“Within the historical community, the name of Robert P. Swierenga clearly ranks among the most respected. Historians have acknowledged his contribution in many fields over the decades. While some scholars make their mark in one area, Bob has earned great respect in the fields of American economic, agricultural, behavioral, and imigration history,” wrote David G. Vanderstel ’76, executive director of the National Council on Public History and a former Swierenga student.
Swierenga is also an innovator, one of the very first people to use computers to interpret historical data. “Thus, he helped to lay the groundwork for a new approach to studying the past and for training new professionals in those historical methods,” Vanderstel wrote.
Born in Chicago in 1935, Swierenga was educated in that city’s Christian schools before migrating to Calvin in September of 1953, a move he describes as “axiomatic” to his Christian Reformed community of origin. “It was onze school — our school. … We didn’t really give much thought to alternatives, “ he explained.
In his sophomore year at Calvin, Swierenga, an aspiring business major, sought to drop a class, only to find himself nudged into his vocation. It was a history class taught by Charles Miller, an “intimidating professor” newly arrived from the American University of Beirut. Henry Ryskamp, then the academic dean at Calvin, counseled Swierenga to stay with the class.
“It didn’t take me long to discover that he was a master teacher who made history so interesting. He really was my mentor,” Swierenga said of Miller.
With Miller’s encouragement, Swierenga earned his master’s degree in history from Northwestern University. For three years (1958-61), he taught social studies at Pella Christian High School, and began doctoral study at the State University of Iowa. During this time, he was also starting a large family. He had married Joan Boomker ex‘54 in 1956, and the couple eventually had three daughters — Sarah, Celia and Suzanna — and two sons, Robert, Jr. and Daniel.
In 1961 Swierenga’s alma mater called in the person of its president, William Spoelhof, asking him to fill in for a history professor who was taking a one-year leave. He took the position and the college agreed to hire him permanently after he finished doctoral studies. In 1965 he was back at Calvin, despite the puzzlement of the Iowa faculty. Several professors said, ‘Why are you going to Calvin? Why aren’t you going to the university somewhere?’” At the time, Calvin was considered an obscure school that couldn’t offer research opportunities. Nevertheless, Swierenga returned again to what was axiomatic. “In our circles — CRC circles — this was the epitome. You couldn’t ask better than to teach at Calvin.”
The three years he spent at Calvin, from 1965 to 1968, were a training ground for the new professor.
Calvin also offered him a community where he took his place in the lineup of the storied Faculty Fumblers football team and served as a church elder. The words of his Iowa professors proved prophetic, however, when in 1968 Swierenga accepted a position at Kent State University in Ohio.
His reasons for leaving Calvin demonstrate how well Swierenga exemplified the college’s mission to reclaim every inch of creation for Christ. “I really felt called to go to a secular university. I felt I was expendable as a professor and as a church member. There were so many people here who could be strong Christian professors and elders in the church.”
Swierenga was soon filling both roles in his new community. He was also pioneering in the field of quantitative analysis, using the earliest, mainframe IBM computers to upend conventional wisdom in several historical fields. He rewrote the record on everything from Iowa land speculation and tax auctions to the Dutch voting records in Abraham Lincoln’s election by doggedly crunching the numbers.
It was at Calvin, and continuing during nearly three decades at Kent State, that Swierenga worked on a treasure trove of Dutch emigration records he had discovered years before in the Calvin archives. The resulting books, Dutch Emigrants to the United States, South Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, 1835-1880: An Alphabetical Listing by Household Heads and Independent Persons, and five companion volumes based on the U.S. ship passenger manifests and census rolls, served as authoritative reference works for scholars and genealogists of the Dutch in America. “Prior to his work, nothing so complete had been compiled for persons of Dutch origin,” wrote Harry Stout, a Calvin colleague.
When not analyzing history, Swierenga was participating in it, and doing so in a redemptive way. On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen fired on an assembly of 200 protesters on the Kent State campus, killing four students and wounding nine; Swierenga was in a building adjacent to the scene, praying about the situation with his colleagues.
In the ensuing months, with the campus and town under martial law, with helicopters patrolling overhead and armed soldiers everywhere, Swierenga found a way to exhort the student body. He taught in Kent State’s Free University, derived from informal campus “teach-ins.” Unearthing his Christian Perspective on Learning (CPOL) handbook, he taught a class on Christian worldview, along with classes on C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. “It was a non-credit course, so people only took it who wanted it,” he said.
Scholarship continued to drive Swierenga. In 1996 he circled back yet again to his Dutch origins, becoming the Albertus C. Van Raalte Research Professor in the institute of the same name at Hope College. On June 10, 2000, at a conference honoring his career, Swierenga was accorded a surprising double honor. He was presented with a festschrift, a volume of essays written by his former students and colleagues. He also received a knighthood in the Order of the Netherlands Lion, bestowed on behalf of Queen Beatrix.
The knighthood, he acknowledged, is a rare honor, but so is the festschrift:
“Probably my enduring legacy will be my students,” he said. Both his students and his colleagues agree. Swierenga has supervised 24 doctoral dissertations and 18 masters theses, and served on the committees of hundreds more. “He was not aloof and removed, but interested in the well-being of his students and their families, and he demonstrated a true care and concern for each student as a person,” Vanderstel wrote.
Not even honors slow Swierenga’s scholarly output. At this writing, he has published 16 books and over 130 articles. His latest book, a 900-page tome titled Dutch Chicago: A History of the Hollanders in the Windy City (Eerdmans, 2002), once again revisits his cultural roots. “I’m really back in the Dutch ghetto again … In a sense, I was coming back all the time,” he said.
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