Llewellyn ‘Leo’ Cayvan
By Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

“Uncle Leo” never attended Calvin College and was never a member of the faculty or staff, yet his connection to the college is a remarkable example of a partnership that developed through mutual interests.

Llewellyn “Leo” Cayvan was born in 1879 in Boston, Mass. A naturally gifted musician, he began taking violin lessons at age 5. At age 7, he was performing in various cities in the United States and Canada. During his early years he became proficient on all stringed instruments; he won many medals and honors for his expertise in music.

Read more about Phil McMillan, recipient of the String Instrument Award from the Cayvan Collection, and the Fine Arts Center Renovation.

In 1900 he graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he majored in chemistry. Throughout college he helped support himself by continuing his music career. He graduated with honors and immediately went into the bakery business as a food chemist, working for the National Biscuit Co. in Chicago, Ill.

In 1925 he began working for the Hekman Biscuit Co. in Grand Rapids. He continued his musical contributions by playing with the Grand Rapids Symphony, serving as principal violist for 11 years.

His affiliation with Calvin began shortly after he moved to Grand Rapids, when he played for the annual presentations of the Messiah. He and his wife, Alice, who played viola and timpani, were members of the orchestra for this musical performance for 20 years.

Over the years he developed a bond with Calvin students and in the 1930s began string chamber music sessions at his home. Calvin musicians would converge on his home every Saturday to take part in sight-reading sessions that would sometimes involve playing through as many as 15 selections. He allowed the students to play on his collection of fine instruments, which included violins, violas, cellos and a bass. As a teacher and a mentor, he affectionately became known as “Uncle Leo.”

One student in particular, Harriet DeWaard Seely ’53, a talented chamber musician, was instrumental in securing Cayvan’s first donation of recordings to the college in 1952.

During his later years and upon his death in 1966, Cayvan donated his monumental collection of recordings, sheet music and musical instruments to Calvin. To this day a section of Calvin’s Hekman Library—Cayvan Recorded Media—is dedicated to Uncle Leo and still houses his collection of record albums and sheet music.

His instruments have recently been refurbished and are now part of the String Instrument Award from the Cayvan Collection, which are awarded annually to outstanding music students at Calvin.

It is hoped that in the planned renovation of the Fine Arts Center a special tribute can be made to this musician and benefactor so that the history of his connection to the college will be preserved for generations to come.