Faculty Profile: Roger DeKock
May 23, 2008
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of faculty profiles that will be featured at Calvin News & Stories over the course of the summer.
He does not have cable, and he subscribes to The Atlantic Monthly. He owns a 1983 Goldwing motorcycle, and his great uncle hid Jews in his barn in the Netherlands during WWII. His favorite molecule is water.
"I have been interested in chemistry since 1960,” said Calvin professor of chemistry Roger DeKock , “What is that? 48 years? … I want to know at the molecular level, ‘How does that happen?’”
DeKock’s current research has brought him to that level, where he works with his favorite molecule. “I started to get into water during my ’03-’04 sabbatical in Calgary,” DeKock said. “Part of my research there dealt with water molecules: hydrogen atoms in aqueous systems can be very mobile.”
Before DeKock earned Fulbright and NATO scholarships for his research, before his life’s work brought him into contact with prominent social conflicts of the 20th century began, he was a growing boy in Prairie City, Iowa where, “the prairie was there; the city was not,” he remarked. “I was third in my grade school class; there were five of us.”
When it came time for college, DeKock followed the path forged by his older brother: a degree in chemistry from Calvin College. “I thought he was above me,” he said of his model.
In hopes of becoming a high school chemistry teacher, DeKock took honors chemistry during his first semester. “After that first semester I wanted to go for a higher degree,” he said.
When not studying, DeKock was working at The Butterwagon, an old-fashioned burger joint, which, he joked, should have had a “heart clinic” next to it. “I am very comfortable wearing an apron … .,” DeKock said. "At church I do communion preparation—I tend to wear an apron. One of the ministers was shocked. I was like, ‘Why not?’”
In 1965, DeKock graduated from Calvin and attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison to pursue his PhD in theoretical chemistry. The next decade of his life would take a turn from flipping burgers and paying tuition.
"The early ’60s were pretty peaceful for me. By the mid ’60s, things heat up. … The whole mood of the country changed; I was a part of that,” he explained. “During Vietnam, Wisconsin was a hotbed of anti-war activity.” For instance, Dow Chemical Company, manufacturer of Agent Orange and napalm, was interviewing university students to work in their laboratories in Madison. “Students tried to blockade the interview process,” remarked DeKock. “[We] had troops in research buildings.”
In those same buildings, DeKock also studied computer-modeling. At the time, he said, pointing to his modern Dell machine, “The whole University of Wisconsin didn’t have as much power as this computer.”
After earning his PhD, DeKock realized there were no jobs in his field, and he pursued post-doctoral research at the University of Florida in Gainesville and also at Birmingham University in Birmingham, U.K. Though not the best career strategy, he acknowledged, “It was an adventure.”
In 1972, DeKock took the first teaching job he was offered: in Beirut, Lebanon. He was an assistant professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut. “People were warning me: this place is going to blow,” he said of the then-impending Lebanese Civil War. “April 13, 1975 was our September 11,” he said. He and his wife and their two children lived about a mile from downtown Beirut, “When we would go to bed at night we heard shelling … When it blew it was like a volcano,” he added.
"I saw conflict on the University of Wisconsin in the form of National Guard troops, but I was an observer, whereas the conflict that I experienced in Beirut was much more visceral. In a way, I was an observer, but —at the time I had a family, I had my career, and it affected me personally,” said DeKock.
DeKock and family retreated to the United States, where he took a teaching position at Calvin in 1976. He has been in the chemistry department for 36 years and five of them have been spent abroad, in countries including Canada and the Netherlands. Also, from 1992-1994, he was the head of the chemistry department for Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman. DeKock regarded it as the "most exotic place” in his travels.
DeKock allowed that returning to the United States after several appointments abroad, “does take some getting used to. It’s kind of a frenetic pace.”
When not working, DeKock spends time with his wife Marcia whom he married in 1965. “I would not have been able to travel the world without her encouragement and support,” he said. He has two children, Jonathan and Laura. He enjoys cycling around Reed’s Lake and, on the ’83 Goldwing, to places like Barry County and British Columbia.
Regarding his career, DeKock imparts the following advice, “If you want to make friends, don’t tell them you’re in chemistry,” he said. “They always come up with some horror story from their previous study of chemistry.”
~by Katie Landan, communications & marketing