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James Calvin Schaap


The Professor's Death Song

What wasn't said at the funeral.

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"In order for him not to be booted out of the house," the now-retired progressive and friend told me, "(i) I could not meet with him in his house, but would meet [him], even late in the evening, at the college; (ii) he asked me not to call him by telephone at home; (iii) if I had a message for his lonely and bright son, I would leave a message with [him] at the college and not talk with his wife." What's more, the professor once told him, "during a long visit with him in his office at DC and in the middle of the night, that [his wife] had forced him, in subtle and devious ways, to sign that long tirade." His wife—"his high school sweetheart," to quote the obit—was, with certainty, among those who believed the college was abandoning righteousness.

But there's more to the story. The battle for institution and confessional identity ended when the president fired a few of the protesting conservatives, and other dissenters left. According to my friend—and former prof—the success of the conservatives "would have been detrimental for all those students at Dordt who were looking for renewal in their celebration of the freedom and power of biblical faith while living in a deeply troubled tradition, culture, and world."

And then this: "those students included the professor's own son, who went on to get a doctorate from Harvard—and today teaches in the Middle East."

None of this was mentioned in the obituary that appeared in the local papers—or, of course, at the funeral. And what is a man's life without his story?

But there are more chapters—chapters that bring us farther and farther away, or so it seems, from the series of promises in Psalm 121, the passage of Scripture the professor wanted as the text for his funeral sermon, the professor's death song, a psalm that seemed, at least to me, such an unlikely choice, given the truth of what wasn't said.

Late at night on June 14, 1993, an 18-year-old kid named Andrew Grant, along with an accomplice named Haggerty, entered his parents' home in Cobb County, Georgia, with the intent to kill his entire family: Gary Wayne, 42, Kathryn, 41, and his two siblings, brother Nathan, who was 16, and sister Sarah, 14. Armed with a butcher knife, he killed his mother, his father, and his sister; he told Haggerty to kill his brother, but his accomplice couldn't, and Nathan escaped.

Andrew, who had no prior criminal record, was the professor's grandson; the parents he murdered were the professor's son and daughter-in-law.

The trial began on September 25, 1995, and concluded on October 13, 1995, when the jury returned guilty verdicts on all three counts. Andrew was, that day, sentenced to death; and he is still on death row in Georgia and therefore was not present, in church, at the funeral of his grandpa, nor was his name included among the long list of children and grandchildren. His parents' deaths, like that of his sister, were clearly listed, however—with no explanation.

That staggering story from the life of the pioneer professor wasn't told and probably couldn't be. But to me, not to say anything about it seemed sadly more proper than honest.

For two years in the early 1980s, my wife and I and our children moved to Wisconsin for graduate school. During that time, every six months or so, we received a letter from the professor's wife, who would tell us what was happening at the college—a bland recitation of weather conditions, as well as a report of who was leaving the faculty or going on leave. Neither Barbara or I knew the professor's wife at all, had never spoken to her; but I soon recognized the letters' genre—it was the kind of note missionaries might receive out on the mission field, a report from home. Those letters were noble but strangely cold, like January in Iowa. They were a blessed obligation of a righteous woman who undoubtedly thought of us as being out, dangerously, in the world, somewhere on the mission field.

That the professor's wife lived in a wholly different world than the rest of us was clear to many in the college family back then. She hadn't always been that way, but later in her life she did things, said things, even wrote things that felt like the work of a fanatic. Because she never did anything to manifest her emotional problems in a public way, however, she continued to live in their century-old house. I don't remember when she died, but I know some few whispered that life just might be easier for the professor with her gone.

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