Eighty-eight years later Calvin’s oldest living graduate, Helen Bouma Hulstein ’24, remembers that there were only 12 women on campus that year, including those enrolled with her in the pre-college preparatory school. “I wasn’t intimidated by all the men,” Hulstein said. “I just felt separated.”
Attending Calvin hadn’t been her idea. “My life was directed by my parents,” Hulstein said. “They decided I was going to Calvin to be a teacher. That wasn’t my calling. But I resigned myself to making the best of it.”
That disposition of quiet, resolute acceptance formed early in Helen Hulstein. When she was 3 years old, her parents brought her from the Netherlands to the vast openness of Iowa. A year later her mother died, and her father, unable to care for three small children, allowed his pastor and wife to adopt Hulstein when she was 6.
This adoption meant that, unlike most girls of that time, Hulstein would be sent to Calvin, first to finish high school, then to graduate from the college’s two-year teacher training program.“It wasn’t much of a training,” Hulstein said. “There was very little instruction in how to handle students with difficulties.”
Still, Hulstein was deemed prepared, and in the fall of 1924 began teaching at Holland Christian School. After three years she moved to Chicago to teach fourth grade at Ebenezer Christian School (now closed, but would integrate with Timothy Christian School) for double the pay: $35 a week. Another bonus: She met Neal Hulstein, a 1930 Calvin grad and the school’s fifth-grade teacher.
The Great Depression separated them. Both lost their jobs at Ebenezer, and it wasn’t until 1934 that both had jobs again in Chicago: she at Englewood Christian School and he at Timothy Christian.
Marrying cost Helen Hulstein her job. “In those days Christian schools wouldn’t hire married women,” she explained, “so then I became a wife. I didn’t mind. I loved to cook and sew.” Soon there were three children to care for, too.
In 1944 the Hulsteins moved to Denver. Helen remembers:
“It was February 1st when we left Chicago—a dark, cold, drizzly day. The next morning when we got off the train in Denver, there was beautiful sunshine and a perfectly white layer of snow. Chicago snow was always black because of the coal soot.”
Since that moment Hulstein has not wanted to live anywhere else. Neal died in 1971; two children left home, first for Calvin, then East Coast cities; and the third, a son, died in 1993. She has stayed in the same house in South Denver. She walks “about a mile” every day, weather permitting, with the help of her live-in caretaker. And she still bakes her famous fresh lemon pies, though no longer 25 at a time for the Christian school fair.
Once a lively volunteer, at 103 Hulstein now contents herself “with one little job on Monday mornings. My caretaker and I go to a nursing home and help with the coffee time. I don’t pour the coffee anymore, though.”
She also takes two plane trips—alone—each year to see her daughter and son. A two-week stay in each place and she’s ready to go home to Denver.
“It’s never bothered me to be alone,” Hulstein said. “I know I have a Father in heaven and He takes care of me, and whatever He sends, He’ll always get me through it.”
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