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News & Stories: 2007-08

Found in translation
May 23, 2008

Mellis Family donating diaries to Heritage HallDescendants of Klaas Schoolland, who taught classical languages at Calvin from 1894–1923, gather at Heritage Hall to donate Schoolland's diaries to the archives. Schoolland's great-great grandson Stephen Mellis '08 (back row, fourth from left) had a hand in translating the Latin texts into English.

Throughout his years at Calvin, while sitting through “innumerable” Latin and Greek classes in the classics department conference room, Stephen Mellis was often distracted by the portrait of a bearded gentleman on the wall. It was, he knew, a portrait of his great-great grandfather, a man who had taught innumerable Latin and Greek classes.

"I would look up, and his face would look kind of stern,” recalled Mellis, a 22-year old who majored in both ancient languages and in classical studies and who graduated with honors in all three subjects on Saturday, May 17.

The portrait that distracted Mellis during class was a photograph of Klaas Schoolland, who taught at Calvin from 1894 through 1923. On Friday, May 16, before he collected his diploma at Van Andel Arena, Mellis rendezvoused with a troop of family members—Mellises and Actons and Gritters and Jasperses—in Heritage Hall, the Calvin College archives.

The family was at Calvin to celebrate Mellis’s graduation. They were in Heritage Hall to donate Klaas Schoolland’s diaries to the archives. 

"What neck of the woods are you folks from?” asked archive curator Richard Harms as family members from as nearby as Marne, Battle Creek and Jenison and as far away as Escondido and Redlands, Calif., greeted each other.

The diaries were discovered by Claire (Schoolland) Mellis ex’42, a Redlands resident and the granddaughter of Klaas. “It was in my father’s possession, and when he died, I came across it,” said Claire of the original manuscript, most of which was written in Dutch. “I decided it didn’t belong to me because I’m one of many descendants. I thought it was important to present it to the archives because Grandpa was such an important part of Calvin.”

Klaas Schoolland was born in the province of Friesland in 1851. “He studied for the ministry at the theological school in Kampen, and he decided he needed more schooling than that, so he went to the University of Groningen,” narrated Harms.

Klaas SchoollandThe diaries are Schoolland’s reflections on a period of his life beginning in 1870. They are a commentary on his youth in the Netherlands, of school friends and of “skating from place to place,” said Claire. They also cover something more serious, she added: “There’s quite a lot about people dying. Apparently a lot of people were sick—and what struck me was his concern for their spiritual welfare.” Schoolland suffered a nervous breakdown, said Harms, and never sat for the exams for his doctorandus degree, the European equivalent of a U.S. PhD without dissertation.

In 1892, as he was recovering his health, he sailed for the United States with a tubercular man who was seeking treatment in New Mexico. While living there, Klaas and his brother, Bareld John (who had emigrated at an earlier date) contracted Mountain Fever. His brother died. Klaas moved again to Grand Rapids, becoming a member of both the Dutch community there and of First Christian Reformed Church.

In the late 1890s, Calvin College was making the gradual transformation from its original form as a seminary into a liberal arts institution. The college was looking for faculty with good academic credentials, but for the first time they weren’t required to be ministers. Calvin made an offer to Schoolland. He tried to turn it down.

"He didn’t think he was strong enough to teach, physically strong enough because of the nervous breakdown,” Harms said. “And he teaches at Calvin for 29 years before retiring at the age of 72.” 

During his time at Calvin, Schoolland stopped writing regularly in his diary. “I think he realized that it (Calvin) was his niche,” said Claire. He resumed at a later date, at one point recording his regret at his retirement.

Claire (who wrote the book More than a Pilot: A Pioneer in Mission Aviation about her late husband Charles, one of the founders of Mission Aviation Fellowship) wanted to translate them before donating them to Calvin. She turned the manuscript over to her son, James, who works in the Netherlands with Youth With A Mission, for that purpose; he came through with a Dutch transcription and an English translation. Interspersed throughout the diaries, however, were a series of passages written in Latin. James tapped Klaas’ great-great grandson for that translation chore.

"I was excited,” said Stephen, “because it gave me an opportunity to apply what I’d been studying, which as a classics major doesn’t happen every day, but also because it was a way to get involved in family history and Calvin history and also to figure out who he was as a person instead of just hearing occasional stories. Portions of the diary were written when he was not too far from my age … when he was studying Latin and Greek at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands,” he went on. “He wasn’t too far beyond the point of my own studies, so when he wrote in Latin, it would be the equivalent of me writing in Latin at my age ... .”

Stephen judged that Schoolland made the shift to Latin in his diary both for the sheer enjoyment of experimenting in that language and when the writing took a personal turn. “My guess is that some of them (the passages), he wrote in Latin because he didn’t want people to read them if they found it,” he said.

With graduation upon him, Stephen reflected with satisfaction on his Calvin experience. A member of the classics club SPQR (Latin for “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” or “the Senate and the people of Rome”) he played Caesar in the club’s Ides of March re-enactment last year. “We’re trying to assassinate the leader each year… .,” he said of the organization’s goals. “We’re also in the process of transforming into a mystery cult.”

The second person in recorded Calvin history to earn triple honors in three subjects, Stephen will head to Fordham University in the fall to earn a PhD in classical studies. He hopes his academic achievement will reflect well on his chosen field of study. “In some ways,” he said, “it was a way to bring attention to our department.”

Harms, in his turn, reflected with satisfaction on the donation of the diaries: “It’s a wonderful, rich addition to our collection…,” he said. “It’s a great addition to the late-19th-century immigrant experience…and there’s the added benefit that he was a faculty member. We don’t have much on their personal lives.”

On the day of the donation, the family convened at 9 a.m. in Heritage Hall, and as the clock neared 10 a.m., Claire officially handed over the diaries to Harms. “This has been a multi-generational effort,” commented Gordon Mellis, a Redlands-based software developer and Stephen’s father.

"I’m very proud of my family,” said Claire, “and of my heritage.”

~by Myrna Anderson, communications & marketing

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