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An Interview with Dr. Spoelhof


On the occasion of his 90th birthday on December 8, 1999, Dr. William Spoelhof '31, president of Calvin College from 1951-1976, was asked to reflect on his life, career and the direction of Calvin College. Dr. Spoelhof, in fine health and vigorous mind, talked about his current life patterns, how he became Calvin's president and even the Bananer (the famous Chimes spoof of the Christian Reformed Church's magazine). What follows are some of the questions posed by Spark editor Mike Van Denend, Spark managing editor Lynn Rosendale, Calvin history professor Jim Bratt, Calvin archivist Dick Harms and Calvin English professor emerita Henrietta TenHarmsel and the responses of Dr. Spoelhof.

Q: Well, I want to start you off with some questions on the minds of many alumni. You've reached your 90th birthday. How's your health? How are you feeling? How do you spend your days?

A: I'm very content despite my ailments. I cover them up very well, although I'm very vulnerable health wise. I engage in as many out-of-the-house activities as I can. I accept all invitations to go out because it gets to be a bit lonesome since Ange's death, now almost five and a half years ago. Being active is a way of staying vital and alive. My favorite place to visit is Calvin College. I go there because I have so many friends there, I hear what's going on and, with discretion, make up my own mind as to what the status of events happens to be.

I like very much to meet students and enjoy talking with them. I ask them, "Why did you come to Calvin College?" I like to find out what their goals in life are, what courses they're taking, what difficulties they have. And I think you can discover the nature of the total student body by the representative yet random selection of people I talk to.

Q: You have some other patterns too, such as swimming?

A: Yes, three days a week at the Calvin pool before the open swim hour of 6:30 a.m. Formerly, John Kromminga and I swam everyday including Saturday, not Sunday. The pool wasn't open. Now I swim three days a week with Calvin Seminary president Jim DeJong. I didn't learn to swim until I was about 65 years of age. Jim Timmer taught me how to swim and as a reward I gave him a ceramic turtle as a remembrance. Now I don't actually swim other than to simulate swimming. It's vigorous exercise though, getting more exercise than most people would get from swimming.

Q: You have another ritual too: breakfast with Calvin chemistry professor Larry and Mary Jo Louters.

A: Yes, I met the Louters, graduates of Dordt College, when they were appointed to Calvin. They became members of our church and about on our first meeting he asked me if I taught at Calvin College. And I said, yes, I was affiliated with it. Later, Larry inquired about my routines. I told him how John and Claire Kromminga and Ange and I on Saturday morning would always go out for breakfast. If it was John's turn or my turn we'd chose a spot and not tell anyone where we were going. Each had to guess where. So, for example, John would drive down 28th Street and start singing, "Shall we gather at the..." Oh, we are going to the Gathering Place, someone would guess.

This routine ended when Ange and John passed away. Ange died at three or four o'clock in the morning on March 3, and John Kromminga died at eight o'clock in the morning on the very same day. Their deaths stunned me. I don't think I've quite been the same person since. Ours was a very, very happy and successful marriage and my apartment is loaded with memories of my wife.

About at this point, Larry said to me, "Well you used to go out with John Kromminga. How about going out to breakfast with us?" Well fine. So he would call every weekend and say, "Hey, how about coffee or breakfast on Saturday again?" Pretty soon he said, "Well, let's change the pattern. Instead of us calling each other as to whether we can or not, just make it automatic at 7:30 Saturday morning and if we can't, then we will call." Since that time we've been going steady.

Q: You also have the tradition of the religion and theology coffee room, right? And you go to chapel most days?

A: Let me see. I do go to chapel frequently, but not everyday. The pattern changes from year to year. This year I've gone to chapel on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I usually choose a liturgical chapel in preference to the free-for-all. But I also go on Friday, which is the hand-clapping chapel. We sing off the wall. The reason I go then is because there's so much enthusiasm there, and all of the new kids in the Fridays at Calvin program are there as visitors too. I don't know why but I take an interest in seeing students and their actions: Where they sit, how they behave, who's wearing a cap backwards, who takes their cap off during prayer; or, even incidentals like who's going with whom at that particular time, or who is attempting to go with someone. All of these kinds of incidentals enter into the calculus of college life. Very frequently kids will come and sit next to me and then I give them the inquisition: "What is your name?" "My name is Heather." "What's your last name?" "Bui." I say, "That sure is a non-Dutch name." "Oh," she says, "My father is Vietnamese and my mother is Dutch." "What are you going to do after Calvin?" "I'm taking a pre-med course but that is too long and too tough. I'm going to go into pharmacy and I'm going to Ferris." Since then I've known Ms. Bui, and I see her every once in a while. Except this year she's changed her direction. She's going to go to law school. That way I get in on what makes these kids tick.

Q: Then you have coffee over in the religion and theology room?

A: Oh yes, I have coffee there every day although I come late on the days I go to chapel . It's turning into an emeriti room. I see old friends there and it's really a terrific place.

Q: Who are the regulars?

A: Rich Wevers is one of them. Tom Harper is another. John Bratt is always there. They usually call it the Bratt/Spoelhof Room. Our debates involve words, word formations, pronunciations and definitions and matters of church and state. The library gave us a dictionary and because our conversation is frequently denominational they gave us a Christian Reformed Church Yearbook for reference works!

We seldom leave before we've learned something new and different. I mean, sometimes it's just plain trivia; sometimes it's a deep philosophical or theological thought; sometimes it's just plain jokes. But usually there are gales of laughter that come out of that room and kids walking by look in to see what's going on. I usually sit in the corner. I can keep an eye on who's going into the library and who's coming out.

On one of these occasions I brought a letter, which I discovered in an old Psalter Hymnal of ours, of a translation of a Dutch hymn by Stan Wiersma "Nooit kan't geloof te vell verwachten" or "Faith Cannot Do Too Much Expecting." He had translated that beautifully and when he had finished it he presented it to Ange, who was in the hospital seriously ill with cancer. The doctor had told me she wouldn't live another year. Stanley gave that letter to Ange and said, "I've finished this translation of that wonderful Dutch hymn and the best use I can find of it is to give it to you." I had a copy of that letter and translation and handed it to Chaplain Dale Cooper and said, "Here, Coop, look at this." He was so impressed with it that we all sang the song together. The door was open and the music wafted down the hallway. I guess I sing it now once a day. When I swim in the morning, I usually sing that song along with about five Dutch Psalms, which I learned in my youth at Dutch church services.

Q: When you came to Calvin as a student, did you have a goal in mind, a major in mind?

A: I had just graduated from Eastern Academy in New Jersey, which was a newly founded high school at that time. I had gone for my first year to a public high school and taken the mechanic arts course because my brother had. I took all of the humanities subjects—with only a single vocational one. When I graduated from Eastern Academy, my father—I can still see myself standing in the basement of our house with him—said, "Will, would you like to go to college?" I said, "Yeah, Pa." "Well, then you go to Calvin College and you stay with your sister Jenn."

There was no question of a goal in mind. There was no question by him of "What are you going to study for?" No question as to how he was going to finance it or anything like that. It was arranged that I would stay with my sister Jen. She was the oldest of the family. I was the youngest. She was 16 when I was born. She became my sixth, seventh and eighth grade teacher. She brought me up. She married and moved with her family to Grand Rapids and lived near Calvin. I lived with the family for four years. My only experience with dorm life was in the frequent visits with a few of my friends from Eastern Academy.

My principle goal in college was to major in history, which had been planted in me at Eastern Academy by the teaching of Bill Rozeboom, newly appointed principal and history teacher. I majored in history, essential to a pre-law course, because of Bill Rozeboom.

Q: I was thinking it would be might find out a little more about Dr. Spoelhof's interesting experiences during World War II in his work in the Netherlands and with the OSS-the Office of Strategic Services, a military intelligence agency.

A: I had just about finished my doctoral dissertation and thought, "Look, I am draft eligible, I have no children at this stage and I should do something for the war effort." I found that place in an appointment to the OSS in Washington, D.C.

The OSS was an organization under Wild Bill Donovan, who organized a separate intelligence agency, separated from Naval intelligence and G-2 intelligence of the army. This organization covered all aspects of intelligence: military, social, economic, political and everything else. And it had many aspects, the most glamorous of which were the dering-do sort of things, which gave it an undeserved reputation.

I was assigned to the Research and Analysis Branch of the OSS in Washington, D.C. My first job was to become familiar with the Dutch legation which had not yet been made an embassy at that time, also to get to know about as many underground newspapers as reached the United States, and to prepare handbooks for civil affairs officers who might occupy the Netherlands and Belgium at the conclusion of the war or during the process of liberation. In this task, I wrote handbooks on every aspect of Dutch culture and civilization—on the educational, the banking, the political and economics systems, the whole works. I even wrote one on recreation and water supply. Before that was over I was assigned to London. The agency thought that the most effective way to serve the Netherlands would be to choose a branch of service, so I chose the Navy. I went to boot camp and became a Naval officer. Thereafter, I was ordered to London.

I was shipped off on the Queen Elizabeth which was a troop carrier which had not yet gone on its maiden voyage. We crossed the Atlantic, unescorted, but with a zigzagging, completely random, unorganized route so that the ship could out distance in speed and direction any lurking submarine.

I arrived in London three or four days before D-Day. My job there was to become acquainted with the Dutch leadership exiled in London. There was a big colony of Netherlanders in London who had had experience in the Netherlands under Nazi rule. This was a fruitful source of information.

Later, my orders sent me to Brussels to open up OSS Headquarters in Brussels. My field was political, social and economic information about the Netherlands. Who would be in charge of things? Who were the people to watch out for? Who were in the underground? Other persons in our unit were in charge of getting these escapees from the Netherlands and training them as agents who reentered and then sent information back by Morse code to our unit and then relayed to London and to Paris. We had a citation as one of the busiest of the agencies in the OSS area. Our unit was fairly effective.

As a result of my war work and graduate study many benefits accrued. I had many fine teachers, but of greater benefit to myself as a person was my war experience despite the fact that every day I was lonesome for my wife and my infant son.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about becoming president of Calvin? How did it come about and what was your initial reaction when you heard that you were being considered for this position?

A: I started teaching at Calvin in 1946. I became president in 1951. I was kind of one of the young turks at that particular time. I was not present at the meeting of the faculty—I guess I had a consistory meeting at the church that night—when President Schultze announced his resignation because of ill health. At the next faculty meeting we decided that the Search Committee would be comprised of faculty members.

Q: And how large was the faculty then?

A: I can't quite tell you. It was 18 when I was a student. Maybe about 30, something like that in 1951. The faculty decided to appoint six or seven people from the faculty to be the Search Committee and also write the job description for the presidency. I happened to be one of those appointed. John DeVries, Henry Stob and Henry Zylstra were also on the committee. Those three I can remember very well. The job description which we wrote was that the president had to be someone who can walk on water. It was just an impossible position to fill. But I do remember one thing that struck me as particularly noteworthy—that the college was so nucleated in this community, lacking influence among other institutions or agencies. That impressed me as a failure which should be corrected.

When we met to adopt that document we also started to talk about the successor. We named a few persons and when my name happened to come up I said, "I wish to withdraw my name from consideration." Immediately there were others who said, "No, you can't do that because there are other people in this group who would be eligible for the presidency and they would all have to follow suit." So I said, "Okay."

We came to the faculty with a strong recommendation—Henry Stob. He was surely my choice, as he was just about everybody's choice. The faculty accepted the recommendation and transferred this conclusion to a special committee of the Board of Trustees. When that committee met, it added my name to the list.

Before sending this to the faculty they interviewed me and about the only thing that I remember about the interview was, "What would you do to change things at Calvin?" I said, "I would centralize authority in the hands of the president to accomplish a reorganization." And that's about all I said I guess, I don't recall. The committee then sent my name to the faculty and the faculty was not enthusiastic about the addition. They reported, "Well, we don't have anything against Spoelhof, but there are other people on our staff who are equally capable or better than Spoelhof," and they listed them: Henry Ryskamp, the dean, Harry Jellema, the famous philosophy professor, and the great English teacher Henry Zylstra, who was already on the staff at that time. Henry Stob was already on the staff at that time too.

So the faculty sent back these names, and added other non-faculty persons. The committee did not accept these additions. Instead they accepted the nomination of Stob and Spoelhof. Then it came to the Synod to act upon it. Stob tells it very exactly in his book. The details as related there are absolutely correct. I was for Stob. He was a good friend of mine. I was flattered to even be considered, but not confident of the result in view of my age and experience at Calvin.

Q: How old were you at the time?

A: Oh, about 40ish—early forties. Appointment to teach at Calvin had been my first job with real pay. I had been appointed assistant professor and later associate professor at Calvin College. I had just been at it for five or six years. The Trustees brought our names to Synod, meeting in closed sessions. I think Henry Stob was a member of that Synod, but of course he was not at the session. I stayed at home. In discussing the nomination, Synod added a name of its own, without first going to the faculty. On the first vote, no one had the majority.

Then on the second vote, I received the majority. I later found out it was substantial enough to make it a respectable thing. I was surprised. When I was notified, my wife wasn't too happy. I myself didn't know whether I dared accept it. In the end, I accepted the job.

It was a difficult situation for me. The faculty members were either my former teachers or my compatriots and that presented difficulties. Moreover, there was a tremendous need for reorganization, to deal with all of the students coming in, to find enough faculty members to meet larger enrollments, to deal with the big information revolution that hit us at that particular time. The new science was just being introduced. But the biggest difficulties of all, I think, were the theological, philosophical and personality difficulties in both the seminary and college faculties. The seminary had just dismissed all of her faculty except one.

Q: When was that?

A: 1951-52.

Q: It was quite a challenge to become a new president with the generational divide you talked about and the tensions. So you not only inherited an esteemed office as a relatively young person, you had to change the administrative structure, plus you inherited this big controversy of the denomination centering on the institution. That was a tall order.

A: Well, I made many a mistake doing it and I took a lot of advice. Back in those days my chief advisor was not necessarily only my administrative staff on these kinds of problems, but instead it was Bill Radius, an unsung hero in Calvin's history. I think he is one of the wisest persons that I've ever known. In a difficulty I'd say, "Bill, let's go for a walk." And we'd walk all over town talking about this and that. He knew the staff intimately and was on both sides of the staff.

Q: How did you handle difficult cases when you were president? You're sensitive to individual cases, but you run an institution and there are rules. Was that a frequent difficulty for you?

A: Let me give you one illustration. I had a student who was, oh shall I say, he was always getting into trouble, a brilliant student. That student was a thespian and on one of their trips to Chicago he got drunk and vomited all over the guest bathroom and made a mess of the place generally. Word came back to me about it. I should've kicked him out, but I didn't. I worked with him personally and he became a leading national ophthalmologist. A staff member said to me once, "Yeah, you saved that one kid. How many did you hurt?" That's true; that's maybe where I made a mistake. But I've never regretted saving that kid.

Q: At that time, early on, when the college was still fairly small and later too, did you have people on the staff who were of particular help to you in making difficult decisions or people who helped you much during your presidency?

A: Calvin College would not have been the same if I did not have Henry DeWitt, whom I had to talk into office, John Vanden Berg and Sid Youngsma as my colleagues. We were more than just staff members. We were dear friends. We knew each other well. And one can't say which person should receive the credit for successes for ours was a united effort. I remember well when I was retired from the presidency, I said to Henry DeWitt, "Henry, I'm going to recommend you as president of Calvin College." Absolutely flabbergasted he said, "I would refuse." But that man had everything. He was terrific.

Q: Was that the biggest decision that you had to make during your presidency the purchase of the Knollcrest campus?

A: It was a big decision but I don't know whether that was the biggest decision. Getting the right faculty members was really a big task. Letting some of them go was another.

Q: The curriculum revision begins in the 60s. Was that part of this whole Franklin-to-Knollcrest transformation process as you see it?

A: Yes, the curriculum revision was a part of the whole relocation process. Really the curriculum decision was an entirely collegial effort. I did not come prepared with a full-blown plan for Calvin College's dealing on the day-to-day curricular operations. There had been a lot of discussion amongst us as to the inadequacies of our curriculum—that we had just copied the University of Michigan. But there were a couple of young mavericks on our staff. I remember Tom Harper being one of them and a couple of the others who were talking about curriculum. This annoyed the older people of this staff and they said, "Bill, why don't you put the kibosh on this?" Instead I said, "Well, let's give them a voice on an all-college committee to study the curriculum and see in what direction we should go."

So we had a two or three year Curriculum Study Committee and we tried to establish a distinctively Christian curriculum in a new form of a four-one-four course plan written up in that little black book—"Christian Liberal Arts Education"—which I still think is worth reading to this day.

Q: Now to swing back into acquring the Knollcrest campus: Was it a big decision?

A: Yes, it was a big decision. But the way the college handled it was for every single one of the buildings which we built, we had the following educational assessment plan in mind: A long-range planning committee augmented by some representatives both from the entire faculty and from the departments involved argued the theory of the curriculum that would be covered in each particular building. We never talked about architectural design. We talked about the curriculum that was going to be taught in that building. For example, when discussing the Science Building we said, "Look, we've never had astronomy before. We've never had geology before." They had been considered too expensive and dangerous. "But they belong in our curriculum." So we had to answer the questions: What is the relationship of laboratory to the formal teaching? How essential is it? What is its place? After we put this together in one simple folder for each building, we'd hand it to our architect Bill Fyfe and say, "Now wrap the building around this." That's the way the campus was developed.

Q: This takes us all the way up to the mid-sixties or so and it seems like issues with the student body and the national student revolution started to come up then. That's an era that a lot of people associate with the most difficult challenges you faced.

A: Yes, I guess those were my most difficult years at Calvin.

Q: Increasingly, as years have gone by, we can see that some of the things that we struggled with at the time were not necessarily unfortunate but they turned out to be an important part of the college history and contributed to the growth of the whole denomination of accepting and realizing that Calvin College could not be a perfect college in every way but at the same time could augment her Christian Calvinist character.

A: I think that's the nature of any difficulty or any struggle—that out of it, even though you think, "Oh, it's time to despair," there comes a good which would not have been there if you had not gone through that difficulty.

Q: Let's go to the Bananer.

A: I was hoping to avoid that.

What actually gripes me most about the whole Bananer situation is that the church's minister's conference was in session at that time and many of its members were laughing about the spoof and having a great time about it. Then came Synod. And when Synod was in session, the Christian Reformed Layman's Association representatives had reprinted the Bananer, only they had taken the U.S. flag off the cover and put "censored" in the place of the flag. A Layman's Association member put a copy on every desk at Synod. It was then that Banner editor John Vanderploeg and I had an open verbal disagreement. Open, only in so far as it was during a recess of the coffee hour. He came to me and said, "William, I'm going to write a piece in the Banner about this." And I said, "I demand equal time, John." We were batting it back and forth. He said, "No, I'm going to write on this alone." And I said, "I'll go to the publication board demanding equal time." Standing in the background were synod delegates listening—not wanting to interfere, but wanting to know what was going on. That was annoying to me.

Q: You said those were some of the most difficult years for you?

A: Well, more difficult than the Bananer were the student protests. I traveled extensively throughout the United States putting out fires and spent a lot of time writing letters. But it was the student protests that I tried to understand and to gauge what it was going to mean for Calvin College. The whole denomination, I know, was waiting for the shoe to drop seeing what had happened at the University of California, where our good friend and Calvin grad Roger Heyns as chancellor there had experienced difficulties.

Those were really tough times because we had the Christian Reformed Laymen Association on our backs on one side, plus dissidents in the student body. I must tell you I went to a class reunion with one of those classes last year. President Byker and I presented at this reunion our mini-Calvin history. I told him in advance that this was going to be a tough one for me, because this was the class during the year that I had the greatest difficulty of any in my administration. And you know, that class surprised me so very, very much because they did something at their anniversary occasion that no other class has done. They took a survey of all of their graduates and asked what they had done in the area of social service. They even collected money for some social service activity and their entire program that night was really focused on the kinds of things you would want a Christian college to do.

Q: That was the Class of '69?

A: Yes.

Q: They gave an award to members of their class for excellence in social service.

A: And along with the Bananer and all of that, I got a stack of birthday cards and Christmas cards, some of them together—birthday and Christmas. I got a dandy, it was a great big "To A Friend" and on the inside it had a marvelous statement of friendship. It came from David Dykhouse, of New Jersey, one of the perpetrators of the Bananer.

Q: Why did you choose to retire when you did?

A: Well, number one, age. And it was time. I had a sense of time and I think the faculty sensed that too. But the one thing I desired to do, since I stayed on so long, was to make it 25 years but nothing more.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about not just the campus buildings but what Calvin College has become. Is this something you envisioned back then? Is the college much more than you ever thought it would be?

A: That's a very good question. We built this campus and chose the site because we thought that it would be good for about 4,000 students and we also built it for the curriculum which we had at that particular time. We adjusted our planning a bit by making sure that there was space for any future additions.

Did we envision today's Calvin when I became president? No. I wrote something for Dialogue once upon a time and I gave a history in which I said, "We've reached this plateau. Now we've got to go beyond that plateau." And that's what we've done well under Diekema and now under Byker. Hence we have made advances of which I never dreamed. Along with that comes the computer age of which I never anticipated and that has changed education completely. So, too, there are additions to the curriculum which I never contemplated. I never in my life dreamed of having an expanded engineering department and the growth in science offerings has been phenomenal.

Does all of this fit into the total mission of Calvin College? My only attempt at an answer to that question is that we should remain a strong Christian liberal arts college in which even the technical departments, namely education, engineering, pre-medical training and all of these, ought to be humanized and made as liberal as possible, always stressing the humanity and history of the disciplines thus leading to engagement with the culture of our day in our attempts to transform it.

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