I first met Cal VanderWerf by reputation, when my Hope College undergraduate colleague and friend, Vic Heasley, wrote me in the middle of his first year as a graduate student in chemistry at the University of Kansas, and encouraged me to apply for Ph. D. study there. Vic talked about Dr. Vander Werf in the letter, and before I put that letter away, a letter came from Dr. VanderWerf encouraging me to apply at KU. The way Cal made it sound, Kansas was Harvard on the Kansas River and that school on the Charles came in seriously second.
Kansas sounded interesting – more or less like an adventure. I did apply, and within a few weeks was more or less committed to go to Kansas to get my Ph. D. degree. My Uncle Jim Neckers was a chemist, a professor, and a department head, and he must have talked incessantly about “Ph. D.” when he visited our mutual hometown of Clymer, New York. From the time I was fifteen, that became my career goal – earn a Ph. D. in chemistry like my Uncle Jim.
On leaving Kansas for Harvard I realized that Cal and Rachel VanderWerf had left two months earlier and he was soon to be inaugurated 8th President of our mutual alma mater, Hope College. I did not know what I would do in my life, but he had just made what would turn out to be a fateful mistake in his career; a transformative moment for Hope College, but a horrible career decision for him. In the next seven years, he would so burn himself out so completely that, though he lived another eighteen years, he would never be the same man.
But returning to “that letter.” In 1960, the year I graduated from Hope with a major in chemistry, graduate programs across the country were either growing rapidly or about to. This growth was driven by Sputnik. In 1957, the Soviets launched the first rocket to exit earth’s orbit and that, the Cold War, and a president that had known war, Dwight David Eisenhower, launched what was the strongest push forward for academic training in the physical sciences and engineering the United States had ever known. By this time, the National Science Foundation (or the NSF) was gaining traction, and one particular facet of its mission was to develop programs that supported students in the physical sciences and engineering. The development of the NSF and a response to Sputnik triggered economic spiral upward for universities would take on overtones in the sciences that I lived with for the rest of my academic career. By the end of my Ph. D. studies, students at Kansas held NSF Fellowships of various kinds that freed them – more particularly, it freed their advisors - from financial responsibility for their studies. The government paid most of their living costs and their laboratory expenses. I was something called an National Science Foundation Cooperative Fellow – a term that meant little to me, but meant a lot to my advisor. I put it on my resume at the time however, even though I did not know what it was or meant.
I did not realize this, but Cal VanderWerf had developed much more confidence in me and my abilities than I had in them myself. Dr. VanderWerf saw things in this little kid, who had aspirations to be “like Uncle Jim” and his new wife who would be with him every step of the way for the next 56 years (and counting), that the little kid did not see in himself. In the end, I turned out fine because I was able to return something at some level, at least, to both Hope College and the University of Kansas. But that gets way ahead of the story.
I did not know this at the time either, but Hope’s reputation in chemistry was such that I could have gone most anywhere to take my Ph. D. I was too insecure to try the East Coast universities, and not venturesome enough to go to California, so I settled for the middle of the country. As a long time reader of Sport Magazine, I knew about Ray Evans, Glenn Cunningham and some of the many other long distance runners in KU’s athletic history, and - of course - of Wilt Chamberlain. I must admit, though, I was seriously flattered and impressed by all the attention KU paid us; the other places to which I applied simply admitted me quickly, sent all of the financial information, and then more or less let my chips fall where they might. But KU cared -or, rather, Cal VanderWerf cared - and that made a big difference.
A few days before we were to graduate from Hope, Cal insisted that we come to Lawrence and see what we were getting ourselves into. Flights then were on prop planes (jet commercial transportation came along when we were at Kansas but not until 1962 or ‘63.) so it took four hours from O’Hare to Mid-continent Airport in Kansas City. When we landed on the ground I was sure I had just stepped into hell. It was 7 PM and the temperature was at least 85°. I had never been so hot – Clymer, NY rarely got over 80° then and Clymer was my benchmark. But I took a cab to the bus station, bought a ticket for Lawrence and was sure I was heading for the end of the earth. The bus stopped in a couple of places that convinced me – Bonner Springs, KS for example - that the end of the world was in sight. But when I got to the Lawrence bus station on 6th street, Sue met me with Rachel VanderWerf’s station wagon. I thought, “Good grief what a family! – Clymer Dutchmen never lent their car to anyone and the VanderWerf’s lent us their family car without even knowing whether we had driver’s licenses?!” Cal, for his part, was off consulting, also something I would grow well familiar with as my career progressed. As James Bryant Conant once said, “If a chemist is worth his salt at all, he can double or triple his annual income from consulting assignments.” Cal’s consultancies did not make him rich, but they sure helped - and they helped the colleges and universities by whom he was employed too.
Sue stayed at the then Holiday Inn on 23rd St. and Iowa then south of Lawrence and the University, while I stayed with Vic Heasley and his colleagues in their off-campus apartment. The next day, I met many of the faculty in the chemistry department including Earl Huyser who eventually became my Ph. D. advisor. I had to make some arrangements in Strong Hall which was the main administrative building so I went up there and Earl came up the ‘hill’ to meet us (Sue was with me). I remember recalling that I had never seen a man of average height with such big feet! Had I known then what I know now, east of Strong Hall was the KU Law School and eventually the home of Paul E. Wilson, who had argued the Topeka Board of Education case in the Supreme Court in what became the landmark Supreme Court ruling of the 20th century – Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. But the Law school was foreign territory to an aspiring organic chemist so it stayed behind the statue of Mr. Green with door never darkened by this young guy.
Little did Sue and I know, though I could feel it in the air, that Kansas was where so much American history had been made. We knew about cowboys, Atcheson, Topeka and Sante Fe, and pony express. We also had heard about the Sante Fe trail; but that most important recent history as in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, was too close to have any impact on us. Lawrence, and KU too, were segregated still and to a significant degree. But we did not know that. Cal and Rachel did; and Cal and Rachel cared. But we were too young; for us, the object was to finish “that Ph. D. like Uncle Jim.”
Earl Huyser (Hope, 1950) drove us to the airport on the day after my interviews at Lawrence, we flew back to Chicago, returned to Holland, graduated from Hope College on June 6, and went home to get married on June 18. In the space of about 21 days in June, 1960 I had fixed most of the rest of my life. For our honeymoon (you figure this one out), we drove my well worn car (a 1953 black and yellow Mercury purchased from George Christensen in Clymer) to Lawrence stopping on our first married night in Ashtabula, Ohio. We managed to get to Lawrence in late August, via Wisconsin and set up house-keeping in married student housing, Stouffer Place, just off 19th St. near Iowa. The apartments were close to the new Allen Field house and we could watch the fall version of the Jayhawk football team practicing on fields behind; it was hot, school had not started yet, and I walked past the practice fields occasionally on my way to Malott Hall. I was impressed by how big the players were, how hard they hit each other, and how friendly the coaches were. More than once a coach would stop me for a brief chat as I wondered one way of the other from my chemistry department haunts. KU’s team that fall was good for Kansas football with backfield stars Curtis McClinton, the only black player on the team (see photograph, back row), John Hadl (who was among the first to be drafted by the soon new American Football League team, the San Diego Chargers), and Bert Coan (though he broke his leg early the next season and was never the same.) For the next three fall seasons, we enjoyed football in Memorial Stadium a great deal. Kansas’ fortunes turned sour, but were enlivened by the arrival of Gayle Sayers, who was the team’s star running back for the 1962 fall season, our last in Lawrence.
Cal VanderWerf was omnipresent in the chemistry department, though he was almost never there. His reputation (in a rising department with one future Nobel laureate on the faculty, too) was extraordinary, especially among students. On campus, he was an icon because of his presence in intercollegiate athletics and because of prior and continuing involvement in working for racial equality and justice. It was not because of his work in chemistry science, which more or less like every other bright American academic organic chemist’s, was because of his ability to see the best in people. That insight led him to accept the black community of Lawrence almost without thinking about it in the early 1940s and to take a leadership position, quietly, in integration in the community. While Lawrence itself, and the University of Kansas, too, was highly segregated, Cal and Rachel led a community into which they moved in 1941 by developing, with the Director of the YMCA and one or two ministers, the Lawrence League for the Practice of Democracy – an interracial organization that was the community’s first and that still exists. When the University’s iconic basketball coach, Forrest “Phog” Allen, (photo on page 5, with James Naismith, the inventor of basketball (left) at KU in the 1930s), said “Negros can’t play on my team, because I don’t want them taking showers with my white boys,” Cal reached out to their community’s leaders. This eventually led to a huge player from Philadelphia, Wilt Chamberlain, and the eventual integration of many previously segregated public businesses in Lawrence.
VanderWerf is pictured as the person who wanted Wilt so as to achieve racial equality in the city (see Life magazine, Jan 29, 1957 – the young looking VanderWerf is pictured in the middle).
At about the same time Wilt was on the campus, there came to Lawrence and the chemistry department a number of European refugees, Jews mostly, graduates of the City College of New York. This influx was mostly the result of Arthur Davidson, Professor of Chemistry and an alumnus. Many of the City College students, particularly those that majored in organic chemistry, worked in Cal’s labs. Some of them, I think particularly of George Axelrod, had to help with events of the Lawrence League for the Practice to Democracy not because Cal twisted their arms to do so - he didn’t have to. But because Cal asked them to help. George told me that he help set up a hall at the Lawrence Community Center for one of the largest of these events – in late April, 1954. At that time, the speaker was Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP lawyer who, three weeks later would take on world renown as the lawyer who successfully argued the Brown v. Board I case at the Supreme Court. As was typical of VanderWerf, skeptics were sure Marshall would “never come.” But he came, in part, no doubt, because of VanderWerf’s charm and persuasion.
George Axelrod, mentioned before, was a Hungarian refugee who managed to escape after the War ending up in New York City. George’s incredible story of his escape from the Nazis near the end of the War still brings chills: He was among several hundred Jewish boys targeted for death, and shot en masse in early 1945. But the bullets intended for George wounded him, but did not kill him. So, after being under a pile of dead bodies, he escaped, met up with his parents, and found refuge in the United States. He went to high school in NY, entered City College as a chemistry major before Arthur Davidson came to take him to KU. There were many others – Sam Wilen, Abe Baron, Marty Tessler, Nate Lerner, Marvin Melzer, and several I knew by reputation but not personally. Mixed in Hope College alumni, Vic Heasley, Gene Heasley, Corwin Bredeweg (who spent his entire career at Dow Chemical Co.) and, ostensibly, me. It made for an interesting conversation table at lunch.
By the time I met Cal VanderWerf, the organic chemist, he was already transitioning his career into full time service of others. He had been elected chair of the Department of Chemistry at KU though his physical chemistry colleagues, Sherry Rowland and Paul Gilles particularly did not trust his intentions that much. It is easy for me to see now he was doing that as a stopping point. He was not cut out to serve at the department level for very long because he was too much a generalist and too ambitious - though he did it. Cal’s strength was working with people – enabling others to be more than they knew they could be. In his last year at Kansas, he worked closely with the athletic department as they built a press box addition to Memorial Stadium (shown in this picture). Like other stadia at other universities, Memorial Stadium usually looks like it does in the picture – that is, empty. On this fine spring day, players line up on the practice fields (right lower) so the pristine stadium grass can grow uninterruptedly. We had many good times there hoping the Jayhawks would occasionally win one and occasionally they did.
I found a letter in the Kansas University archives about the racial situation in Lawrence in 1947 at a time when there were riots, on occasion, in the community. Remember Kansas was a free state as a result of the compromises at the time of Civil War – this letter is nearly 90 years after that war.
It took me years to recognize just what Cal’s secret was. His personal style was “quiet aggressive,” and he was one of the most creative human beings I have met. Clearly if any road was blocked, he found his way around the block. This quiet aggression, of course, had the ability to rub many the wrong way. He also carried it a little far occasionally. For example, when working on the press box addition to Memorial Stadium, he sent special delivery letters to one of the young flunkies in the athletic department, Monty Johnson, filled with ideas. He got up very early, and rather than wake others or call Johnson on the phone, he sent a letter. Who knows how much his postal bill was, nor did even think that Monty Johnson “flunky” might become Monty Johnson “director of athletics” or somewhat later “President of 1st National Bank, Lawrence.” What Cal knew was that there a job to do, and he was having fun doing it. Johnson was just a means to an end for him.
Nowhere was Cal’s creativity more in evidence than at Hope College, where he eventually ended up as president in 1963. He was an alumnus, had grown up in Holland, and had three sisters still living in the immediate area. Nevertheless, this was more a useful move for the College than it was for VanderWerf. He gave up a hugely successful academic career in an important physical science to take the job, and he surely was paid less at Hope than he could have earned at DuPont where he was invited to become Director of Research.
In 1963, Cal and Rachel moved their six school age children to Holland, Michigan. For seven years, he offered his extraordinary energy and creativity to Hope and the college was never the same. Neither was he. Those seven years ruined his health, both physically and psychologically. Of course, the years have to be put in context; the Vietnam War was beginning to rage, students were made totally restless by the reinstitution of the draft in 1967, faculty were urging for more of this and more of that, and alumni were sure that they were not sure about this young upstart chemist dropped in their midst by Gerrit van Zyl, Cal’s mentor. He was, after all, fallen from the van Raalte cloth (he was - in Lawrence, a congregationalist who cavorted with blacks, a scientist, and he had married outside the faith).
For what happens next, you will have to read forward. ©