April 01, 2009 | Allison Poosawtsee
When professor of mathematics Anneke “Ginger” Van Denend-de Haan ‘89 was young, she didn’t play school—she “played college.” A childhood picture confirms this: it depicts Van Denend-de Haan scribbling symbols on a blackboard in front of an audience of stuffed animals sitting on makeshift platforms.
“It helped that my dad was a math professor and my grandfather a Greek professor at Calvin,” she said. “I was constantly in and out of those lecture halls as a young child. The environment was almost like a natural habitat to me.”
These experiences and others made Van Denend-de Haan feel called to Christian higher education even before she knew what the words “higher education” meant.
“I remember asking my father once why I didn’t write the letters ‘PhD’ after my last name like he did, and what did he say? He said, ‘Ginger, you have to earn those letters.’ But he didn’t stop there. He went on to say, ‘Ginger, I have no doubt that you will one day write those letters after your last name, just like I and your grandfather and three of your uncles do.’ That was when I knew,” she said.
Even for all the signs pointing Van Denend-de Haan in the direction of academia, the professor says she meandered for a while before deciding to pursue her vocation.
“It was certainly not a straight path; it was much more like a drunken sailor stagger—at least for a while,” she said.
Van Denend-de Haan dabbled in her first year as a Calvin student in the late 1980s with courses in English and journalism, thinking she might be better suited to a life as a writer. Her stagger soon transformed into bright but measured steps toward her destiny. The professor cites an experience writing about new Calvin faculty members for the college’s student newspaper, Chimes, as something that brought her back to the right path:
“I was interviewing members of the mathematics department—including my father—for an article about a young new assistant math professor. It turned out that the professor was a woman. This was the late 1980s, of course, and the women’s lib movement was just making its way to Calvin and I couldn’t help but get swept up in it when I met this new professor! I knew that I was called to be the second female professor of mathematics at Calvin.”
When Van Denend-de Haan was at Calvin she met and married the love of her life and fellow mathematics major, Jon de Haan. The pair married just one day after graduating, each with a well-earned B.S. in mathematics in hand.
“We went from walking down an aisle one day to quite a different aisle the next!” quipped Van Denend-de Haan.
During the next three years, she gave birth to her three children, twins Linnea and Peter, and Anneke, named after her mother. Of her children, Van Denend-de Haan said:
“There’s just nothing like having a family of your own. You can have all the degrees in the world, but nothing can substitute for have a loving husband and children to share your life with.”
Once Van Denend-de Haan’s husband received his accounting certification, he encouraged her to pursue her own dreams. She matriculated into the University of Chicago’s PhD program in mathematics. Of balancing academic life and motherhood, she said, “Some people are called to stay in the home, but not me. My calling is outside the home, and I believe that makes me a better mother in the long-run.”
Van Denend-de Haan excelled in her program at Chicago, receiving her doctoral degree with distinction in just three years of study. Her time there was key to developing her personal vision for Christian education.
“These top-notch schools, they’re great, but you have these inklings that there’s something missing from the classroom there,” she said.
Van Denend-de Haan pointed out that indeed, what was missing from her classes and lectures at Chicago, was faith. The idea that faith and learning could be married in the classroom was something that drew Van Denend-de Haan further toward her calling to return to her alma mater.
“I wanted to be able to give my students the whole picture of reality—both spiritual and material—and not be forced to ignore one at the expense of over-glorifying the other,” she said.
In 1995, just days after she defended her dissertation, Van Denend-de Haan received word from her uncle, professor emeritus of physics Raymond Van Denend, that there was an opening in her father’s department.
“He encouraged me to apply for the job at Calvin,” she said. “I prayed about it and came to the conclusion that this was my calling—to teach at an institution of Christian higher education like Calvin.”
Within months, Van Denend-de Haan relocated, with her family, to Grand Rapids. She began her teaching in the mathematics department in the fall. Of her return home, she said:
“That whole ‘drunken stagger’ thing? I knew I was done with that once I was appointed to teach math at Calvin. Now, I was marching forward with purpose and enthusiasm.”
As much as Van Denend-de Haan loves the research she started in her time as a Calvin student (she even had one of her findings published in a scholarly mathematics journal) and continues today, her true passion is teaching.
“There’s just nothing like that classroom and one-on-one interaction you get with students at Calvin. It’s the reason why I remain engaged in my work here,” she said.
Van Denend-de Haan finds ways to bring her research into the classroom so that students can participate in high-level work in mathematics, even as undergraduates.
“It’s so unusual that students can, at the undergraduate level, participate in scholarly research. Calvin really does a good job at providing those opportunities to students,” she said.
Van Denend-de Haan does get out of the classroom on occasion to pursue her other calling—her family. She and her husband, along with their three children, regularly cycle up the West Michigan coast to their favorite camping spot at Sleeping Bear Dunes. She also enjoys gardening and canning food from her garden and from the local farmer’s market.
In a candid moment, Van Denend-de Haan alluded to another passion she has: free-range turkey farming.
“I try to keep this part of my life separate from my Calvin life, but sometimes it overlaps. Once I spoke in chapel about our little operation,” she said. “I just love those turkeys,” she added.
Van Denend-de Haan and her husband raise free-range turkeys in their backyard and sell them live to neighbors before Thanksgiving each year.
“We just feel better knowing that the turkey on our table each year led a happy life before it gave itself up for our feast,” she said. “It’s all a part of that ‘every square inch’ thing, you know?”
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