In the fall of 2006 at Calvin College, scholarly and philanthropic worlds intersected, with results that will benefit the college well into the future: First, near the end of September, Calvin dedicated the Frederik Meijer Chair in Dutch Language and Culture. Three weeks later the college dedicated the Brummel Chair in Organic Chemistry.
The establishment of the first chair unites one professor’s scholarly devotion to the Netherlands with the fascination of a local businessman for the same subject. The establishment of the other chair unites the research careers of a longtime supporter of Calvin and a chemistry professor—and, most importantly, of the students who will directly benefit from the chair.
Calvin President Gaylen Byker uses the same phrase to describe the creation of both the Meijer and Brummel chairs: “a nice confluence of interests.”
Henk Aay, the first holder of the Meijer Chair, dedicated Sept. 26, 2006, was 12 when his family emigrated from the Netherlands to Canada. Yet he still remembers the country of his birth. “That’s a childhood landscape,” said Aay, a Calvin professor of geography, of the little town where he grew up and swam and attended school and church. “You do tend to somewhat idealize, maybe, your childhood environment and the places of your childhood.”
A similar sentimentality, he believes, colors the portrait of the Netherlands held by the descendants of Dutch immigrants in west Michigan, the largest enclave of Dutch Americans in the country.
“Our perception of the Netherlands for fourth- and fifth- and sixth-generation Americans is very much influenced by tourist images, nostalgic images of tulips and wooden shoes. We don’t have much opportunity to keep up politically and with the church and the culture of the Netherlands.” After investing years of scholarship in the country of his birth, Aay says, “I don’t want to fall into feeding that nostalgia and those stereotypes. I want to go beyond that longing and those stereotypes.”
Aay’s concern is shared by Frederik Meijer, the entrepreneur who developed the grocery business founded by his father into 176 stores in five states. Meijer is a generous local benefactor, among whose gifts to Grand Rapids are the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park and the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center. And Meijer’s gifts to Calvin have long supported Pathways to Possibilities, the Calvin program that encourages at-risk youths to pursue post-high school education.
Meijer is also an avid student of Dutch history and culture. “A lot of Dutch people don’t know that history, don’t know it or haven’t remembered it,” he said. Meijer, however, can expatiate at length on the Dutch influence in the spice and slave trades, the settlement of New York and the Caribbean, and the American Revolution.
Moreover, his 15 visits to the country of his forebears have provided him with a fleshed-out view of current things Dutch. “The Netherlands people,” he emphasized, “are a mixture of many things. I wanted to be sure that the chair didn’t represent the one narrow view of what Holland is. I would hope it brings a pure history of the Netherlands and their people with all the warts and all the variations.”
Meijer is confident that Aay is the right person to begin that task. “I’m very encouraged that he will do a good job,” he said. Aay, who became interested in geography in high school, confessed that he didn’t focus that interest on the land of his origin until 1983. That was the year he came to Calvin, armed with a PhD in geography from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., as Calvin’s first full-time PhD geographer.
“For whatever reason, my background began to emerge,” he said. “It was at that point, in the late ’80s, that I began to much more intentionally invest scholarly interest in the Netherlands.” In 1987 he attended a conference in Amsterdam. In 1989 he led a student interim to the Netherlands. This year he led his 10th interim there. “Most of the country I hadn’t visited as a child. Now I could visit many, many places, develop excursions with Dutch colleagues I met. My interest in the country developed and took on a life of its own.” Aay has also studied and written about the geography of the country and served as a visiting scholar at the Free University of Amsterdam and the University of Groningen.
A significant part of the funding of the Meijer Chair, he noted, will fund Dutch language instruction at Calvin. “Language is the key to understanding the culture,” Aay said. The remainder of the money will allow him partial release time from teaching to pursue his vision for the chair, which dovetails well with that of its donor: to present through lectures, performances, workshops, seminars and art exhibitions a true representation of Dutch culture—a portrait of the art, architecture, technology, water and land engineering, social policy and religion of the Netherlands.
Aay won’t be shying away from touchy subjects. In November 2006, the Meijer Chair sponsored a lecture by Dutch journalist and author Geert Mak on the controversial topic of multiculturalism in the Netherlands. And in April, the Meijer Chair will sponsor events exploring the Dutch role in the transatlantic slave trade. “It is a kind of a commemoration of the end of slavery. The Dutch had a very big role in the slave trade,” he said. “And hopefully, we will also have a chapel service where we can have some reconciliation between the African-American people and the people of Dutch heritage, where we can be honest about the failings of Dutch culture.”
Not only is a scholarly focus of the chair wide-ranging, the intended audience for Meijer Chair events is, too: “We have wanted from the beginning to … have it focus on the Calvin community, the Calvin constituency and the larger west Michigan constituency,” Aay said. “I think Americans of whatever ancestry might be interested in learning about the Netherlands.”
Chairs have many benefits for the institution that creates them. They allow Calvin to attract and keep top faculty, as do the college’s existing chairs: the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence Chair; the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Christian Perspectives on Political, Social, and Economic Thought; the Paul B. Henry Chair for the Study of Christianity and Politics; and the Arthur H. DeKruyter Chair in Faith and Communication.
“Chairs also allow us to involve students in what goes on outside the classroom,” Byker said.
Research, for instance. “Research really can’t be taught in the classroom,” said Ronald Blankespoor, a Calvin chemistry professor and the first holder of the Brummel Chair in Organic Chemistry. More than any endowed chair in Calvin history, the Brummel Chair directly benefits students because of its singular focus on promoting faculty-student research.
The chair, dedicated Oct. 17, 2006, currently funds the work of Mark Vander Wal ’07, who could recently be observed extolling the wonders of a giant magnet. “If you’re doing organic chemistry, this is what you’re going to use,” said the 21-year-old senior chemistry student of the hulking metal apparatus that stands in a corner of a lab on the third floor of DeVries Hall.
A student researcher, Vander Wal spends the majority of his time concocting chemical compounds. He demonstrated how he inserts a slender vial containing a finished compound into the magnet for analysis. “That’s what most organic chemists do, make compounds,” said Vander Wal, who last year won a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship for his work on pulling forces in DNA hybridization. “It’s a lot like cooking, actually.”
There is a goal to all this concocting: Mark Vander Wal is building a molecule. “This last semester … I made about four or five steps toward the final product, which will probably take another two steps to finish,” he explained.
Vander Wal builds the molecule under the supervision of Blankespoor, and funding from the Brummel Chair allows them to continue the project, which would normally stretch over the summer, throughout the entire school year. Vander Wal is one of two students benefiting from the enhanced research opportunities of the Brummel Chair.
Andrew Lohse ’07 is another senior chemistry student benefiting from the enhanced research opportunities of the Brummel Chair this year. “He’s using a photochemical process to make organic compounds that are difficult to prepare using other methods,” Blankespoor said. Lohse, like Vander Wal, is grateful for the expanded research opportunity afforded by the Brummel Chair. “I think it is a great opportunity for undergraduates to gain more experience in research laboratories, especially in preparation for graduate school and future careers in chemistry,” he said.
Both student researchers were members of Blankespoor’s 2006 summer research team. Both have been accepted to multiple top-flight graduate programs. “They’re both excellent students,” he said.
In 30 years of teaching chemistry at Calvin, he has mentored a lot of students at the bench. “Been doing it all my career,” Blankespoor said. “I enjoy working with that age group, and it’s fun to see them develop in the laboratory, become more independent and learn the lab skills they need. And the frosting on the cake is when the project is published in an academic journal and the student’s name is on it. My first two publications were as an undergraduate, and they’re still there. That’s neat.”
It’s also crucial, said Roger Brummel ’61, who in a 30-year research career in the pharmaceutical industry has cooked up his share of organic compounds. Brummel and his wife, Connie Northouse Brummel ’60, created the chair to give Calvin students a head start in their research careers. “The sooner that students can become involved in research, the more credentials and the better backgrounds they have to go into the field,” Roger said. “Allowing release time from teaching for the holder of the chair allows that person to engage in productive research which involves students. We are thrilled that after an extensive search, Ron Blankespoor, one of Calvin’s own professors, was selected to be the first to fill the chair.”
Roger remembers with gratitude the research mentors who encouraged him through a master’s degree at Western Michigan University and the University of Missouri and a PhD at Wayne State University. Of the doctoral candidates in his graduating class, he recalled, “Fifty-nine got PhDs from Wayne State, and three got jobs. It wasn’t what you would call a very good market.” Brummel began his career as a research chemist at E.I. DuPont and moved to Parke-Davis, where he eventually became vice president of chemical development. Along the way, he created the process by which Benadryl is made and participated in teams that produced such brand-name drugs as Accupril, Neurontin and Lipitor. “I enjoyed the science that we did,” he said. “In many cases, we were developing life-enhancing and life-saving products.”
Connie worked as a middle school teacher at Oakdale Christian, Dearborn Christian and Holland Christian. Most recently she administrated the Children After School Achievement (CASA) program at Hope College, which plans after-school activities for at-risk elementary students. “It was enjoyable, rewarding and professionally stimulating,” she said.
The Brummels met while ice skating at the former Franklin Park and dated throughout high school and college at the old Franklin campus. The couple’s relationship to the college has been devoted and generous since their respective graduations.
“They’re such positive people and enthusiastic supporters of Calvin,” Byker said. Both have served on the Calvin alumni board, Connie from 1967 through 1969 and 1988 through 1990, and Roger from 1982 through 1985. Both have also served on the Calvin board of trustees: Connie from 1999 through 2005 and Roger from 1980 through 1986 and currently. They have also assisted the college in fund-raising, recruiting students, getting grants and equipment and more. Post-retirement, Roger taught for one year in the chemistry department at Calvin. Not the least of their contributions to the college were their three daughters, Brenda, Sari and Jean, all of whom attended Calvin.
It was over a pizza supper in a discussion with their daughters and sons-in-law that the Brummel Chair was informally launched. “We were talking about leaving a legacy,” Connie remembered. “We talked about faith and service and that that’s what we wanted to pass on to our children and grandchildren.”
“One of our children suggested a chemistry chair at Calvin,” Roger said. “It’s a field where the application fits in with the mission of Calvin. When you look at chemistry, it’s about taking compounds and transforming them.”
“Calvin is an institution which is intentional about Reformed Christian education—education which is about getting to know the world and then going about the task of transforming it,” Connie said.
The Brummels are eager to see students sustaining the research legacy at Calvin: “A professor guiding student research,” Roger emphasized. “Getting into the lab, having fun and beginning to discover. Hopefully, the parameters of the chair will allow more of that to happen.”
Calvin Provost Claudia Beversluis put it this way: “Roger Brummel’s career in biochemistry comes back to the college to further the next generation of biochemists. I think that’s a good model for the students to see.” She is equally enthusiastic about Meijer’s contribution: “The existence of the Meijer Chair says both internally and externally that we value our Dutch heritage."
“So many good things go on here,” Beversluis said, “and sometimes we take that for granted, the depth of both the scholarship and teaching. These chairs allow us to say that we want to ensure that teaching and scholarship continue in this area for as long as the institution exists.”
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