FLASHBACK: Peter DeVries -- 'Wholly unforgettable'
By Richard Harms, College Archivist, Heritage Hall

Peter De Vries (1910–1993) grew up in the Dutch immigrant community of Roseland, in southern Chicago. He attended Christian day school and then Calvin College, where his parents hoped he would study for the ministry. Instead, he focused on English, poetry and writing, distinguishing himself in oratory. John Timmerman, who knew him during his college years, described De Vries as “a wholly unforgettable character.”

With an ear finely tuned to language and a careful student of words, his dexterity with language became apparent in the fall of 1930 when he became editor of Chimes. To make Chimes more interesting to fellow students, he changed it from a magazine with items of news to a newspaper that also published prose and poetry. Almost immediately as editor De Vries began to verbally joust with the curatorium (board of trustees) over its refusal to approve a $5 student activity fee for student publications, forensic and student council supported by both the faculty and the students. In the Oct. 17, 1930, Chimes he listed 10 campus rules; numbers one, six and 10 were “Have Patience with the Curatorium.” In the editorial of that issue he refers to the curatorium as “very pious or very lazy” and later as the “1930 vest pocket Sanhedrin” for blasting “to atoms of smithereens by the roaring artillery of mustered dogma” the $5 student fee while approving a $5 gymnasium fee. The controversy that followed and the advice of his physician caused him to resign as editor in December.

After graduation his wit and penchant for puns and humor melded well with the elements of surprise, unexpected juxtaposition and non sequitur characteristic of the surrealism of the time. During his professional career he penned such observations as, “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be” and “Down deep, he’s shallow.” Several of his book titles indicate his keen ear for language, such as Without a Stitch in Time (1943) playing off the proverb “A stitch in time saves nine.” But for De Vries there was more to his genre than simple pun or wordplay, as he noted, “Comedy deals with that portion of our suffering that is exempt from tragedy.” His somewhat autobiographical The Blood of the Lamb (1961) begins with fast-paced plot, filled with humor bordering on slapstick, including a Chicago garbage truck sliding into the oblivion of a garbage pit. But the work ends in the draining ordeal of a father watching his child slowly die of leukemia, as did his own daughter Emily in 1960.

During a career across four decades, De Vries wrote 23 novels, two novellas, a play, stories, poems, essays, reviews and contributed to The New Yorker. He came to critical attention with the production of “The Tunnel of Love,” a farce about a couple attempting to adopt a baby; it was produced for Broadway and later made into a film. After his last published work in 1986, Peckham’s Marbles, about a novelist addicted to wordplay, he told his daughter, “When you know you’re done, you’re done.” His final words on life and death are on his headstone, “Dying is hard, but comedy is harder.”
De Vries married author and poet Katinka Loeser in 1943; they had four children.        

— Richard H. Harms, Heritage Hall