For 39 years Wally Bratt ’55 emphasized the importance of umlauts and endings to hundreds of students; he highlighted the richness and depth of German culture; he stressed the value of German literature. But nothing in his teaching was as important to this German professor emeritus as the students themselves.
“Students have to know that you care about them, and they have a pretty good antenna for that,” he said. “They can sense pretty quickly whether or not we take seriously the fact that we’re supposed to be a Christian learning community and whether or not we’re equal participants in that.”
That is a calling that Bratt took to heart during his nearly four decades of teaching.
“Teaching involves interchange,” said Bratt, “and you better care about what’s going on in students’ lives. You don’t have to go flying in where angels fear to tread, but you do have to offer yourself in difficult times, to ask if there is anything that you can do to help.”
Students certainly recognized Bratt’s caring spirit.
“I remember your office on the second floor of Hiemenga Hall. I always knew I could stop by for a conversation, and no matter what state of being I came in with, I would invariably come out feeling seen, heard, acknowledged and understood. There is no greater gift in the world than that!
“Your perceptive spirit called forth the best in me and in each one of us, seeing through the insecurities, doubts, egos, and pain to the pure potential at our core being. One moment remains crystal clear: we were walking in Germany during Interim. I was a few strides ahead, and you called to me. I thought, ‘Oh no, what did I do? I must be in trouble.’ Much to my amazement, you did not reproach me. On the contrary, your message was incredibly uplifting: ‘You are a precious gem.’ I was astounded,” wrote Chloe Lauer ’01, in tribute to Bratt.
Helping students was the central focus of Bratt’s teaching career.
He came to teach at his alma mater in 1958, after receiving a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, where he also earned his doctorate in 1966.
Throughout his years at Calvin, he led more than a dozen groups of students through the country that is like a second home to him.
“For many of our students this opportunity to make contact with the German people, especially those behind the wall, was a life-shaping experience,” Bratt said in a prior interview.
Bratt was also known as a demanding teacher, said former German colleague James Lamse, in a previous interview. “It hurts him badly when students don’t learn. … He frets about it. He wants participation.”
That, too, fit in with Bratt’s overarching philosophy.
“I think that one of the greatest gifts that we can give to students is to attempt to require of them the very best that they have in them,” Bratt said.
He received Calvin’s Exemplary Teaching Award in 1994 and the Calvin Alumni Association’s Outstanding Service Award in 2003.
“This award (the Faith and Learning Award) is especially meaningful because when you deal with students you generally receive a certain amount of positive response,” he said. “You always wonder, though, if that’s just a temporary thing … or if, in fact, what you have tried to do has more enduring consequences. Because this award is generated by former students who have been out of Calvin — some for many years — and who still, despite everything that has happened in their lives, want to nominate you, it is a real honor.”
According to former students such as Al Breems ’79, it’s well deserved, too.
“Thank you for showing me at a very crucial formative time of life what it means to be a godly follower of Christ,” he wrote. “Your wisdom, kindness and instruction changed my life.”
For Bratt, there can be no better tribute.
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