that it did not is an understatement worthy of the title Van Kleyan. Just by themselves, the numbers of his students who have become distinguished historians would seem to be evidence of an effect quantitatively greater than its cause, of someone who had spent his career in graduate education rather than at an undergraduate college. Yet Ed’s pedagogical effectiveness with students of all abilities remains second to none, and not in the subject of history alone. To a large degree, the History Department’s still lean, uncluttered curriculum reflects Ed’s insistence on serving students over the indulgence of professional proclivities. And no student ever emerged from his office without having been well counseled. Nor, for that matter, was Van Kley ever chary with his counsel to the college. On the contrary, his years as department chair; his repeated terms, sometimes as chair, on such pivotal and time consuming committees as Educational Policy, Professional Status, Interim Term, Priorities, and Academic Standards; not to mention stints on sundry ad hoc task forces and advisory committees—these virtually define the concepts of selfless service, duty, and institutional dedication. And because he has never acted as a “rubber stamp,” every committee decision in which he has been involved has been wiser on account of that involvement.
Asked recently about what most stood out in his memory of Ed, a former colleague from a different department recalled the Van Kley dictum that anyone responsible for a new appointment to the college faculty had better insist that the appointee be both more talented and better qualified than was he or she. This advice encapsulates the self effacing modesty combined with rigorous standards for himself as well as for others that defines Ed Van Kley. In no small measure thanks to his contributions, that combination defines Calvin College at its best.