Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Morning Thanks--William Vande Kopple
A loving family and a wide circle of adoring friends and ex-students buried Bill Vande Kopple earlier this week. He had died suddenly, surprisingly, just a week after getting the news that his cancer was pancreatic, which is not good news. His shocking death in his favorite chair thus keeps him and those he loves from significant suffering, but his being suddenly gone is no less devastating to those who knew and loved him.
I didn't know him as a teacher, but I remember him visiting my class years and years ago, something he must have done thousands and thousands of times to hundreds of others, most all of them student teachers. He handled English Ed at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, where a score of ex-students now lament his death and remember him as a man with a heart as wide as the Grand River he loved.
He had links here. His wife, Wanda, was a Siouxlander, a member of a family with deep roots in the area, a family who lived on ground made famous among the Dutch Reformed by a folk poet named Sietze Buning (Stanley Wiersma), who documented Siouxland life during the Second World War, when he grew up. Stanley and Bill must have taught together for some time at Calvin. I'm sure they had a great time regaling each other with Siouxland tales.
Bill was here for a time when he secured a leave to finish a book he was working on, a book about writing; I don't remember exactly why he visited my class, whether I asked him or he asked me, but I'll never forget his critique afterward. He was filled with praise, but then wondered why a particular characteristic of the story was there, how that event or symbol or image was a part of the story's general thematic foundation--I have no idea any more what story my class was reading or we were discussing.
What I knew was that I was in the presence of a far more thorough reader than I was because I'd read right over something he felt so entirely purposeful. Of course, I didn't admit it. I probably nodded thoughtfully as if I'd been mulling over the very same thing. That moment stuck with me and helps me to understand why scores of Calvin English Ed grads are today missing his presence so deeply. When we talked about my class, he was thoughtful and gracious, but he managed to demonstrate that I hadn't covered all the ground. And he'd done it in fashion that was munificent.
He was a ball to be around because he walked into any room armed with a big laugh, always on the lookout for a story. Here's one I should have told him. When we moved last summer, a local church asked me to lead a Bible study, "on anything," they said. That's a lot of licence. My first reaction was that I didn't know if it would be a good fit because the church has a reputation for a level of conservatism that I don't. "Listen," I said, "it's quite likely I'm more liberal than anybody in the group. You'd better think that over."
So they did, this couples club who were on the lookout for a leader, and when they got back to me they said I would do just fine because they'd asked Bill's brother-in-law, a man Bill always called Bud to declare, once and for all, I guess, the relative orthodoxy of this newly retired ex-prof.
I don't know that Bud was the wisest judge of such things because years and years ago I'd written a story about the suffering he and his wife went through when their son died on the farm just down the road from Sietze's. Thousands of people had read the story. It was it's own kind of witness. I was quite sure that Bud liked me, despite how I might look at the scriptural authority for women in ecclesiastical office. You know.
In short, Bud said I'd be okay.
Bill would have loved that story, loved it. And one reason, I'm sure, is that human character predominated over whatever ideological barriers might have otherwise kept people from getting along. I didn't know him as well as many, many others, but Bill Vander Kopple always struck me as a man with a most generous spirit.
He loved fishing, and he was good at it. He wrote about it--not about fishing really, but about life by way of bait and tackle and getting that strike that lights up the morning. He was forever a Calvinist, finding meaning mid-stream, using daredevils and nightcrawlers and crank bait as just another means by which to see the glory of the creation hand-made by a Creator he worshiped in a boat or along the shore. Just look at the titles--The Release, The Lure. There's more there than a speckled trout, although a speckled trout is worth your time too.
I'm 700 miles away from the circle who saw him off, his loving family and friends. But I'll call Bud to see how it went. I'm sure he'll have something to say because we'll all miss him greatly. He was a man who did his job with efficiency and competence.
Grace, in the middle of the Grand.
This morning, my thanks is for Bill.