Faculty Profile: Don De Graaf
June 10, 2008
He showed up at Calvin as student in 1978, thinking he would get a degree in business and from there find a job. He has, however, deviated from this initial plan. He has become things and been to places he has least expected. He has become an educator and journeyed to five of the seven continents. He has eaten dog.
“It’s always interesting when you look back on your life, how you see God leading and directing,” said Calvin HPERDS professor Don De Graaf, “and in the midst of it, it is kind of hard sometimes to see.”
De Graaf serves as the chair of HPERDS—which stands for health, physical education, recreation, dance and sport—yet his childhood was not promising in any of those areas: “I was short and fat,” he commented. “I wasn’t necessarily athletic.”
De Graaf did not even become interested in recreation until his years as a student at Calvin. He worked at Pine Rest Christian Health Services with adolescents, which got him excited about recreation therapy and kids. In his junior year, De Graaf enrolled in Calvin’s very first recreation class, which was taught by Glen Van Andel.
De Graaf graduated from Calvin in 1982 with a business major—and a minor in recreation. He applied to the masters program in therapeutic recreation at Indiana University in Bloomington and was accepted, but he ended up deferring his admission for a two- year commitment to the Peace Corps. The experience made him further realize his zeal for recreation, he said: “I went to the Philippines and lost 35 pounds and got into exercise.”
When De Graaf returned from his Peace Corps stint, he resumed his graduate program. While he was studying at IU, one of his professors stopped him in the hall and suggested he get involved with a summer program through Oregon State University; there De Graaf ended up getting his PhD in management of leisure service organizations. “Every summer, we would go to Asia and run recreation programs, basketball camps, swimming camps …,” he said. “The first week of June, we’d get on a plane and go to Korea or Japan.”
He had never considered becoming a professor. “I would have never thought that,” De Graaf remarked. “Early on, my grades would probably bear that out. Fortunately, people had confidence in me and continued to encourage and mentor me.”
After completing his PhD in recreation in 1991, De Graaf took a position at Longwood College in Virginia, then went on to teach at University of Northern Iowa in 1993. He spent five years there.
In his fourth year he took a leave of absence and went to Hong Kong. There, he assisted with TREATS, a non-profit program that brings disabled children together with their classmates through outings and activities. “It’s very much a segregated society; they segregate those kids out. It’s an opportunity to integrate those kids,” he explained the program.
While De Graaf was in Hong Kong, a position opened up at Calvin for a recreation professor in the HPERDS department, and faculty from the department, including Van Andel, encouraged him to apply. He came to Calvin in 1998.
Besides teaching, De Graaf’s has written nine books, something else he never anticipated doing. “Most of the writing I have done has been in recreation programs—how do you plan implement, evaluate recreation programs? …,” he said. “I do like to write. My first English professors would be amazingly surprised, but excited.”
As a world traveler, De Graaf feels equipped to fulfill his new role, starting in July 2009, as Calvin’s director of off-campus programs. “I’ve felt the benefits of travel; I’ve experienced it firsthand,” he explained. "I’m excited … about ways we can make that happen for other people,” he added.
"His experience, both overseas and within the U.S., will serve him well,” said the current director of off-campus programs, Ellen Monsma. “His interest in experiential learning will add to current programs.”
"One of the things I get excited about is not just thinking about what is going to be different for you if you go on an off-campus program,” De Graaf said. “But if you come back to this campus, how are you going to help this campus be different?”
When De Graaf is not sharing what he knows about recreation, he is traveling with his loved ones. “We love to travel as a family,” he said, though he hasn’t yet made it to Australia or Antarctica.
De Graaf and his wife Kathy have been married since 1987, “She was actually my boss,” he said, divulging that they met at Camp Algonquin in Chicago: Kathy was the assistant director of the camp, and he was the director of the boys’ unit. They have two children, Isaac and Rochelle, adopted from South Korea in 1995. He is an avid bicyclist. "It’s my second car,” he said.
For De Graaf, life has been full of unforeseen circumstances. “Not knowing where God is going to lead next is part of that—being willing to take some risks and to try things to see if they will work,” he said.
~by Katie Landan, communications and marketing