Flashback • Presidents and vice presidents visit Calvin
by Dick Harms, Archivist

President George Bush's visit to the Calvin campus for commencement this spring generated much media attention for the college, controversy within the college and criticism of the college. But this was not the first such conflation. In 1974 President Gerald Ford came to the Calvin Fieldhouse for a political rally to bolster Paul Goebel, Jr.'s campaign to win Ford's former congressional seat. Ford had resigned the seat when he was appointed vice president following the resignation of Spiro Agnew. In a special election Democrat Richard Vander Veen had won the seat, the first time a Democrat had represented West Michigan in Congress since 1913 and only the fifth time since the Republican Party was organized in 1855. (Republicans have represented the area in Congress for 139 of the last 150 years.) Ford's visit on October 19, just 10 weeks after becoming president following Nixon's resignation, brought media attention, controversy and criticism to the college. It further failed to achieve its political goal, as Vander Veen won reelection.

President Gerald Ford
On Tuesday, October 19, 1974, President Ford spoke to an enthusiastic political rally to support Paul Goebel, Jr., the son of Ford's long-time friend.

Curiously, the two people involved in the political tableau that saw Ford's rise to the presidency each also had appeared at Calvin. During the 1956 presidential campaign, vice president Richard Nixon came to Grand Rapids to campaign on October 1. Afterward, John Feikens, Calvin alumnus and head of the state's Republican Party, invited Nixon to Calvin College. On that sunny Monday afternoon Nixon and his "short, non-political speech" were well received by the crowd of over 2,000 on the Franklin campus. Nixon returned in October of 1966 to campaign for Robert Griffin, who was running for the U.S. Senate. Anti-Vietnam war protesters were prominent in this audience. In 1972 the Student Senate invited vice president Spiro Agnew to speak to the campus. Control of that October event quickly was taken over by the Republican campaign organization, which allowed only 2,000 from the Calvin community into the Fieldhouse, while another 3,000, comprised largely of party faithful and high school students, were bused in for the event. Agnew's 20-minute speech notably was devoid of the invectives and criticisms in his typical speeches. Yet he was interrupted several times by hecklers, and before he finished a sizable number of people walked out of the building. Chimes denounced both the organizers of the event and Agnew's critics for their tactics with an editorial titled "Plague on Both Houses."

Not all presidential visits were as controversial. Ford returned to Calvin a year after he lost his bid for re-election in 1976, as part of a lecture tour of the seven West Michigan colleges and universities. He spoke in the Gezon Auditorium to an audience reported to have been receptive, respectful and welcoming.