James Calvin Schaap

The Professor's Death Song

What wasn't said at the funeral.

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The president's email notwithstanding, this professor was really not a professor. An old friend of mine once told me he'd had the professor as a high school teacher early in the 1950s, in a classroom where he'd been, according to this old friend, something of a joke as a teacher. But the professor had gone on to grad school, earned a doctorate in chemistry, then taken a job at a fledgling college on the edge of the Plains, where as a classroom teacher he still all too regularly stumbled over himself.

Back then, the college where I've stayed for all these years was a family, not so much the business it has become. In those days, the professor and his wife—the obituary called her "his high school sweetheart"—had a big family, some their own and some adopted, a United Nations of progeny his wife insisted upon once it became clear the professor wasn't going to go into foreign missions. Rather than send the poor incompetent professor and his sprawling family packing, the powers-that-be gave him the bookstore job, something to support his wife and kids, yet another job at which—how can I say this?—he wasn't accomplished.

Once upon a time on a visit to his office thirty years ago, I was admiring The Treasury of David, a three-volume, hardcover reprint set of Spurgeon's commentaries on the Psalms. "Take 'em," he said. I did. In a way, that's the way he ran the bookstore. I still have that set. Throughout my life, I've used it extensively—the gift of those books was rich.

When he said I could, I pulled them out from the mess that was his office, thousands of books hither and yon; a prairie twister could have marched through that place and barely altered the shape of things. By the looks of his office, he was something of a hoarder. By the time he lost that job, it must have taken a skid loader to clear the detritus.

I used to visit him there. He was more than twenty years my senior and had never really been a colleague, but he was an immensely gentle soul, and that chaos of books made me feel at home. Those occasional visits were the only times I really talked much to him, not often at all.

In short, professionally, the pioneer professor's life was a sad series of simple failures. He'd earned a doctorate in a field he left behind; he'd never prospered in the classroom; and then he ran a bookstore by staying out of the way of the woman without whose help nothing would have functioned at the checkout.

But he was a gentle man, blessed with a sweet disposition. For years, the only thing he ever said to me, in passing, was, "Beautiful day," even though I knew, for him, it likely wasn't or hadn't been. That line was, it seemed to me, less of a mantra than a commitment. Sometimes, when I'd meet him on the sidewalk, I'd say it before he could, a little game he rather liked.

But I sat there at his funeral not long ago, telling myself that there was so much left out of his obituary, out of the funeral—so much that should have been said, but couldn't.

Roughly a dozen years after the college's founding in 1955, it suffered growth pangs that threatened its existence. A coalition of professors and constituents declared war on the professors at the heart of what they believed to be the institution's creeping liberalism. It was the late '60s, a time of foment everywhere; and the young turks defined righteousness in a broader way than the old guard, who believed piety was a matter of individual behavior plain and simple, the struggle of the Christian life growing primarily from the powers of darkness within. The enemy were those who carried a different and broader worldview, one they drew, in Dutch Reformed terms, from the work of Abraham Kuyper, who was not only a pious clergyman but also prime minister of the Netherlands, a man who championed a theology that might be summarized in the fashion of another Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, who maintained that the Christian life demanded two "conversions"—one to the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and a second, back to the world he created and loves. In the late '60s, it was that second "conversion" that created havoc, suggesting to the old guard an all-too-snug relationship with the world.

In the Iowa teapot in which the institution existed, the conservatives did what they could to alert the constituency to the danger, including writing supporting churches across the continent and taking out full-page ads excoriating, even demonizing, the progressives, the liberals. The professor signed those full-page ads in the local newspaper, indicating he stood, foursquare, with the conservatives.

That was forty years ago, and only during the interim between his death and his funeral did I become aware that there was more—much more—to the story. A former colleague who was one of the targets of that distrust told me about the professor back then: "During my difficult years at DC," he wrote, "one of the persons who supported me in surprising ways was [the professor]," whose name was prominent among the signatures beneath the jeremiad in the Sioux Center News.

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