It has chronicled the academic honors and the professional achievements, the marriages and the family additions, the religious devotion and the missionary zeal, the entrepreneurial doings and the artistic instincts, the inventions and the pioneerings, the comings and goings, the globe trottings and the homecomings, the truly odd jobs and the brilliant careers and the unobtrusive good deeds of generations of Calvin graduates. It “reaches all discoverable alumni from Purewater, South Dakota, to Yemen,” as professor of English emeritus John J. Timmerman wrote in one issue. It has grown from a 16-page, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t publication, filled with terse alumni notes, to a 56-page, full-color periodical, replete with every kind of news.
This year, it turns 50.
Spark began as article number eight in the Calvin Alumni Association minutes of May 27, 1953: “Decision to change the Alumni Letter to magazine form with a minimum of sixteen pages and maximum of four issues a year.” After rehearsing the practical matters of printing expenses and deadlines, the association laid forth its reason for a new publication: “A larger magazine would include a much larger coverage of news, thus making it of more interest to all alumni no matter what their particular interest may be.”
The broadening of Calvin’s alumni publication reflected a changing postwar college constituency. Calvin’s Alumni Letter, begun in 1925, had been a chatty newsletter that reflected the familial atmosphere of the Franklin Street campus. The postwar Calvin of 1953, though still occupying the same address, was a college in the throes of growth pangs — both of its student body and its physical plant — and a college increasingly under fire from critics.
“The era of putting out fires …,” is how William Spoelhof, president emeritus, remembered those early years of his tenure. Enrollment was mushrooming on campus, and the enrollees — many of them returning World War II veterans — arrived at a Calvin embroiled in ideological debates. And some of the ideas under discussion were subjecting Calvin to charges of “un-Reformed-ness,” Spoelhof said.
The Spark debuted in this climate of college growth and debate. “It was an instrument in bringing out the true story of the college — its challenges, its mission and, sometimes, its mistakes,” Spoelhof said.
The new magazine gained its name from the college’s beloved “Friendship Song.” “What’s the line? ‘The Calvin spark we once have caught …’?” reminisced Rev. Jake Eppinga ’32, who was a vice president of the alumni association when Spark was conceived. Various names were bandied about by the association’s sub-committee, among them the Calvin Alumni Quarterly, Alumni Album, Alumni Circle and Calvinalia. Eppinga claimed that it was he who fingered the line from the “Friendship Song.” “I pointed at it, and they said, ‘That’s it!’ It was just embraced by everybody.”
The first issue of Spark appeared in the spring of 1954, with a campfire on its cover and “the calvin spark we once have caught” running like a banner near its bottom. Edited by Calvin alumnus David Wynbeek ’35, the newly kindled Spark carried a message from President Spoelhof, an essay from seminary president R.B. Kuiper, titled “Calvinites and Calvinists,” and reports from alumni missionaries in New Guinea, Nigeria, Argentina, Costa Rica, the Philippines, and the Persian Gulf and alumni chapters around the country. It also featured sports news, information about association dues and a picture of the 1954 homecoming court (“These comely young ladies added a glamorous air to the festivities … ”) Under the title “Heard from … HERE AND THERE” were the alumni notes, where Calvin graduates learned, among other items, that one “Howard N. Rienstra has been awarded the State College scholarship to the University of Michigan for the current school year.”
The 1954 minutes show that the association was pleased with its inaugural effort: “The first issue of The Calvin Spark is a reality, and comments from many Alumni show that the new publication is a good success.” Subsequent issues of the magazine more or less stuck to the established format. Alumni could expect to find homecoming news, rehashes of chapter events and reunions, an essay or two, sports highlights, the year’s homecoming queen and court clutching armloads of flowers, and reminders that dues were, well, due.
Now-recognizable names percolated up through the class notes, as philosophers Plantinga and Wolterstorff embarked on academic careers at Yale and Harvard respectively, as Meindert deJong won the Newbery Medal and Frederick Manfred published Lord Grizzly, and as all-MIAA Don Vroon and “fast break ace Tony Diekema” ran around the basketball court.
Yet Spark was never star struck, giving extensive coverage to alumni in every possible vocation. In some ways the early magazine still reflected the insular community that spawned it — with its ever-popular Koffie Kletzes, perennial capella choir albums and interminable Dutch names. In other ways, Spark showed a community reaching well beyond itself. Alumni lecture series were popular events. The choirs and debate team traveled everywhere. Missionary reports came in from all over the world. (The summer 1962 issue was dubbed “The Mission Issue.”) And throughout much of the 1950s and 1960s, Spark was at least partially preoccupied with the purchase of Knollcrest Farm and the construction of the new Calvin campus.
And there were occasional precursors of the magazine of today. An article in the December 1954 issue summarizes a lecture on creationism and theistic evolution. Another, in 1955, recounts the wartime journey of Bernard Henry Velsen to Chicago via train with a vial of deadly nerve gas in his pocket.
Until there was a Calvin staff person whose job was alumni relations, Spark was produced by dedicated secretarial staff and alumni volunteers. Publication could be a hit-or-misss enterprise. Originally conceived as a quarterly, Spark often put out only three issues a year, sometimes less. One issue, Winter 1959-60, covered two full years.
In 1965, Spark came under the editorship of Jim Hoekenga ’36, Calvin’s first director of alumni relations. His column, “Jottings from Jim,” featured paragraphs of alumni association news. The majority of the magazine was a cut-and-paste job of various written pieces, both solicited and unsolicited. “The layout was the problem,” said Dick Eppinga ’67, Hoekenga’s successor in the job. “Jim … did it all on his office floor or living room floor. It was a huge job!”
When Eppinga assumed the alumni relations mantle in 1979, he asked Calvin art professor Chris Overvoorde, who had contributed many covers to Spark, to take over the magazine’s design. “In those days we still did key line and paste-up. I had a light table in my office… That’s where I did it. So my office always was a working office — a studio,” Overvoorde said.
Eppinga took Spark on its first steps toward the computer age. All of the magazine’s text was typed into the alumni office’s first computer system by alumni secretary Berdena Looman, a process which provided Spark with strips of text. Eppinga also pioneered a series of departmental profiles in the magazine. “What I remember most was it was a grueling schedule, even when handing off layout design to Chris. Spark was only part of the portfolio of the alumni director. It was a sideline for Chris. It was an addition to all his teaching. And it was a small part — an important part — of all I did,” he said.
When Eppinga handed his mantle to current director Mike Van Denend in 1984, he urged the new alumni director to take the publication further. It was advice that Van Denend, a 1978 graduate of Calvin, was ready to heed: “A primary part of the job or the job description was being editor of Spark magazine. That appealed to me because I was an English major at Calvin, and I had a journalism minor at grad school.”
Van Denend transformed the content of Spark, commissioning the magazine’s features from freelance authors. One of these early solicitations came from Bill Brashler ’68, a freelance writer and author of several books, who spoke at an alumni administration conference Van Denend attended. “He gave a lecture about alumni magazines. He said the genre of alumni magazines is dreadful because they are self-congratulatory. Most are predictable and generally not very well written. And, ironically for college grads, they don’t get anyone to think.” Brashler mentioned that one fix for the genre was to tap alumni authors for copy. “And he said, ‘For instance, if my alma mater ever asked me — which they won’t — I would do it for a song,’” Van Denend recollected. “So I waited for the end of the session and said, ‘I’m the Calvin alumni director, and I want you to write something for us for a song.’ And he did.”
The resulting piece, Brashler’s take on Calvin College in the 1960s, occasioned a torrent of reader mail — some favorable, some not. The new alumni director was undaunted. “If you haven’t given anyone a reason to write back to you, you are being predictable,” he reasoned. Subsequent Sparks have reported on a campus creation-evolution controversy in 1988, issues dealing with gay alumni in 1999 and the infamous “Harry Potter issue” in 2001.
The intention was never simply to cause controversy, Van Denend maintained, but to provide an honest picture of the college. Earlier Sparks had generally avoided unpleasant subjects, with some notable exceptions. (One 1960s edition of the magazine explained the college’s reason for removing an unnamed Chimes editor from her post.) The new alumni director’s approach echoed Spoelhof’s desire for a “true picture”: “If you want to tell alumni the good things about the institution, you have to be honest about the struggles as well,” Van Denend said.
The reinvented Spark typically contained three or four feature stories on anything from earthquake relief to women’s athletics. Cover photos often looked like those found on the newsstand. There were stories on faculty research, and alumni profiles and stories that featured interesting alumni occupations. Detecting a dearth of humor in the publication, Van Denend enlisted a particularly eloquent and sometimes witty professor to write Anonymous Bosch, a kind of Ann Landers for the Reformed set, which continues to this day.
Van Denend also continued the design legacy begun by Eppinga, working closely with Overvoorde and with Bob Alderink, a graphic designer. In 1988, Alderink started working to “take Spark digital,” a process that was being mirrored at publications everywhere, as the computer replaced the typesetter in the publishing process. It wasn’t until 1996, however, that Spark became a completely computer-generated product.
By then, the magazine had a new managing editor, Lynn Bolt Rosendale, a 1985 graduate of Calvin’s English department with a master’s degree in journalism from University of Illinois. Rosendale had spent five years as a sports stringer for the Grand Rapids Press and a freelancer for Spark when the alumni office created its publications coordinator job in 1993. “Because of the expanse of my job in general, I needed more help in the office,” Van Denend said. “And I only had a 20-hour a week job to give, and I needed to have a part of my job you could package. Spark was one of the things I loved about my job. However, publications seemed the easiest part to segment out of my work to give somebody a coherent whole to work on.”
That coherent whole quickly demanded more than 20 hours a week. “The biggest hurdle was that the week that you’d have Spark to proof, you really had to put in 40 hours here,” said Rosendale, who continued to work part time at the Press. The publications coordinator job became a full-time gig in 1994.
She soon applied her journalistic approach to the magazine, turning book reviews into author profiles, expanding the magazine from 40 to 56 pages, and, five years ago, launching Spark in full color.
“She’s been a wonderful teammate on this and has allowed us to do even more sophisticated things — sophisticated stories, features, following some continuing issues from edition to edition,” Van Denend said. “She has a rare combination of the writing skill and the detail orientation to keep a project on schedule. Our process now is she and I storyboard each issue, talk about ideas, talk about campus news, feature ideas, talk about alumni profiles, go through the magazine from page 1 to page 56. And she’s off to the races.”
Rosendale isn’t entirely alone on the racetrack. She receives input from the alumni board and the Spark editorial board several times a year — and from other sources. “When you put out a publication to a group of highly educated people who also have strong opinions, it’s not easy to please everyone, and what you do is critiqued — heavily sometimes,” she said.
The critical nitpicks don’t dampen her enthusiasm for the job: “What excites me about it is the amazing lives of our alumni. We have alumni who have helped put probes on Mars and helped design portions of the space shuttle and one who helped discover a galaxy. And it’s not just alumni who are doing things that are highly recognized. We have an alum who is teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. We have an alum who runs a charter fishing business off the coast of Alaska. Unfortunately,” she said ruefully, “that was a phone interview.”
Van Denend, too, retains his enthusiasm for the magazine he helped to re- envision, and he understands its impact for alumni from Purewater, South Dakota, to Yemen: “It’s the communication link that allows them to stay in touch with Calvin. Not everyone can come to homecoming or to a class reunion or to an alumni chapter event, but they can all receive Spark. All they have to do is tell us where they are.”
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