Prism: A Colorful Reflection
Yearbook tells its own version of history
By Myrna DeVries Anderson '00

The first volume has a maroon cover, which has faded to mauve, and is embossed in striking gold with the words “Calvin Annual 1920.” The mission of this, the first Calvin College yearbook, is set out in the foreword:

To be a true mirror for the reflection of the student life and activity of Calvin College and Theological Seminary; to place in bold relief the diversity of interests which serve as an avenue of enrichment for the life of every student; to be a book of pleasant recollections, one which for many years to come will be a permanent remembrance of the spirit of good fellowship pervading our school.

In the ensuing volumes of the Prism, as the Calvin yearbook came to be called, there is evidence aplenty of the “student life and activity,” the “diversity of interests” and the “pleasant recollections” of 87 years of Calvin life.

1920 Calvin Annual

The 1920 Calvin Annual was produced by the Chimes staff.

As the members of the Jowirapadabe Historical Club, the Women’s Debate Squad and the Social Justice Coalition sit for their portraits and Coach Muyskens is followed by Coach Steen is followed by Coach Vande Streek and various Homecoming queens pose in the fashion of the day and Soup Bowl gives way to Mud Bowl and Chaos Day, the pages go on dutifully noting the various choir tours, blood drives, traditions, pranks, artistic musings and political sentiments on the two Calvin campuses.

As the various Prism staffs worked and struggled to put out the book—and sometimes almost didn’t put out the book—the Prism also reflected the changing decades and, sometimes, a college struggling with its identity.

The first Calvin yearbook was produced by the staff of the student newspaper Chimes: “They had a great many difficulties to contend with. The greatest handicap was that only about one month was allotted for editing, engraving and printing,” wrote that year’s editor, Frederick H. Wezeman.

Each graduating senior is portrayed in an oval frame, accompanied by a motto (“Good humor is the health of her soul,” “Wisely and surely he treads his way”) and a list of the clubs she or he attended: Aurora Society, Corps, Nil Nisi Verum.

The first annual contains literary offerings (“Adieu!”), common Calvin “Songs and Yells,” suitable for sporting events (“Give ’em the axe, the axe, the axe/ Where!???/ Right in the neck, the neck, the neck”), and a joke section (“What would a nation be without women but a stagnation?”), interspersed with advertisements. The class prophecy of 1920, written in verse, anoints various members as doctors, missionaries and scholars.

The yearbooks of the 1920s continue in this vein, adding a club here or there and gradually increasing the showing of athletic programs. Intermingled with the posed portraits are informal photo albums, showcasing the Calvin coeds of the day, lounging and clowning around for the camera.

During these years when enrollment at Calvin grew from 300 to 400 on the then-new Franklin campus, the Prism gives an overall picture of a congenial family of scholars. “It was a tight-knit community. … In a campus of 300, 400 people, I would say most of the people knew most of the other people,” Calvin College curator of archives Dick Harms said. Back-to-back entries from the calendar section of the 1924 Prism are a case in point: “8. John Rozendal smiles at Minnie. 9. Minnie smiles at John.”

Another, dated Dec. 19 in the 1925 annual, simply shows that some things never change: “We get beat at Hope. This makes us sore.”

In the ’30s, the familial tone continues, and adulatory photo surveys of the Franklin digs become a regular feature: “Rich foliage surrounds the school like happy memories … pillars, staunch symbols of Calvin’s high purposes … even the landscape bids us enter Calvin’s halls …” read the captions of one such spread.

More Online

More on other clubs and organizations at Calvin.

See more historical photos of Calvin.

By the 1940s, however, World War II was changing that landscape. The most significant change, perhaps, was in whom was left to walk around in it. Young Calvin men, both students and faculty, donned uniforms and went to fight.

Young Calvin women, meanwhile, took up new responsibilities. The president and vice president of the student council in 1945 were both women, as was the editor of the 1944 Prism, Thea Jane Bouma, now Van Halsema ’45.

“We had a lot of people in uniform back on the campus to pay their respects,” Van Halsema reminisced recently. “We kept track of the gold stars, of course. … We were concerned about the war because we knew a whole lot of people who had gone to the war. There was a whole different atmosphere during the war.”

Harms agreed: “The war was part of every minute of people’s waking lives.”

The Prism reflects that, too, no edition perhaps as forcefully as the 1943 version, a cardboard-covered edition subtitled “A War Book.” The typical picture of the administration building on the first page of the yearbook is darkened. Photomontages are draped in flags, and the rhetoric throughout is spirited: “Sneakers whiz. Shouting is heard. A basket is made. Calvin’s girl’s team is in the fight.”

Postwar, the Prism represents a Calvin College full of music, sports, oratory, clubs and social gatherings. In the early decades of the publication, Prism shows appreciation for the whole Calvin community, offering tributes to the “gentle kidding” of bookstore employee Miss Imanse and the friendliness of custodian Mr. Norden, among other staff members.

Calvin classroom, 1954

This classroom scene comes from the 1954 Prism.

In 1954, Prism editor John Primus carried this appreciation for staff members even further by dedicating the yearbook not to a faculty member, as was customary, but to the head cooks in the Commons, Mr. and Mrs. Martin Schreur. “They were flabbergasted and very honored,” said Primus, now a Calvin professor emeritus of religion. “I thought that these two people were in touch with students on a day-to-day basis, and I thought they had a big impact in the way they dealt with students in the dining hall. I guess the Prism takes on to some extent the personality of the editor and the strength of the editor."

The Prism of 1957 records a momentous occasion in Calvin history: “The school, like the church, was suffering growing pains. … The present campus was inadequate, and build we must. Prayerfully, cautiously, and perhaps reluctantly, the Synod of 1956 authorized the purchase of Knollcrest Farm.”

This observation is accompanied by the first of many views across what is now the Sem Pond to what is now De Wit Manor, a photo spread of the future campus and the story of A Capella serenading Knollcrest’s seller, J.C. Miller, at the manor door: “For the first time the Calvin alma mater sounded across the gardens and woods.”

In the ’60s, the Prism takes on a different tone. The ’61 yearbook is written entirely in lowercase text and interspersed throughout with quotes from T.S. Eliot and Nietzsche. It begins not with a shot of campus, but of downtown Grand Rapids and of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon on the campaign trail. The traditional Calvin events are observed with perhaps a touch more detachment: “The mixing bowl again served its triple function: playing ground for athletic contest; stage for the super-selling of the Calvin spirit; and arena for the interplay of the sexes.”

And as the decade passes in the pages, with pictures of Gerald Ford and astronaut Gordon Cooper and Bobby Kennedy littered amid the grads—now stripped of mottos and identified only by major—the 1968 Prism pauses to observe: “Calvin appears to be searching for a new lifestyle and a new identity, even as it continues to ratify its previous self-image.”

The search went on in the 1970s, as the Prism takes on issues that are larger than campus events. Among the club photos and the coverage of that year’s Messiah performance, the yearbook tackles the battle against racism in the Timothy Christian School controversy and the Peace March on Washington, D.C., and pictures of an “END THE WAR” graffito being removed from the side of the science building. Throughout all runs an ongoing moral and political conversation.

And by 1971, the yearbook expands the quest for identity into a quest for meaning. That year, the staff eschewed the traditional campus shots and snappy cutlines for allegories on Calvin and Calvinism, such as “The Tale of Odd Rhymer and the Dragon,” and another that featured a chameleon being force-fed milk-soaked rusk. An acid spin on the class prophecy of yore contains this entry: “Twelve students were killed today by an ammunition truck as they crossed the East Beltline. National Guardsmen said, ‘The ammunition was to be used at campus demonstrations anyway, so there was no real loss.’”

“It was unusual because those were very unusual times. The whole society seemed like it was on the verge of coming apart,” said that year’s editor, Paul Stoub ’71. “We were casting around for meaning and for a future. Nobody knew what was going to happen. We had just had two assassinations—Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. We had the Kent State massacre. Those were awful times, and we were all staring down the possibility of the draft. So conventional stuff didn’t really have much weight for us. It’s hard to talk about. The visual reality was dependable. Everything else was up in the air.”

There is an increasingly cynical take on the production and purpose of the yearbook: “There at the desk sits the copy editor, trying like crazy to write a little whimsical schmaltz so that 35 years from now, Gertrude Van Splatten and Herbert Winkelsma ’75 will look back on their senior year and cry their eyes out,” reads a note from 1975.

Even the metaphor of the book’s title itself was up for grabs: “It has been said that learning is likened to a Prism, where light is passed through and dispersed. But if such prismic refraction casts separate lights into empty void, why then the prism?”

By the ’80s, the Prism had returned to recording the events and milestones of the Calvin community. There are MIAA championships in basketball, soccer and volleyball to note, the advent of Airband and Kindling Intellectual Desire in Students (KIDS) to announce, and Thespians to photograph in various performances.

In some ways, however, Prism was becoming less of a record of the college. In several editions of ’80s volumes, clubs and sports teams are caught in action and caption-less. “Those Prisms are not as useful for our purposes,” said Harms. “Only the people pictured know who they are.”

That trend continued into the ’90s. The Prism takes note of Chaos Day, the annual Thanksgiving auctions, the inaugural luncheon in honor of Gaylen Byker. A 1993 spread, titled “Our World,” spotlights the anniversary of Columbus discovering America, the 1992 World Series, Hurricane Andrew, the California earthquake, a famine in Somalia and the breakup in Yugoslavia.

The yearbook, however, relies mainly on images without text to convey the story. In 1998, the text accompanying the student portraits is handwritten. By the end of that decade, interest in producing the Prism had declined to the point that, when Sarah Porter Sharpe ’00, the sole survivor of the 1998 Prism crew, took the job as 1999 yearbook editor, she had no joiners. “We went to Cokes and Clubs [the annual display of clubs in which students can take part],” she said. “People wrote down that they were interested, but they never showed, or they would fail to follow through on assignments.” It took her two years to produce the book.

“I just remember feeling very shorthanded and taking the book home over the summer to try to get it done,” Porter Sharpe said. “There is technically one year that Prism didn’t get published. We kind of crashed two years into one book. I think I took the position as editor because I didn’t want no Prism to come out that year. We had worked so hard the year before to build some momentum, and I just felt like I couldn’t bear to see what we’d worked for be for nothing.”

“Our first goal is to make the Prism known across the Calvin community as it used to be in its glory days. We want to make the Prism a piece that allows stories of the Calvin community to be shared by those that live it day by day." — Prism editor Natalie Palacios If the Prism has survived into the aughts, it is due to the efforts of Calvin student life division staff who see value in maintaining it in the form it has held through the decades: as a book. “In the last 10 years, we’ve had some struggles with the yearbook in terms of maintaining student interest in the making of the book and the buying of the book,” said John Britton, Calvin associate dean of student development. At issue, Britton maintained, is the validity of a hardcover annual in the electronic age of social networking. “We researched getting a DVD or interactive type of thing. We liked it for the most part—but it isn’t exactly a yearbook,” he said. “And while high school students still lay out good money for a yearbook, the same students aren’t as likely to purchase a yearbook in college.

“I think there is some value to having a chronicle of life,” Britton added. “I do believe, however, that as new technologies emerge, we have to change with the times.”

Meanwhile, a new crop of student editors has kept the 21st century Prism reflecting life at Calvin, including this year’s editor, senior Natalie Palacios: “Our first goal is to make the Prism known across the Calvin community as it used to be in its glory days. We want to make the Prism a piece that allows stories of the Calvin community to be shared by those that live it day by day. This year we have delegated all our copy to different members of our community; this means that we will have over 100 writers—a first in Prism history!”

Prism distribution during fire drills

The 2007 Prism staff — Kim Bulthuis, Josh O'Berski, Natalie Palacios and Amy Baas — distributed yearbooks to all sophomores this fall during the annual residence hall fire drills.

“They’re looking at the old ones to see how we can make it more community-focused and how we can get the community involved,” said Joy’l Verheul, the student life Web communications manager and this year’s Prism mentor. “This is really rewarding for me because the students have a lot of talents, and they get to come out in this book. I saw what the potential could be. It’s a dying work of art, and students can take it in any direction they want.”

Norm Zylstra, the Calvin coordinator of student and young alumni programs, has joined the student life division in the effort to preserve the Prism. Together, Zylstra and the yearbook staff have launched something of a Prism revival, passing out copies of the yearbook at fire drills, for instance, and initiating a two-year plan to buy the book for every sophomore at Calvin.

“To me it’s a thing that endears students to the college, and maybe today they don’t have it. It’s a thing that will connect them. They can say to their children or their grandchildren this was what happened. This is what went on. No matter what goes on with your technology, no matter how many times you move, your books are part of your permanent stuff. A yearbook becomes part of your permanent stuff.”

As an archivist, Harms is also concerned about the permanence of a yearbook in the online realm: “The problem is, 40 years from now, when you want to look back, will it all still be online? And in all likelihood, it won’t be,” he said. “We have yearbooks signed by people, and they’ve written little notes to one another. Somebody else might look at that and say, ‘Isn’t that neat?’ but for us, it’s not that at all. When these people write in there, it’s a comment to a friend. It’s a specific event. We go back to the yearbooks frequently. I’ll bet there’s not a day that goes by in the archives that we don’t pull a yearbook off the shelf.”

Calvin parent relations director Jim Van Wingerden recently took all four of his Prisms off the shelf and gave them three hours of leisurely look-over. “I bet I spent six hours going through them, remembering people’s names and faces. … It’s interesting to see the connections I have today with people I knew at Calvin,” he said. “I go through that exercise probably about every six or seven years. I’ll pull those books out, and every time I look through them I find some new discoveries. And I buy an annual for each one of my kids every year because I want them to be able to do that.”      

— Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s staff writer.