July 10, 2013 | Matt Kucinski
Calvin English professor Elizabeth Vander Lei fell in love with linguistics as a student at Calvin. For the past 16 years, she’s instilled that passion in hundreds of her students. And, those students are now taking that love for the scientific study of the English language into their classrooms.
The lure of her love of linguistics?—a class with English professor Bill Vande Kopple 30-plus years ago.
On Wednesday, July 3, 2013, Vande Kopple died unexpectedly, following a pancreatic cancer diagnosis just a week earlier. Vande Kopple, 63, taught in Calvin’s English department since 1980.
Vander Lei is just one of the students and former colleagues of Vande Kopple who carry on his legacy.
“I can’t tell you how many students sit in that chair [pointing to the chair I was sitting in during our interview] and tell me how their English teachers have influenced their lives,” said Vander Lei, noting that many of those English teachers are following in the pedagogical footsteps of Vande Kopple.
As she is. Vander Lei uses the concepts and strategies she was taught as a student and often references his scholarship, which appears in a wide range of the most important national and international journals in the field, including Linguistics and Education, Christ and Literature, Written Communication and the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, to name a few.
“His academic work is easy to list, yet the impact of his writing and teaching is almost impossible to measure,” wrote English professor James Vanden Bosch of his close friend and colleague, “a bibliography or a resume’ falls far short of any real assessment.”
Vanden Bosch joined Calvin’s English department in 1983. Each January, he and Vande Kopple shared a classroom for three weeks teaching the college’s most popular interim course: Traditional Grammar.
“It was like Laurel and Hardy … it was screamingly funny,” said Vander Lei of the two beloved professors. “No one loved to laugh like Bill. No one loved a good joke like Bill. No one would work harder for a pun that was horrible than Bill. He could make the very worst puns seem palatable.”
“So there we’d be, deep into the intricacies or crudities of traditional grammar … and it would be Bill’s turn to do a few minutes of low-impact verbal calisthenics at the beginning of the class,” wrote Vanden Bosch, “and he inevitably moved his way through days and days of puns, including horrifying Biblical Tom Swifties, tests not only of my charity but also of my biblical literacy.”
Though Vande Kopple will be remembered, in part, for his hilarity, he set a high standard in his department and at Calvin for showing hospitality.
“When I first got to Calvin College, I was alone,” wrote junior Carrie Ott, a Japanese and Linguistics double major. “I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know what to do or where to go. When I met Professor Vande Kopple I found a friend. I told him so a few months ago—he mused for a minute, then, with a big smile, said, ‘Now, that’s something really special.’”
And it’s something his colleagues say he valued above all else—students and their needs.
“He seemed to have unlimited time for them,” said Vander Lei, who said Vande Kopple’s office was a place where students could ask questions about life. “He relished those conversations … those were the things that mattered most to him.”
English professor Gary Schmidt was a colleague of Vande Kopple’s for 29 years. He credits him with being the catalyst behind making the English department a hospitable place for students and faculty, helping to organize everything from writing and reading retreats to Soup Mondays during interim.
“He was always thinking about what other ways we could engage with students outside the office and classroom,” said Schmidt.
Josh DeLacy ‘13, who considered Vande Kopple a role model and mentor, fondly remembers this past January, when Vande Kopple asked him and fellow English major Abby Zwart ’13 if they wanted to go on a road trip to Chautauqua, N.Y. The reason—to visit other English majors in their hometown.
“He just had those ideas and he cared about students. We didn’t listen to the radio once,” said DeLacy. “He asked the questions that most people don’t ask, but you want them to ask. That was Vande Kopple.”
He was a man who applied his faith to everything he did—from writing about religious matters like grace in his short fishing stories to spending time in his office listening to a colleague or student work through the issues of life. As Vander Lei said, “He was a theory to application man.”
And so his students and colleagues will miss his booming laugh, his punning and his thoughtful writing. No doubt. But, what they’ll miss most is a man who always took the time to listen, to care, to encourage. They’ll miss a man who saw the redeeming or redeemable qualities in every person.
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