The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of Calvin College
By Karen Schnyders DeVries '92
David Broder couldn't believe his eyes.
The nationally-syndicated Washington Post columnist peeked into Calvin's Fine Arts Center auditorium moments before he was to give a speech. It was January 1994, and Grand Rapids was in the throes of a snowstorm. Still, the 1,000-seat room was filled to overflowing.
That's because this wasn't just any lecture. This one was part of Calvin's award-winning January Series, put together by the quintessential hostess June Hamersma.
Each year, Hamersma somehow persuades 15 of the hottest, most up-to-the-minute speakers and performers to travel to a mid-sized town in Michigan in the middle of winter. Past headliners include former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, Palestinian Liberation Organization spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi, and Garrison Keillor, host of public radio's A Prairie Home Companion.
The best part: free admission.
"I once was told it's like getting a free liberal arts education," Hamersma said, thanks in part to underwriting from local businesses. Even if the speakers' names aren't always familiar, you can be sure they're the top expert in their field - and the topics are always cutting-edge.
Last year's Series, for example, included lectures on genetic engineering from Francis S. Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute; on Iraq by Scott Ritter, former chief weapons inspector for the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq; and on the future of organized religion by Gustav Niebuhr, national religion correspondent for the New York Times.
The lineup recently won Hamersma her third award in four years from the International Platform Association for "Best Campus Lecture Series." The contest included top schools such as Duke University and the University of Nebraska.
"We're able to get people to speak for peanuts because they want to be a part of the Series," Hamersma said. "They don't often get to speak to such a large and interested audience."
The crowds are testament to Hamersma's work ethic and her vision for the Series, an event that hasn't always had such drawing power.
In 1967, a student-faculty committee organized the first of what was then rather blandly called the "Interim Mid-day Lecture Series." The College started the series to complement the new month-long interim between semesters, when students took specially designed courses and were able to pursue interests outside of their majors.
At first, the series attracted some notable speakers and a decent turnout from the Calvin community. But promotion eventually fizzled and attendance dwindled.
Former Provost Gordon Van Harn wanted to revive the series in 1987, and thought June Hamersma might be just the shot in the arm it needed.
"June had a good reputation at the College," Van Harn said. "She had organized and run a successful concert series, she knew her way around the community, she knew the media, and she had a lot of energy."
To say the least.
Hamersma's daily routine - locally legendary, thanks to media reports - starts at 4:30 a.m. While she power-walks several miles on a treadmill at the local health club, the petite powerhouse reads several newspapers. Sunrise breakfast meetings are routine. In her office, she reads dozens of magazines and works the phones. Everyone she meets is a potential Rolodex card in her vast network of contacts.
Through sheer persistence and unflagging charm, Hamersma has nurtured the lecture series from its small beginnings into what the Grand Rapids Press called "Calvin's January Sunshine" and the "Talk of the Town." The average daily attendance has grown from a sparse 50 or so last decade to 1,400. Garrison Keillor's appearance with poet Roland Flint drew around 6,000 - people were spilling out of the fieldhouse, Calvin's largest indoor venue. The lectures are such must-see events that people covet seats in overflow rooms, where they watch via closed-circuit television.
"June has brought the community to the college in ways that had never been done before," Van Harn said. "Calvin is now recognized as a cultural force in the community."
Many of the speakers end up on the January Series schedule because they were suggested by Hamersma's Calvin colleagues. One slot always is reserved for a distinguished alumnus - for the 2000 Series, it's philosopher Alvin Plantinga. But some come simply because Hamersma wanted them - badly.
Hamersma said her biggest coup so far was landing Keillor.
"I kept writing to him all the time," she said. "I knew I couldn't afford him through his agent, but I also knew the money wasn't important to him."
Finally, after several refusals, he agreed to come. "He said he kept turning me down because he didn't have anything to say!" Hamersma remembered. But when he designed a program of poetry reading with poet and school chum Roland Flint, he found his voice.
"His acceptance just happened," June said. "There was nothing special that I did."
Hamersma has perhaps outdone herself this year by snagging Col. Eileen Collins, the first female space shuttle commander. Collins, who has received more than 1,000 speaking invitations, agreed to visit Calvin after U.S. Rep.Vern Ehlers, an alumnus and a former Calvin physics professor, pitched the Series to her at a House Science Committee astronaut reception.
Friendships with local, national and even global powerbrokers have long been a byproduct of Hamersma's career. After graduating from Calvin in 1951 with degrees in history and philosophy, she married John Hamersma, now a Calvin music professor.
June Hamersma worked as station manager for a Grand Rapids radio station before John's postgraduate schooling took them to New York City, where she became director of publicity and public relations for The Riverside Church. There, she helped plan the funeral of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., a Riverside member.
Back in Grand Rapids a few years later, Hamersma chose to stay at home with her two children, but she kept a high profile in the community. She has served on at least a dozen boards of local nonprofits, including Butterworth Hospital and Hospice of Western Michigan. She worked as concert manager for Calvin's music department for a while, and occasionally helped to plan other special events on campus before Van Harn chose her to transform the Series into a public relations boon.
The publicity hasn't all been good, though. While Hamersma's speaker selection often opens up thoughtful city-wide dialogue, one of her 1995 bookings drew enormous community criticism.
Hamersma booked libertarian policy analyst Charles Murray to talk about welfare reform. Then, many months before the Series, Murray told Hamersma he had a new book coming out that linked intelligence with access to technology and therefore with social class. Some interpreted the book as racist.
"I already knew about the book and thought the topic would have real merit," Hamersma said. "I talked to (then-Calvin President) Tony Diekema, and warned him that we would take it on the chin. I was willing to do it, but I needed him to back me up."
She had Diekema and professors from all over the political spectrum read the book, The Bell Curve. "Everyone said it was something we needed to hear," Hamersma recalled.
In December, the Press reported on Murray's upcoming appearance. The backlash was intense - Hamersma received nasty phone calls, and several people threatened to withdraw gifts to the college. A few picketers stationed themselves outside the Fine Arts Center.
Rather than cancel the lecture, Hamersma arranged a seminar before the speech that gave some objectors a chance to talk with Murray. The result was a learning experience that addressed such issues as measuring intelligence, education and racism.
"This is not to say that I agree with Murray's perspective," she said, "but it was important to hear it."
The Press supported Hamersma's decisions.
"No one gains by covering someone else's mouth or ears," chief editorial writer Joe Crawford said. "As unpalatable as the idea might be, it needs to be heard."
"We've been an enormous witness in the community," Hamersma asserted. "We've said to the community that we're willing to listen."
But as much as Hamersma likes the attention the Series has brought to Calvin, she's most proud that more students than ever are attending the lectures.
She gets them hooked early - even before they're in college. Students at Grand Rapids Christian High School can opt out of some semester exams if they write reviews of Series speakers. Crestwood Middle School in suburban Kentwood sends about a hundred students to a number of lectures each year.
Hamersma's biggest goal is to get every Calvin student to attend the Series, which exemplifies Calvin's mission.
"We teach students to think with a Christian mind," Hamersma explained. "Many current subjects are not thought of from a Christian perspective. This allows for civil discourse at its best."