A letter from "Mother"
The Alumni Letter, 1925-1953

"A letter from 'Mother'": That was how the first Alumni Letter billed itself when it appeared in October of 1925, and the missive from mater continued in the same vein:

“Welcome, you say. Of course, you have not forgotten your Alma Mater. You appreciate her more today than you ever did, even in the days when you were still at home. Fond memories of Calvin days float in upon your soul in moments of reverie. We know you love the old school. We know you still love ‘Mother.’”

The Alumni Letter was the work of Henry Beets, an 1895 graduate of Calvin’s theological school and the first Christian Reformed editor of the Banner. Beets purchased the Banner from the True Dutch Protestant Reformed Church and moved its printing apparatus from New Jersey to Grand Rapids. “Beets was this kind of guy, kind of a booster of the denomination,” said Dick Harms, Calvin’s curator of archives. “He carried the name of the Christian Reformed Church into many church circles. For many people outside Dutch circles, he became ‘Mr. Christian Reformed.’”

Alumni Letter - October 1925
Alumni Letter - October 1925

Beets was also a booster of the church’s college, and he made an avocation of tracking down its graduates. “He had a number of reasons for this,” Harms said. “He thought that alumni would be interested. He also wanted to make them supporters. And that’s basically what that alumni letter became — a chatty and informative way to keep alumni informed about the alma mater.”

As mothers go, the Alumni Letter was a character.

She was opinionated, as when she welcomed home returning servicemen in the January 15, 1946, letter: “Most of them have been overseas for long months and even years. They usually wear the haberdasher’s most vivid neckwear display to prove to themselves and us that they are now Mr. So-and-so.”

She was romantic: “That sparkle you see in the eyes of the women is quite intimately connected with the returning servicemen.”

She was sometimes inadvertently amusing. Describing the Franklin campus administration building, one letter said, “The portico looks like the grandstand during a football game, except for the lack of excitement.”

She kept her sons and daughters minutely informed on each other’s doings, recording marriages, births and deaths — many war-related — academic and literary triumphs, career advancements and other gossip, as well as the college’s events and projects.

Alumni Letter - April 15, 1949
Alumni Letter - April 15, 1949

She wasn’t afraid to lay on the guilt. In a 1946 letter that bemoaned the dilapidated Franklin campus, “Mother” made this appeal for money to buy carillon bells for the cupola: “DO YOU HEAR THOSE BELLS RINGING? No, you don’t. And that for good reason. You (unless you belong to the 320 faithful ones) forgot to send in your contribution.”

And, as mothers sometimes are, she was occasionally impolitic. Welcoming Franklin Den Besten and his “New England wife” back to campus, another 1946 letter confided: “He has seen something of the sea, but more recently has been teaching the three R’s to southern illiterates.”

What the Alumni Letter captures, above all, is a picture of Calvin as it underwent the transition from the familial “onze school” to the postwar college, with its growing enrollment, expanding facilities and hard-earned sophistication. “For the college and for the denomination, the end of the Second World War worked a very profound change. It sort of dragged the Christian Reformed community out of its isolated cocoon. These young men and women had gone around the world, had traveled…. You began to see profound debates in the church,” Harms said. “That phenomenon was also one of the reasons that the Alumni Letter begins to change and becomes the Spark. But the constituency that the Alumni Letter had served began to change.”

In November of 1953, the last letter appeared with the headline, “ALUMNI LETTER BOWS OUT.” The final issue announced the creation of “a more ambitious project in magazine format.” And Mother, true to form, welcomed the new publication into the family: “Like expectant parents we know the approximate date of arrival, but we have not decided on a name.”