He'll Always Be 'Dean' Boender
By Karen Schnyders DeVries '92
Being a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan was perhaps the best preparation Don Boender could have had for being Calvin's Dean of Men.
How else could someone develop such a tolerance for disappointment and an unwavering, optimistic eye for the potential in everyone?
"Don has a redemptive outlook on students," former Dean of Women Ginny DeYoung says. "Yes, they can mess up, and you have to hold them accountable, but it doesn't mean they'll be like that the rest of their lives."
Boender is retiring from Calvin after 31 years of service, most recently as director of conferences and campus events. But he's best remembered for his 20 years as Dean. With his guidance, thousands of students have evolved from malleable and experimental youth into mature, morally grounded adults.
Dean of Men was an especially challenging post in 1969, when Boender stepped in. "Those were really tough days," Boender says - "the Vietnam War, the drug scene, the counterculture and rebellious attitude." One incident of drug sales on campus, for example, meant Boender had to suspend nine students. He still regrets not having much chance for follow-up counseling with the group.
"Probably some of my most rewarding experiences were through discipline," he says. "I could see people make changes in their lives. It took a lot of wisdom from God, which I prayed for every morning. Dealing with people's lives is not easy. But it was still the best job on campus."
Even in the midst of streakers and war protests, though, it was the little student insurrections that stirred the most waves on campus - and the most rumblings among parents.
Calvin still saw its role as in loco parentis - making itself as much as possible like the parent-governed home life from which most students came. Schedules were fairly regimented, and some activities were required.
All on-campus students, for example, went to supper and Sunday lunch at the same time. Women wearing skirts and blouses filed in first, occupying every other chair. Fresh-scrubbed men filled the open seats. Meals were served at the table rather than in today's cafeteria style.
While the system probably ignited more than a few courtships, students complained bitterly. Women even threatened to storm the dining hall in protest of the no jeans / no shorts policy. Boender says he was "a big hero" when he successfully lobbied for a trial change in policy - eliminating the family-style system on Friday nights and Sunday noon.
Also under fire at the time was mandatory chapel attendance.
Students already had found ways to circumvent the rule - paying classmates to fill their seats and fool the chapel-checkers, for example. "That helped me assess the role of Calvin in the lives of college-aged students," Boender said.
According to Dale Andringa, a Calvin student and resident assistant in the early 1970s, "There was tremendous pressure on (Calvin's administration) not only to maintain order but to be strict. Many people thought Calvin was becoming too liberal.
"But people like Don Boender, who was relatively young, said you have to get rid of a few things periodically," Andringa explained. "If chapel is worthwhile, people are going to go. But it's difficult to appreciate it if it's forced. You weren't required to listen - you were just required to be in the seat. It was destroying the spirit of what chapel was supposed to be."
Like Andringa, DeYoung credits Boender with understanding that maturity is better developed through guided freedom than strict authority.
"Don was one of the people that gave definition to the concept of responsible freedom," she said. "Students are in transition to adulthood. We want to give them opportunities to exercise freedom but support them by showing them responsibility and letting them take charge of their growth and development."
That idea also infused Boender's approach to the Dean's other main job. Boender, along with the Dean of Women, was in charge of Calvin's residence hall program, assigning roommates and hiring resident directors and assistants.
Boender's goal: To create a community that offers both identity and independence.
"If a person has identified with a community," Boender said, "adjusting to college is easier and better." He supported ideas like Chaos Day, the "sports" competition held early in the school year that pits dorm complexes against each other and allows students to set themselves apart in a sea of underclassmen.
Some of the traditions that emerged from these communities (Red Foley Day in Van Dellen, for instance) are revered, cherished and protected. Ironically, though the on-campus climate in the 60s and 70s called for changing everything, students held their dorm identity sacred.
"Rooks-Van Dellen used to be an all-men's dorm, but its residents wanted to go co-ed," Boender remembers. "The problem was, neither side wanted to become the women's side. They wanted me to decide."
Boender opted to let the students work it out themselves. "They decided on a lottery - the name that was pulled out of a hat was the side that would move over to Schultze" - which then was a women's dorm with Eldersveld. "I remember that winter night the glass on the dorm lobby windows was all steamed up because everyone was there, hot and yelling."
When Van Dellen was selected to move, Boender recalled, "They said they'd rather stay all men then become a women's hall." But Rooks men had a separate meeting and decided they'd make the sacrifice if it meant they could go co-ed.
That incident typified Boender's style of standing on the sidelines, ready to offer advice but not willing to make the decisions for anyone. Still, he's far from aloof - in fact, many students found quiet hospitality to be his strongest trait.
Andringa was one student that benefited from that. Midway through his freshman year, when Boender still was the college's director of finance, Andringa wasn't sure how he could afford to continue school.
A visit to Boender's office turned up some federal grant money - but more importantly, Andringa soon got an offer to be a dorm counselor the next year, with Boender as his boss. The summer after his first year on Boender's staff, Andringa lived off campus with some other Calvin freshmen. "But I spent half my Sundays with the Boenders, going to church with them and to their home for dinner," Andringa said. "Don's one of the finest, kindest, most genuinely nice people I've ever known, and getting to see him away from his job and in his home, I felt I could go to him with problems and confide in him."
Andringa, now a physician in Pella, Iowa, said Boender regularly had his student life staff visit him at a lakeside rental cottage every summer - "not out of obligation, but because he truly enjoys being around young people and wants to stay in tune with campus life," Andringa said.
"He was always looking for how to put special touches on events to make them better than they were," said De Young, who also was a resident assistant under Boender before becoming his colleague as Dean of Women.
"We used to do a mid-year RA training workshop on a January Saturday, and we ended it with a dinner," DeYoung remembers. "He really wanted something special on the menu, so he had the food service make baked Alaska - which none of us had ever had before. It was his way of saying, 'The work you do at Calvin is very important, and we want to honor you in one little tangible way.'"
Boender was able to use his gift of hospitality more officially when he became Calvin's director of conferences and campus events in 1991. In his eight years on the job, he built up conference business so much that the campus is booked solid each summer through 2000.
He's also served as host at Ravenswood, the on-campus home where special guests such as January Series speakers stay. He's opened the home to - and become good friends with - dozens of high-profile visitors including former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and prize-winning author John Updike. But he's also hosted those who simply are friends of Calvin - the Andringas, for instance, when they visit Grand Rapids to watch their daughter play for Calvin's women's team.
Boender hadn't planned on a career in academic administration. As a middle school student in Munster, Indiana, he started working at a men's clothing store. After high school, he worked there for two years before he followed the owner's advice and went to college.
Because Calvin's fledgling business department hadn't built a reputation yet, Boender decided to go to Northern Illinois University, where he chose to concentrate on business education. After graduation, he taught at South Christian High School in Cutlerville, Mich., became principal for a time, and ended up as registrar. In 1967, Calvin recruited him for an assistant's position in Admissions and Financial Aid.
Two years later, President William Spoelhof asked Boender to do double duty and fill in as Dean of Men for a year while the college looked for a permanent Dean. "I guess they looked for 20 years," Boender joked. After his last day in the office, Boender will move to southern California with his wife, Alyce, who will teach English part time at Azusa Pacific University. He said he'll look for some kind of job in the hospitality industry - "but nothing to do with academics!" he insisted.
DeYoung can't think of a better place for Boender, though. "When I think of Don, I can't imagine a more loyal Calvin supporter for someone who's not even an alum," she said. "He didn't attend or graduate from Calvin, but he loves this institution dearly, and he understands it. He is one of our finest ambassadors."
Karen Schnyders Devries is a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids.