June Hamersma has a Rolodex with thousands of names in it. And that’s just the Rolodex. She also has notebooks overflowing with business cards, a Palm Pilot filled with names and an electronic database that regularly needs to be combed through just to keep it at a manageable size.
“One thing I learned early on was never, never lose a contact,” Hamersma said.
Not only does Hamersma have the contacts, she’s not afraid to use them.
“There are people on the lists that I think she hasn’t contacted in 10 years, so I think about deleting them, and sure enough that’s the contact information she wants next,” said January Series assistant DeAnna Doll.
It’s Hamersma’s extensive networking and persistence over the past 20 years that have contributed so greatly to the success of the January Series, widely recognized as one of the best college lecture series in the country (the noontime lecture series won accolades three times in the 1990s from the International Platform Association as the nation’s best campus lecture series before the association retired the award in 1999).
"I have had 20 wonderful, productive and rewarding years at Calvin. Now it is time for me to do something else." — June Hamersma
And it’s those same qualities she hopes to use in a new position as she moves on—don’t call it a retirement or a resignation—from the January Series after two decades.
“I have had 20 wonderful, productive and rewarding years at Calvin,” she said in her matter-of-fact, straightforward fashion. “Now it is time for me to do something else.”
Meanwhile, Hamersma is still busy with plans for the 2007 edition of the January Series. “We’ve set a pretty high bar for this series,” she said. “I want to be sure that 2007 is the best ever.”
That commitment to excellence dates back to Hamersma’s hiring in August 1987, when she pulled together a stellar series in a matter of months. In fact, the 1988 January Series averaged almost 400 attendees per day.
“[Former Provost] Gord Van Harn called me in his office and asked me if the Mid-Day Lecture Series was worth saving,” Hamersma said. “I told him that I felt like it could bring people onto campus, make Calvin more widely known in the community.”
Hamersma took on the challenge of revitalizing the series, which had existed since 1967 and had a dwindling attendance of about 50 people.
“I sold Calvin College and the series relentlessly,” she said.
Calvin communication arts and sciences Professor Quentin Schultze was the first speaker in 1988.
“I knew he would bring in a crowd, and he did,” she said. Almost 700 people attended the January Series debut.
These days, the January Series has become one of Calvin’s most public faces, offering a series of provocative lectures daily each January, all of which are free and open to all, thanks to Hamersma’s tireless pursuit of underwriters and her ability to attract big-name speakers for a fraction of their normal speaking fees. Daily attendance in the Calvin Fine Arts Center for the series now runs closer to 1,400, and the series is established as a west Michigan destination in the month of January.
In fact, rarely does anyone refuse to be on the series, Hamersma said.
“When June called me with the invitation to speak, I told her I was wondering when Calvin would call me,” said Kenneth Woodward, Newsweek contributing editor and 2004 January Series presenter. “I’ve spoken at over 100 colleges and universities and said right off the bat that Calvin’s reputation among people I know is that it is the best college lecture program. Period.”
What makes is different from others, according to Hamersma, are the quality of the presenters and the subjects addressed.
“It’s not a celebrity series,” she said. “Most people have probably never heard of many of the names, but I know each person is the best in their field—after all, I have an advisory committee of more than 350 Calvin faculty members.”
And Hamersma goes to great lengths to get the best to come to Calvin.
“I first came to the January Series entirely because June invited me with such energy and interest and enthusiasm that it was hard to resist!” said N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham and a prolific writer, who will appear on the series for the third time this January. “Once there, of course, I was enthralled with the whole project and delighted to be part of such a cheerful, outgoing and worthwhile enterprise.”
The series continues to draw nationally and internationally recognized speakers from around the world.
“No obstacle is too big, no idea too difficult to try, no speaker too big to contact—however, sometimes their fees are too big for us to seriously consider!” said Kristi Potter, administrative assistant to Hamersma and the January Series for the last 11 years. Potter will take over as the January Series coordinator as part of the newly reorganized division of enrollment and external programs.
As the exclamation point to her series’ finale, Hamersma will reflect on 20 years as the January Series director on Jan. 23 as the season’s final presenter.
“I often am asked, ‘How can a place like Calvin—a Christian college—present such a diverse series?’” Hamersma said. “My answer is that a series like this can only happen at a place like Calvin. At Calvin we know who we are, and we know what the non-negotiables are. Once you know who are and what your non-negotiable principles are, then the whole world of ideas is open to you.”
Hamersma said it took awhile for her to realize that. “At first I thought that I liked this job because I enjoyed all of the reading and learning about people, and it was exciting to get speakers to come here,” she said. “But as time went on, I realized this was my calling. I learned that it frees you up when you stand firm on the non-negotiable; God’s entire world is then open to examine, with discernment.”
What is next for Hamersma? “I’d like to return to my roots in public relations, advising a company or organization how best to integrate into the west Michigan community, which is like none other,” she said. “With my 40 years of community service experience I know its strengths and people.” That would bring Hamersma full circle, back to her days when she was director of publicity and public relations for the Riverside Church in New York City.
“I don’t feel old,” she said with a chuckle, “but I don’t know how one is supposed to feel at 77. My mind is full of new ideas, and now seems like a good time to implement them. I don’t know what possibilities might lie before me, but I’m excited to find out.”
Calvin President Gaylen Byker said Hamersma will be missed.
“June has been a great representative of Calvin College and its Christian, liberal arts mission,” he said. “The January Series has become a vital and integral part of each Calvin year and has provided the entire community with wonderful intellectual sunshine in the middle of winter. June has been an inspiration and a role model. We will miss her.”
Hamersma comes by her zest for life honestly. Her mother, Cecilia Bos, raised four children single-handedly, retired at the age of 80 and lived to be 98.
Of her mother, Hamersma said simply: “She was an inspiration.”
In fact, Hamersma’s partnership with Baker Book House as a major underwriter for the series began with her mother. Bos worked for Herman Baker, founder of Baker Book House, for 25 years.
“To know June is to know June’s mother, Mrs. Bos, a woman with drive, determination, colorful dress and colorful high-heel shoes,” said Richard Baker, former Baker Book House president and current chairman of the board for Baker Publishing Group. “When June and a few others from Calvin approached us to be a major corporate sponsor to the noon lecture series, Baker Book House was approaching its 50th anniversary and searching for a way to give back to the Grand Rapids and Calvin community. … It was a natural that we would sign on.”
A 1951 graduate of Calvin (who worked three jobs and put herself through college in three and a half years), Hamersma said Calvin has been a special part of her life for over half a century now.
“God has given all of us talents,” she said, “but not all of us have had a place in which to use them. I have always had a place.”
For two decades now, Calvin has been that place. It was, said Hamersma, a match made in heaven.
“I can sell anything if I believe in it,” she said. “I believe in Calvin.”
Hamersma also believes in Grand Rapids, where she was born and raised. She is founding chair of the Hospice of Michigan Foundation and has chaired three major fund-raising projects for the foundation, the latest being the 2004 Big Picture Project. In honor of her Hospice foundation work, the June B. Hamersma Planned Giving Society of Hospice of Michigan was established in 2004.
And her list of community awards grows by the month. Most recently she has been selected to receive the Priority Health Senior Impact Award. In April of 2006 she was named Communicator of the Year by the West Michigan Public Relations Society of America, along with Calvin President Gaylen Byker, for her work as co-chair with Byker of the Petra: Lost City of Stone exhibition hosted by Calvin a year ago. Calvin also was honored with a Gold Award for Petra at the recent West Michigan Public Relations Society of America’s PRoof Awards.
Hamersma has been married for 48 years to John Hamersma, who recently retired after a 50-year career at Calvin as a music professor and continues as director of music and organist at Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids. The couple built their Grand Rapids home 45 years ago and recently renovated it.
Of their abode, Hamersma said with a glint in her eye: “I love that house. We’ll live there until they carry us out feet first.” John has the lower level, complete with a mechanical-action pipe organ; her home office is on the upper level.
The Hamersmas have two married children and two grandchildren.
As for her tenure at Calvin, Hamersma said, “It’s been great. My greatest happiness is to have Kristi succeed me. She shares my ideals and commitment, and for the last four years has been my partner in producing the series. For the future I pray that Calvin College will continue to be a Christian liberal arts college committed to the Reformed biblical principles on which it was founded. Only then will it be possible to produce the January Series.”
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