Denied class leads to fulfilling career

Vern Wedeven '64


Spring 2012

Vern Wedeven ’64 was nearing the end of his five-year engineering program, started at Calvin and continuing at the University of Michigan (in the days before Calvin’s own four-year program was established).

He needed one more technical elective and decided that, while not his area of main interest, it would be helpful to know something about heating and air conditioning. All he needed was a professor’s signature to approve the course.

It so happened that the professor available that day in Michigan’s engineering department was another Calvin alumnus, Ken Ludema ’52—who denied Wedeven access to the course. Why would he do such a thing?

“Professor Ludema told me, ‘You don’t want to do that,’” said Wedeven. “He had just come back from England and wanted to begin teaching a new course at Michigan on tribology. He needed students.”

Tribology, a branch of mechanical engineering, is the study and application of systems related to friction, lubrication and wear. Ludema had been sent by Michigan’s engineering department chair, another Calvin alumnus (and future president of Hope College), Gordon Van Wylen ’40, to learn about this newly emerging field.

“It turned out to be a very Calvin-influenced chain of events,” said Wedeven.

Ludema taught the class only with his notes from England; there was yet to be a textbook on the subject. Wedeven excelled in the class and Ludema encouraged him to go to England for further study.

The decision was an important crossroads for him and wife, Carol (Tuls) ’64.

“It was either pursue the Peace Corps or take the chance to continue my studies at Imperial College in England,” he said. After much thought and prayer, to England they went.

Upon receiving his degree, specializing in tribology, the Wedevens returned to the States. His first job was with NASA, a position he took the same week as Apollo 13 was the lead headline in every media outlet. Wedeven was based in Cleveland for most of that time.

A stint with SKF (a Swedish company based in Philadelphia) followed, but Wedeven was contemplating launching his own tribology research company and decided to do so when SKF wanted him to move from the area.

“It certainly was a risky thing to do,” he said, “to quit your job and mortgage, everything you had, with four kids in a Christian school. I give Carol a lot of credit for keeping things going while I worked in our basement, every day, on a test machine that I had no guarantee would work when I completed the project.” 

Wedeven’s machine not only worked, but Du Pont signed on for a research project and others followed. Within five years, all of the loans were paid back.

“Perhaps if I had fully known the challenge of this assignment, I wouldn’t have gone through with it, but I did learn first-hand about having faith that God will work all things out,” he said.

These days, Wedeven Associates, Inc. has numerous test machines, 13 full-time employees and many clients, including Pratt and Whitney, GE, Rolls Royce and NASA—which included working on vexing problems with the space shuttle.

Three of his employees are Calvin graduates: son Graham Wedeven ’96, Robert Homan ’09 and Matthew Disselkoen ’09.

“I’m working on the next chapter of the company—preparing for bright young people to take over the operations,” he said.

Today, there are numerous tribology courses, lots of textbooks and scores of conferences on the subject worldwide. Wedeven is glad to have been a part of the early days of the science, thanks to two Calvin alumni.

“It is wonderful to see God’s hand in all of this. I work in the ‘science of little things’ that reveals God’s world and creates engineering opportunities for further discovery—and we’re just scratching the surface.”