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.

Friday, October 19, 2012


The school's first Pres was a dynamo, an earthy, rollicking, larger-than life personality so easily mimicked that he'd do it himself, one of the only human beings I've ever known who could, with perfect success, actually play himself, self-parody--to the enjoyment of everyone else. He was, in his old age and even from the pulpit, a rubber crutch. People loved him, even those who didn't like him. He'd tell skeptical conservatives that they could rest easily because he knew how to control those liberal professors. And when the professors heard they were, by his description, little more than circus animals, they'd be mad.

But not for long. No one could stay mad too long at the first Pres.  He didn't know how to handle people, he simply did it.  He was a leader by instinct and character. He didn't try to write a manual on leadership that I know of; he was too busy leading. And, well, there would be no college without him.

The second Pres didn't light up a room like the first, but he was, oddly enough, vastly more Presidential. When he walked in, you just knew he was there. Sincere, trusting, moderate, judicious, he led by example, by precept, by principle, because he was, first of all, a deeply principled man, a preacher--like the first--who sang the praises of the mission of the college as if that mission were the very gospel. People loved both the first Pres and the second, but for slightly different reasons. Pres 1 was loved for the richness, the depth, of his ebullient personality, like a friend. People loved Pres 2 out of profound respect, like a father.

Pres 3 was the quintessential office manager, a man who loved the trappings of the presidency almost as much as he did the college itself.  He loved to meet with others who, like him, were college Presidents. He enjoyed accumulating the sky miles that kept him traveling first class. When he left the pulpit for the presidency, he left pastoring behind to become the college's first real CEO.  He was an executive blessed with managerial skills and cool intelligence, a man whose estimable virtues may well have outweighed his personality and character. Thus, he didn't light up a room. Scholarly and well-studied, he had to work at relationships; they didn't come easily. He was committed to making the institution less rough-hewn than it was when he took office, and thus, he determined, more marketable, as it had to be if it were going to continue to exist. He managed a school that was slowly but inevitably losing its fundamental constituency.

Pres 4 officially takes office today, even though there are those who would say he's been the functional dynamo around the campus for the last several years. In certain ways, he could be the first Pres's own son.  His gifts include an ebullient personality, a sharp sense of humor, and a penchant for long hours of hard work.  Like Pres 1, he loves pressing flesh. He is, or so it seems to me, the most practiced politician. The college will, I'm sure, stay on solid financial footing in the years ahead because he'll see to it. It is, after all, first and foremost a business; and this new Pres loves, as did his predecessor, running a business. The first Pres loved his people, the second loved the mission, and the third loved the office.  The fourth, whose mission begins this morning, is still young; what he loves is probably yet to be determined.  Right now, or so it seems, it may well be leadership itself, his specialty.

He takes control at a critical time in higher education in America, a time when the financial horrors of the first decade of the 21st century has made the excesses of the last few decades look like decadence, when students graduate with monumental debt basically because they've demanded luxuries the college itself couldn't afford not to have. What's more, even in education, technology is creating a new landscape, offering a plethora of degrees you can achieve, simply enough, on a smartphone.

The fourth Pres has his work cut out for him. He will need to exercise the leadership he's studied.

In 1961, my oldest sister determined that rather than follow the family's own educational heritage and go off to college in Michigan, she'd head to northwest Iowa. Her choice didn't make mine inevitable, but had she not trudged off to Siouxland, I certainly wouldn't have five years later.  In a way, I never left, so I've seen and known and worked for all four.

This morning, academically dressed for the occasion, I'll walk with the professors and a few emerita like myself; but I'll walk at more of a distance than I've ever had, a position, quite frankly, I like.  

This morning of the inauguration of the new Pres, I give my morning thanks for him, his commitment, his drive, his charms, his vision--with the hope and prayer that he will, like the others, leave a distinct and beloved legacy with those the institution serves and the God who wants nothing but the best of our love and praise.


GJK said...

Good insight, Jim.

rickandaj said...

We were students at Dordt during the transition from Haan to Hulst and have had children at Dordt during the Zylstra presidency. At Parents’ Weekend last week, we had the privilege of watching Dr. Hoekstra’s inauguration and were overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude. Thank you, Dr. Schaap, for so succinctly summing up our feelings about that day, our year’s at Dordt, and these presidencies. Soli Deo Gloria, indeed!