Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Prof. Nieuwenhuis: Historian


G. Nelson Nieuwenhuis deserves a palace somewhere in the neighborhood of the St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Alton, the highest geographic point in Sioux County. He and his wife Isabella ought to have a spaciously windowed mansion on the hill for these retirement years of theirs, a place where, with every morning’s dawn, the two of them could stand outside on a patio and watch the county yawn and stretch itself into life.

In a perfect world, the rest of us–those of us who live here–would make sure Nelson and his wife had a place like that because no one in the annals of Sioux County history has done as much as he has to tell the Sioux County story. If history is really important, then emeritus Prof. Nieuwenhuis, who spent thirty years teaching that subject at Orange City’s Northwestern College, should be a wealthy man, for he’s made the rest of us wealthy by remembering and telling the story.

But Nelson and Isabella Nieuwenhuis have their own place, a small frame home tucked close up to the sidewalk on the corner of 5th and Main in Hospers, the town where he was born more than ninety years ago. And if you ask him, my guess is he’d just as soon not move. After all, Nelson helped build that humble abode he and his wife of sixty-some years inhabit today. He had a hand in making it, and he’ll be happy to tell you about that, should you choose to visit some afternoon. His father was a carpenter. If builders signed their work as artists do, dozens of places in Hospers would have the name “Albert Nieuwenhuis” scrawled on a cornerstone.

Albert didn’t sign his work, of course; neither did any other 20th century Sioux County builder, but Albert’s son Nelson did. You see, Nelson Nieuwenhuis is a historian, a professional historian, whose name appears on the covers of several books, including Siouxland: A History of Sioux County, Iowa, a 1983 publication of the Sioux County Historical Society, a project which grew out of the American Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. The Committee asked Nelson Nieuwenhuis to write the book; after all, Nieuwenhuis was a professional historian.

In a way, professional suggests work-for-hire. We call someone’s work professional when it’s accomplished with decorum and efficiency, as Nelson’s histories are. But to call Nelson Nieuwenhuis a professional doesn’t capture his character. For while he goes after his work like a professional, Nelson Nieuwenhuis has the heart–the enthusiasm, the delight, the joy–of an amateur, someone who does the work solely because he or she just loves it. Like I said, stop in sometime at that little house on the corner, chat for awhile, and you’ll know that not a dime’s worth of that enthusiasm has waned. He sits in a chair on the sun porch, remembering, his thumbs atwirl, piecing together anecdotes he conjures from his memory as if each of them were as precious as the arrowheads that still occasionally emerge from the banks of the Big Sioux River.

His father’s family came to Sioux County from Michigan, where they’d been part of a strong Dutch immigrant settlement since the 1860s. His mother’s family moved from Wisconsin, where they too (the Hendrick teStroetes) had lived for decades. If you drive two miles west of Hospers, on the blacktop, you’ll pass the original TeStroete place; a looming oak that still plumes over the front yard, planted there a century ago by Nelson’s grandfather. Those are the kinds of facts Nelson remembers, the kind of facts the rest of us too easily forget.

Blessed with a predilection for math and science, not to mention facts and figures, Nelson Nieuwenhuis graduated from Hospers Elementary in 1921 and Hospers High School in 1925, one of a class of ten–five girls and five boys, who, he claims, couldn’t agree on anything.

But his education didn’t end there. He would have loved to go to Hope College, the church college back in southwestern Michigan, where his grandfather put down his first American roots; but money was something of a problem so he stayed home. Now if there are other alumni of Sheldon Junior College (class of 1928) there likely aren’t many since the place opened and closed within 17 years. But that’s where he spent his first two years, transferring thereafter to Central College, in Pella, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in 1932.


It’s entirely possible that, during the Depression, Nelson Nieuwenhuis was the only college-educated carpenter in Sioux County. Jobs were scarce, but his father’s crew had some work, so he built houses and barns and what-not else for a few years until he got a teaching job right there in Hospers. Armed with a masters degree in history from USD, he moved on to Northwestern Academy in Orange City in 1948, where he became, as I said, a professional historian.

A consummate professional historian, academically trained at a time when historians thought of themselves as archivists, repositories of facts, Nieuwenhuis penned histories, including Siouxland: A History of Sioux County, which reads, in part, like a compendium. If you to want a sense of Nelson’s spirit and personality, his biases or his agendas, you won’t find them. Nope. All that eagerness, that grinning enthusiasm he has for history isn’t in the prose because Nelson Nieuwenhuis, as a professional historian, was taught that historians should be invisible, their stories nothing more or less than what Dragnet’s Joe Friday used to pull from witnesses to crime–“Just the facts, ma’am.”

If you want to find Nelson Niewenhuis’s character in those histories, you have to read the last paragraph of his introduction to the Hospers Centennial book (1991). He’s listing those he wants especially to thank for their work, his wife Isabella foremost. But then he says this: “Above all, I thank our Heavenly Father for granting the days and the strength to begin and to complete this task.” And he closes with some words from the book of Isaiah: “Lord, you have established peace for us; everything that we have achieved is the result of what you do.”

Or this, from Siouxland. “Lastly, we send forth this work with sincere thanks to God for His indispensable help, for we are convinced that ‘unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.’”

What follows in both of those books is story, well told, professionally done; but Nelson disappears. If you want to know him, he’d likely say, just have a look at those two paragraphs.

My guess is, Nelson Nieuwenhuis wouldn’t want that palace at the highest geographical point of Sioux County. My guess is, if Nelson and Isabella had a choice, they’d be more than happy to stay in the little frame house kitty-corner from the church where he was himself baptized 90 years ago–First Reformed Church, Hospers, Iowa.

Isabella’s back has been giving her problems lately, and this winter the ice is extreme, making walking especially hazardous–even dangerous. So this winter Nelson and Isabella can’t get to Sunday worship, even though they’d like to. No matter. The sound system the church put in enables those folks hard of hearing to simply put on a pair of earphones to listen to the service. All they have to do, once inside, is tune in.

But what Nelson and Isabella have discovered is that their little frame house is close enough to First Reformed that they can sit right there in their kitchen or in the porch room with the windows, and hear the whole thing.

Now think of the two of them right there in that house he helped build, that close to the church he’s been a member of for all of his ninety years; imagine the two of them tuned in to every word of the worship just a stone’s throw across the street.

That’s why he wouldn’t take that palace.

And in part, he’d say, that’s what makes him a really wealthy man.
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I wrote this profile a decade ago.  Prof. Nieuwenhuis died last week.  He was 103 years old.  Isabella died several years ago.

1 comment:

Dutchoven said...

Those who write history, they are a lot like photographers- they see what no one else takes the time to see, and then attempt to capture and reproduce the instance for the future in a frame that really doesn't do justice to the landscape envisioned in their mind.

As imperfect as that vision may be, it often inspires others to stop for just a moment and stand in awe of what was truly real for eyes that beheld it once.

Prof. Nieuwenhuis is no longer with us but we "see" through his eyes more clearly the path once traveled by those who embraced this blue marble sometimes tentatively, other times vigorously, but in the end- thankfully.