He was greatly to be feared--to some, at least. Not me. For reasons known only to him he liked me, although like is not a word that slipped easily into our out of his vernacular. If he determined whatever cause you were touting was silly, he was merciless. All others were simply tolerated.
One of my colleagues went to him with some great idea. Dean Ribbens was the boss, the Vice President of Academic Advancement. If some faculty had a dream--and faculty are dreamers--that dream had to be dressed Sunday-best. Neither empathy nor patience was a Ribbens gift. So the prof--good guy, warm personality, well-liked--went to the Dean's office to parley. The Dean would have nothing of it. He simply pretended the prof wasn't there. Never spoke. Didn't even look at him. Even when the prof unloaded, he never looked up. Finally, the guy left. True story.
Stories like that were legion during the years he was my boss. Dr. Douglas Ribbens was blessed with a capacity for icyness that made us wonder whether whatever made its home in his rib cage was frozen solid.
He was smart and even wise. He determined, on his own one year, that times had changed in higher education, that unlike those profs who came along earlier in his professional career, the war vets, these new ones demanded a warmer touch. So he created a system of management with echelons of subordinate, associate deans, a system so unusual that for a year or two we called the newly appointed leaders "the dean-ie weenies." Whatever power they had, once belonged to him. He gave away spacious chunks of his own rule because he knew it was the right thing to do.
Somewhere inside that beast was a beauty that only rarely showed itself. Late in his years at the college, when his wife was suffering the ravages of diabetes, he started a fall faculty meeting by talking about her deteriorating condition, knowing we wanted to know. He described his role in her afternoon treatments, what exactly she needed him to do when her blood needed cleansing, how he performed that technical function, and how richly all of that had brought the two of them together. He explained so generously and intimately that we were moved by what amounted to a beautiful essay about love.
During those years, he and the college president, B. J. Haan, the man who hired him when he was just 28 years old, evolved into good cop/bad cop duo, Haan the dreamer, Ribbens the realist forced to draw in the bottom line. One year we needed an English prof, went through a search, found and settled on a candidate whose husband was a Ph.D. in religion. When we made our choice, we met with the two of them.
President Haan: Maybe we ought to look at her husband a little too.
Dean Ribbens: We have no need for another theologian. Don't go promising anything, Bernie.
President Haan: I kinda' like the guy.
Dean Ribbens: I don't care. We have no openings.
President Haan: Maybe a course or two. . .
Dean Ribbens: Bernie, I won't have it. You can't say things we can't live with--none of that bullshit. You hear me?
I'd joined the faculty just a couple of years before. If you had warned me ahead of time that the Dean was going to use that language, I wouldn't have believed it. Righteousness was at a premium in those early days. I'd gone to school at Dordt College. I'd been reprimanded for less offense. I loved it.
My father knew Doug Ribbens, gave him his first administrative job as school principal when my father was board president at the Oostburg Christian School. Ribbens was twenty years my senior, but we were born in the same hospital, grew up in the same territory. My parents knew his family. "His father was a saint," my mother used to say in an effort to explain his sometimes odd behavior. "Joe Ribbens visited prisons every week," she'd explain. My dad used to shake his head. "It's never easy to live with a saint," he'd say.
Once, when I was a Dordt College student and Ribbens was the registrar, I stumbled into his office and told him I'd had enough. All roads home started in the office of the Registrar, so I told him I was quitting. I was leaving Sioux Center.
He didn't speak right away. Just sat there, and then "Go home," he said. "Go make toilets."
End of conversation.
Kohler Company is the big employer where we were both reared. Kohler makes toilets. I knew what he meant.
He didn't argue with me, just turned around as if he had more important things to do.
And I stayed--for forty years.
That's my own personal blue-ribbon Doug Ribbens story. There are hundreds more.
Dr. Douglas Ribbens died last week, peaceably, in his sleep. His pastor told me in the dozen years that he's been in Doug's church, he's only known Dr. Ribbens as a sweet old man.
It strikes me that's the way it should be, the doctrine of sanctification operating in ways we believe it to. Douglas Ribbens was a leader, not a charismatic leader, but a leader nonetheless, an indispensable one at that.