The Calvin professor's seat

by Michael Van Denend '78
Fall 2010

Nowadays, one has to risk much to venture an opinion about anything connected to politics. The “convicted civility” that Rich Mouw urged in his excellent book Uncommon Decency is hard to find— from the left or the right or even the middle.

However, those of us in the 3rd Congressional District of Michigan never had to look very hard to find examples of the kind of political servant that exemplifies a principled civil manner.

The seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that covers much of Grand Rapids has been the “Calvin professor’s seat” for over 25 years (beginning with the 5th Congressional District until 1990, when redistricting changed the area’s designation to the 3rd District). That tradition began when former Calvin professor of political science Paul Henry began serving as a congressman on Jan. 3, 1985. Henry served with distinction until his sudden death due to brain cancer on July 31, 1993.

His successor was another former Calvin professor, from the physics department this time, Vernon Ehlers, who won a special election for that seat on Dec. 7, 1993. Once again, a long and respected tenure followed. Ehlers recently announced his retirement after 17 years in the House, and the 25-year run of sending a Calvin professor to Capitol Hill will end when the 112th Congress convenes in January 2011.

But what a run we’ve had. Two Christ-centered men with dedicated hearts and minds, all about using their gifts in an arena beset with self-centeredness and political party maneuverings. So often, it seems, the larger interests of the nation and its citizens are secondary to politician and party. In our two professors, Henry and Ehlers, we had a front-row seat to observe what might be possible if our political leaders didn’t care if they ever appeared on television. Somehow they resisted the “inside the Beltway” temptations that hold sway over much of U.S. politics today.

My most indelible image of Rep. Ehlers was on Commencement day at Calvin in 2005. That was an unforgettable time at the college because President George W. Bush was the speaker and the surrounding national commentary about his appearance was intense.

Ehlers was there, along with many other political and civic leaders. In fact, Ehlers flew to the event on Air Force One with President Bush from Washington and rode in the presidential motorcade from the airport to Calvin. But after the event, Ehlers simply walked from the Fieldhouse to his home on Morningside Drive, a few blocks away, wheeling his small luggage bag behind him.

I saw him heading home, and I’ll never forget that sight. No pomp, no circumstance. He wasn’t looking for another camera to find him. Both of our professorpoliticians were constantly around the glitz and the glamour of national and international personalities. But neither seemed greatly affected. They did what all Calvin alumni are commissioned to do at graduation, to go about their work seeking first to bring honor to only one person—Jesus Christ.

Here’s to the Calvin Professor Congressional Seat. May its next holder—and the other seat holders in Congress—consider these two professors as worthy role models. If they did, decency wouldn’t be so uncommon.