Alma mater matters


Issue: "No man's land," May 10, 2003

If Calvin college's nerve center is in the Spoelhoff administration building, its collective memory may reside in the building next door. There, in a teacher-style coffee room with walls of vanilla cinder block, Calvin alumni and emeriti gather to trade tales every morning at 10 a.m. Though the adjacent rooms and hallways are newer and well-kept-30 feet away students study before a huge fireplace in an open and contemporary carpeted space-this tiny lounge, with its institutional steel coffee urn and mix-and-match schoolroom chairs, looks purposefully untouched.

Attendees at this morning's gab session include Calvin President Emeritus William Spoelhoff, a lanky 90-something whose eyes are lively behind thick glasses, and librarian emeritus Conrad Bult, 70ish, who looks a little like a tall Orville Reddenbacher. Though the two are clearly old friends, Mr. Bult addresses Mr. Spoelhoff by title.

"Would you like some coffee, President Spoelhoff?" Mr. Bult asks politely.

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"Yes, please," Mr. Spoelhoff replies, signaling an amount with thumb and forefinger: "Just about an inch."

Mr. Spoelhoff himself gave Calvin a yard as its longest-serving president, leading the college from 1951 to 1976. He's still an institution around here, keeps an office, and strolls the halls every day, greeting many students by name. Word among the students is he's more of a people man than current president Gaylen Byker, a former banker and energy company executive whom some see as a dollars-and-cents president, more apt to raise funds than mingle. (That may not be a fair assessment since Mr. Byker did lip-sync The Village People's "YMCA" at last year's campus-wide "air band" competition. But even some Calvin professors worry that Mr. Byker's business background may snare the school's academic pursuits in a tangle of purse strings.)

Meanwhile, Calvin exhibits what seems a disproportionate dose of clout for a medium-sized private school in the middle of nowhere. In 2000, it hosted a Republican primary debate featuring presidential hopeful George W. Bush (with no residual whining from the left as when Candidate Bush visited Bob Jones University that same year). Within the past year alone, Calvin has hosted then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and secured Grand Rapids as the only U.S. venue at which the traveling Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit is appearing in 2003. The school also enjoys a hefty endowment from Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant.

In part, that money funds the Lilly Vocation Project, a new project that nurtures theologically based exploration and development of vocation, and encourages campus-wide spiritual mentoring and discipleship. Milwaukee, Wis., native Ben Katt is a direct beneficiary. The 22-year-old Spanish major graduated from Calvin in December, but not before experiencing personal revival.

Last spring, Ben went with a group of students on a study-abroad trip to Spain. But for awhile, Ben admits, he did more partying than studying. He and his friend Nick emerged as social leaders of the group, "but it was the wrong kind of leadership," Ben said: hanging at bars, getting drunk, using bad language, and talking about, well, worldly things. Ben and Nick noticed that other students did the same. Then one morning, the two sat in a park in Seville, reflecting on the tipsy weekend they'd just had. Ben doesn't remember who spoke first, only that he and Nick looked at each other, and exchanged the essential message: "Dude, what are we doing?"

"Here we were this group of kids from a Christian college and we weren't representing Christ well," Ben told WORLD. "I became aware of how halfheartedly I was following Christ." The pair recommitted themselves to Christian discipleship. They also agreed to give up drinking "until we could learn how to be responsible again." Thereafter, instead of holing up in Spanish bars, Ben and Nick found other things to do, like enjoying the Mediterranean-other students followed. When Ben and Nick returned to Grand Rapids they launched a large Bible study that since has spun off at least three more groups.

Through the Lilly Vocation Project, Ben helped organize student retreats. Now, he works part-time at Calvin while preparing for graduate work elsewhere, but he still meets once a week with a group of juniors. "I wanted to challenge upperclassmen to pour themselves back into the campus, to mentor younger students who are searching and struggling in their faith." While he acknowledges significant pockets of "worldly, lukewarm" students at Calvin, "I see God working in hearts all over the campus," Ben explained. He and a group of about 50 upperclassmen, he said, "decided we wanted to leave a legacy here, pass the torch of faith."

Lynn Vincent
Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.


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