In 30 years, stuff accumulates. There are gifts: pictures, plaques, bookends, a significant clipping, a painting, a porridge bowl and several rows of miniature John Deere trucks that line the Commons Annex office. There are career highlights: the study groups on Calvin’s Institutes, the interims at monasteries in Kentucky and Taizé, France, the mentoring program, Project Neighborhood, the Jubilee Fellows. There are things committed to memory: yards of scripture and portions of the Institutes and the entire Heidelberg Catechism. There are also encomiums: “Couldn’t be a better guy, without a doubt,” said Shirley Hoogstra, vice president for student life. “If you wanted to figure out how to characterize Dale Cooper, all you’d have to do is look at Colossians 3, verse 12 and following,” said Calvin Theological Seminary President Neal Plantinga. “One of the things that I would like to be when I grow up is to be like Dale Cooper,” said Cherith Nordling, co-director of the office of Christian formation.
The man himself, the Calvin College chaplain, responds characteristically to the praise: “Oh, gag me. Whatever.”
Cooper, “Coop” to so many, insists that he is “a very small and not-that-big-deal player in a much larger, grander and generations-long story.” And surrounded as he is with the stuff, both tangible and intangible, of 30 years of ministry, he is remembering so many stories. They attach to every gift, every venture, every Bible verse, every student or professor or staff member or wanderer who has poked his or her head into the office, and they, too, have piled up significantly. These stories inspire him a profound gratitude, and that, not himself, is what he wants to talk about.
Cooper also manages gratitude for this particular story. “For a story like this,” he said, “might give me yet another opportunity to try to accomplish one of my clear goals this year: namely, to say ‘Thanks, thanks, thanks!’ as I finish my work here and shut my office door for the last time.”
Cooper’s story begins in Holland, Mich., on Nov. 28, 1941, to the first two of his “great, great teachers,” his parents, John and Marjorie Cooper. “I had wonderful growing-up years,” he recalled. “I was just an ordinary little kid who had the great privilege of having extraordinary parents.” When Cooper was 4, his mother was struck with polio, an illness that would place her in an iron lung until her death 40 years later.
He calls it the defining moment of his life. “The first time I could come into her room was 11 months after she got sick. It was the first time I could touch her, and obviously, she couldn’t touch me because she was paralyzed,” he said, remembering how for months his father would lift him up to gaze at his mother through the hospital window.
The experience shaped him in both difficult ways and, later, in profoundly good ones.
“The difficult way was I had a mother jerked out of my life for four years, and I became a very, very fearful little boy, so uncertain,” Cooper said.
The good that came out this early tragedy, however, was a more powerful thing: “Through the years, in rich and important and good ways … I had a front-row seat to observe people, my dad and my mom, clinging to the promises of the gospel and noting how God was faithful to them.”
“I can only record in my own spirit a depth of gratitude that words can’t express that the Lord should have given me the privilege and gift of working among these young people and presenting the message." — Dale Cooper
Cooper’s father stopped tending the onion farm that was his livelihood and instead tended his wife, who could not breathe outside the apparatus she called her “green Cadillac.” “My folks never called attention to the fact that, ‘Oh, we’re having to travel through this, and wasn’t it tough?’” he said. Rather, both accepted their roles in the family drama with a firm trust in God’s purposes for their lives. Never, he said, did they complain.
Cooper’s mother embraced her situation with a joyful faith that made her presence felt well outside the iron lung. “My mother was as fully a life-affirming mother as any other mother,” Cooper said. “She kept track of shopping lists. She remembered where we may have left our ball gloves. Now, she was terribly sick at times. But in every respect, she was every inch of a mom.”
His father was equally inspiring. “In my life, I have never seen anyone live more selflessly for another than my dad,” Cooper said. “Only one time in those nearly 40 years did I ever hear him say, ‘Yeah, I would have liked to work like other guys.’ But his next words were, ‘No, just thankful for everything.’”
The example of his parents’ lives was deeply impressed on Cooper: “The best theology really is theology done before God’s face but applied to human beings,” he stressed. “It’s not just abstract theology but trying to apply these things in real life.”
The young Cooper bore another imprint, that of the Rev. George Gritter, who every day for two years drove from Holland to Grand Rapids to read a Psalm and pray with Margie Cooper during the 45 seconds she was taken out of the iron lung. (When Gritter moved to Kalamazoo, he visited every other day.) “She wasn’t even his parishioner,” Cooper said. “So, I have some powerful models of what a pastor who cares can mean in the lives of people.”
Cooper also learned important lessons from his many great teachers. He remembered the day he first set off for kindergarten at Central Christian School in Holland. “We got out of the car and walked toward the school building, and I cried and cried and cried, ’cause I didn’t want to go to school,” he said. He found comfort there through one of his great teachers, Katherine Bratt. Later, he found encouragement in high school through the aptly named Hero Bratt, who persuaded him to come to Calvin.
“In part, I’m a teacher,” Cooper insists, “because I’m paying a debt to previous generations.”
Following his 1964 graduation, Cooper spent a year at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut before returning to Grand Rapids to study at Calvin seminary. During that time, he met his wife, Marcia, whom he married in 1967. From 1968 through 1971, the couple lived in the Netherlands, where Cooper attended the Free University of Amsterdam. “We didn’t have any money in those days, but we had friends, and we could go on long walks together along the North Sea, and we’d walk the streets of Amsterdam,” he remembered. “It was just a wonderful life.”
Cooper’s grandmother, who shared in the care of his mother, died in 1971, and the young couple, who were expecting their first daughter, Karen (Dan, Mark and Betsy followed in 1973, 1977 and 1981), felt called to move back to the states to help Cooper’s father. In 1979, Coop, who had been teaching Latin part time at Calvin, was tapped to be the chaplain. And in 1981, he moved to the Commons Annex office, whose windows look out on the big lawn and the library and whose doorway is open to the people who stream by.
In his long tenure at Calvin, he has counseled countless numbers of students. “He gets to know them, and he cares about them,” said Cindy de Jong, coordinator of worship. “He’s the pastor to the students that a college chaplain should be. He has a wonderful gift for remembering people, remembering names, faces, stories going way back.”
He has performed hundreds of weddings—“Each one is special,” he claims—and as many or more funerals and has counseled many families and friends through their grief. “In Coop’s position, you inevitably deal with difficult situations, with tragedy, with loss, the times when the wheels come off people’s lives,” said Robert Nordling, co-director of the office of Christian formation. “And maybe the phrase that comes to mind is, quote, ‘It’s OK now. Coop’s here.’ Close quote.”
He has taught numberless chapel services and cheered at countless basketball games. (“We can afford to put a little gravy on the potatoes,” he said of the latter avocation.) He has taught classes. He has authored books. He has built friendships all over campus and well outside it. He’s good at hanging out.
“There’s a whole pattern of expectation around him and around his office,” offered Plantinga. “In many ways he’s an incarnation of what’s best about Calvin College.”
Cooper has also pioneered. “He’s been a very significant shaper of many things over the years,” said John Witvliet, director of the Institute of Christian Worship.
In a 12-year tradition he called Nil Nisi Verum (Latin for “Nothing But the Truth”), Cooper studied the Institutes with several study groups of 12 students. In the early 1990s he helped kick-start the mentoring program at Calvin. From 1977 through 1984, he took groups of students to stay at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, and in 1993 to the Taizé Community, an ecumenical spiritual retreat center in France. In 1996, he invited two students to create Living Our Faith Together (LOFT), the still-thriving contemporary Sunday night worship service. In 1998, he helped to foster Project Neighborhood, which now numbers three also-still-thriving intentional student communities in Grand Rapids.
A more recent project is the Jubilee Fellows Program, which Cooper helped to found in 2002 under the auspices of the Lilly Vocation Project. The Jubilee project places students with a heart for ministry in ministry internships around the country and even abroad. “It’s been a very fulfilling thing,” he said. “We’ve been in the fifth year, and we will have had 60 young people with wonderful gifts. Some of them are in seminary, and some are in other kinds of church work. It’s one generation in the presence of another generation talking to them about what ministry is all about.”
It’s apparent to the people who know him best that in each of these endeavors—and in his many daily interactions—Cooper brings to bear the lessons he learned from his mother, his father and those many “great, great” teachers.
“Coop really lays down his life for you,” Hoogstra said. “If you need him, he’s there.”
“I tried to take seriously what it meant to be a pastor and to show them that their stories mattered to me,” he explained. “I’ve been convinced that young people can forgive anything but not caring.”
Cooper is careful to add that compassion is not the whole story. “We live in an era during which we’ve raised to a level of entitlement our story and the things that have happened to us,” he said, and by contrast again offered his mother: “She would say, ‘Dale, I would never have chosen this for myself, but I believe I was chosen for it, and I want to be a defender of God’s honor.’ … Our faithful efforts can be used by the Lord in huge ways for his kingdom and his purposes. … We’re in a cause much larger than us.”
In that spirit, he wants to tell the story about the miniature truck. (The many trucks in Cooper’s office are commemorative of his father’s John Deere tractor, an exact model of which he is famous for riding, in tribute to his father, from Grand Rapids all the way to Alton, Wis., in 2003.) This particular little truck, however, was given to him by the parents of a student who had muscular dystrophy: “He taught me much,” said Coop, “as he went toward his dying.”
He wants to tell about the plaque given to him by a donor whose generosity also built Cooper’s office. It’s a wooden plaque with brass doodads representing the loaves and fishes that former President Spoelhof urged him to keep on his table for students to fiddle with as they talked. Over the years, the doodads have come loose from the fiddling.
He wants to talk about his children and how the Calvin community has shaped them. “If you want any evidence that it takes a village to raise a child, I have four pieces,” he said.
He wants to talk about the daffodil planted years ago for his private enjoyment by a member of the physical plant staff. “Every year, that daffodil comes up taller and taller,” he said.
Following his retirement, Cooper will join the Calvin advancement division as an ambassador for the college, urging several generations of alumni to contribute financially, to pray for the college and to serve as mentors for students.
And as he moves toward cleaning out the Commons Annex office and closing its door, he once again offers thanks: “I can only record in my own spirit a depth of gratitude that words can’t express that the Lord should have given me the privilege and gift of working among these young people and presenting the message. I hope it’s been fruitful, but it sure has been fulfilling to me.”
— Myrna DeVries Anderson '00 is Calvin's staff writer.
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