December 10, 2008 | Myrna Anderson
Abraham Van Engen remembered the occasions when former Calvin president William Spoelhof whispered in his ear. As a student, Van Engen said, he spent many mornings in the Emeritorium, the tiny room in Hiemenga Hall where retired Calvin faculty and staff gather religiously for coffee. Spoelhof would whisper to him to keep him involved in the conversation.
“The point was, I wasn’t to be left out,” said Van Engen, who shared his memories as part of the memorial service for Spoelhof, held on Monday afternoon, Dec. 8 in the Calvin Chapel. “To President Spoelhof, no student was the least of these. Indeed, it seemed that he had inverted the order of importance, and it was the undergraduates, the young, the unaccomplished who mattered most.”
Spoelhof, who died in his sleep on Wednesday, Dec. 3 served Calvin for 30 years, from 1946 through 1976, first as a professor of history and then as its president. The Monday that the Calvin community came together to remember him would have been his 99th birthday. Five hundred people including Spoelhof’s family and friends, gathered in the chapel and the nearby Gezon Auditorium for the service.
Friends and colleagues who spoke at his memorial service—from Van Engen, who graduated in 2003 to John Vanden Berg, the vice president of academic administration during the Spoelhof presidency, who graduated in 1946—represented his enduring tenure at Calvin, which continued long after his official retirement.
“A vivid and regular presence in the Calvin community for six decades,” current college president Gaylen Byker said of Spoelhof, who was renowned for visiting the Calvin campus regularly and maintaining friendships with people of all ages. “To me, Bill Spoelhof was more than just a predecessor as president,” Byker said. “He was the consummate scholar, leader, manager and Christian role model.”
George Harper, who was Spoelhof’s student both at Oakdale Christian School and Calvin and then a colleague at the college, reminisced about his former teacher’s vivid re-enactment of the Defenestration of Prague in his grade school classroom. He also remembered how fiercely Spoelhof defended the Calvin faculty to all critics. “He led the college with great integrity,” Harper said.
Vanden Berg, called Spoelhof a “genius administrator,” who guided Calvin through a turbulent era that saw the college’s transition to a new campus. “A gift of God for such a time as then and for 25 years thereafter,” Vanden Berg said of the former president.
Calvin chemistry professor Larry Louters, who with his wife Mary Jo, breakfasted with Spoelhof every week for 14 years, claimed, “I’ve never seen anyone who could drink that first cup of coffee faster than Bill.”
Professor of religion emeritus John Primus and chaplain emeritus Dale Cooper each preached on half of the motto “Grateful to our ancestors; Faithful to our heirs.” The motto, beloved by Spoelhof, was taken from a banner created by professor of art emeritus Edgar Boeve for Spoelhof’s 90th birthday.
Primus shared the former president’s first memory of the Calvin campus: It was the day a teenage Spoelhof, brought from New Jersey to Calvin’s Franklin campus by his father, got his first peek at the chapel and the verse from Psalm 36:9 written around its doors: “In Thy light shall we see light.”
“On that September day years ago, he knew not what the future held,” said Primus. “He knew not how his life would become intertwined with the institution. Maybe we owe his dad an enormous debt of gratitude.”
“I think he did some of his finest teaching when he retired from Calvin,” said Cooper, concluding, “In some ways, William Spoelhof’s magnum opus was his care for people.”
The memorial also included hymns, Scripture readings by former Calvin president Anthony Diekema and student senate president Jared Rispens, a litany of thanks and rededication led by provost Claudia Beversluis, the Calvin alumni choir performing “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place,” and opening and closing prayers by professor of religion emeritus Clarence Vos. “Therefore my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” Vos exhorted the assembled.
At the reception following the service, held in the Chapel undercroft, the Calvin community continued to offer their memories of Spoelhof:
“I knew so many students who he knew by name,” said coordinator of worship Cindy de Jong, “and they were honored to be known by him.”
“He was just very warm and inviting…,” said sophomore Andrea Beukema, who met her great-uncle Spoelhof for the first time last year. “He was very humble.”
“I think the idea of his legacy was something he understood, but he never took himself too seriously,” said Byker. “He separated the mission from his view of himself and his own role. I think that’s a gift.”
The memorial service had been planned in advance by a committee that had been meeting since fall of 2006, said executive associate to the president Darlene Meyering. “We felt that President Spoelhof’s time here over six decades was such a significant part of the college’s history…,” she said. “We wanted to be ready for when this important person left us.”
His official duties completed, Primus was talking about the Emeritorium, where a black shroud now covered Spoelhof’s corner chair. The first couple of times drinking coffee without his old friend and colleague were difficult, he admitted:
“The atmosphere was somewhat subdued, no doubt about it, but we talked about him.”
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