Just Call Him Dennis

Those who know the Reverend Dr. President Dennis Voskuil well — and more tellingly, many who don’t — skip over any one of his titular honorifics, earned and respected as they may be, and go straight to Dennis. Just call him Dennis, that’s all he wants. The new, 13th president of Hope College even signs his official institutional emails this way:

Spera in Deo, or Peace and Grace,

Not President Voskuil or Dr. Voskuil or Rev. Voskuil. Just Dennis, a guy from the “biggest little town” of Baldwin, Wisconsin, the son of a farm journal editor and school teacher, an everyman whose Christian humility and patent down-to-earth sagacity conjure your favorite uncle or amiable neighbor next door.

Yet, Voskuil is also Western Theological Seminary- and Harvard-educated, a noted scholar and professor of church history, a former pastor of three congregations, and now a two-time president at institutions of higher education in Holland, Michigan. (He had a highly successful tenure as the president of Western Theological from 1994 to 2008 which came after 17 years of award-winning teaching in the Department of Religion at Hope from 1977 to 1994.) There are other Voskuil descriptors too — “true servant-leader,” “prolific thank-you-note writer,” “scholar and gentleman,” “team player” and “genuine follower of Jesus” — additional nomenclature ascribed to him by colleagues and friends. All that heaping praise makes him a bit uneasy, though quite grateful, and his Santa-rosy cheeks grow even more crimson in their telling.

You see, for all that he has achieved and for all that he knows, Voskuil is a man with an unpretentious ego and an unostentatious one-speed, orange-and-blue clunker he pedals around campus. His recent portrayal as rebel-monk Martin Luther was another glimpse into his bona fide modesty, too. On the Dimnent Chapel stage this fall, Voskuil revealed a college leader and church scholar willing to stand before a considerable audience in sackcloth, shod in sandals with thick socks no less. In “Here I Stand,” a keynote address to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, he delivered a lesson straight out of Wittenberg, Germany.

Perhaps all of this self-effacement is because Voskuil has never forgotten the guidance seeded long ago by his teacher mother who reminded, “Denny, you are no better than anyone else,” and his farmer-writer father who rephrased, “Denny, remember you are as good as anybody else.” To this day, more than 60 years after their intonation, he still takes his mom and dad’s words to heart.

And because he does (and for several reasons more), you would be extremely hard-pressed to find anyone (if there is anyone) who does not like or admire the Reverend Dr. President Dennis Voskuil, almost always on a first-name basis.

“It’s okay if people are only comfortable calling me President or Dr. Voskuil, but I learned from my parents and in seminary that when we come around the Lord’s Table, there are no titles and no hierarchy. So I’m happy with people calling me Dennis because it symbolizes a relationship of equality.”

President Voskuil
Dr. Voskuil
– Dennis

This past summer, the Board’s decision to name Voskuil to a two-year interim position was an inspired one. His well-received appointment bridges a transition time between Dr. John Knapp’s departure (Hope’s previous president accepted the presidency at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania in August) and the college’s next leader. Voskuil is up for the challenge, even though he did not need another turn at sleepless nights by saddling up for a second presidential ride. His resumé needed no extra padding. He could have easily remained the director of the college’s Van Raalte Institute, where he worked before accepting the presidency. He could have invested all his time and energy in his family, unabashedly doting on his nine grandchildren (and even his childhood sweetheart and wife of 52 years, Betty, and their three children, too — Derek ’93, a businessman; Karsten ’96, a pastor; and, Elizabeth ’01, a social worker).

He could have, but honestly, Voskuil was pulling down a D-minus in Retirement 101 anyway. Following his retirement as the seminary’s president, he’s remained a worker, first as an adjunct professor at the seminary and then as a research fellow at the Van Raalte Institute before becoming its director. A solidly seasoned Protestant work ethic is at his core. He says his vigor is due to a hardy constitution, but he’s really just a less annoying version of the Energizer Bunny with a better mustache.

“For Dennis, serving Hope isn’t about him,” says Dr. David Myers, Voskuil’s longtime friend and “noonball” teammate (more on that later). “At this stage of life, with a flock of nine grandchildren he utterly adores, he doesn’t need this job. But Hope needed him and his successful seminary presidency rightly encouraged him to think that he could sustain Hope’s morale and excellence and prepare the way for our next president.”

Voskuil did, in fact, need one thing in taking this new presidential role. He needed to be obedient to God’s leading. The divine nudge he felt to guide Hope during a time when the need for stability and equilibrium are paramount was a Godly coaxing he could not ignore, especially because he did not seek the opportunity to do so. He was asked to apply by current Board Chair Karl Droppers ’82. For his part, Droppers says getting Voskuil to consider the presidential opening was an easy decision given Voskuil’s “boundless love for Hope.” That affection has run deep for four decades, and he isn’t even a Hope grad; Voskuil earned his bachelor’s in history from the University of Wisconsin.

For all of his leadership success, Voskuil has always seen himself primarily as an educator. “I love students. I would have been happy to retire from Hope as a religion professor,” he says so sincerely that no other persuasion is needed. But others, like former Board Chairman Max De Pree ’48 who took three hours to convince Voskuil to throw his name in the applicant pool during a different Hope presidential search in 1986 (the job eventually went to Dr. John Jacobson), saw qualities in Voskuil that the religion professor eventually realized he had.

“I learned I had gifts for leadership from Max and some others,” Voskuil recalls. “I think I kind of knew that but more than anything, I realized it was a way I could legitimately serve. I had to think about the whole thing of leadership differently.”

Voskuil’s approach to leadership is highly relational and collaborative, eschewing the company of yes-men and -women who nod like unquestioning bobbleheads and remain as silent. His egalitarian ways would never allow that to happen anyway. Nothing makes Voskuil happier than seeing the people with whom he works succeed, to thrive in an environment where high expectations and graciousness comfortably co-habit. To start, he’s been listening and engaging and taking walk-abouts around campus. For the first few months of his presidency, Voskuil visited nearly every department of the college, extending an affirming handshake, learning names, and being attentive to stories and dreams, taking a page out of De Pree’s book of making leadership an art.

“I take no one individual employed by the college for granted,” he says. “Everyone in a community has a right to be recognized. It takes work but it’s worth it and you make friends. I really want people to feel proud of where they are and what they do. Everyone, everyone is a significant part of Hope, and they have a voice.”

Dennis plays noonball.
Dennis plays noonball.

Though his presidential presence is gentle, calm — with a good measure of good humor too — on the basketball court, not so much. There the pastor-president is an intense competitor. Voskuil is a fervent, long-time “noonball” player at the campus’s Dow Center during the lunch hour. Playing with and against Hope faculty and staff and Holland community members, the kinder and softer President Voskuil makes way for rough-and-tumble Post-Player Voskuil once inside the lines. His titles sit promptly on the bench alongside his suit coat and tie. He dons common basketball apparel — usually a nondescript red t-shirt and navy shorts — and plays the game he has loved since youth, albeit with some of his former offensive tackle tendencies. “Sometimes you just have to foul people” is his mantra. A tug on his opponent’s shirt, a jutting hip just at the right moment, a forearm that impedes progress, these are well-worn Voskuil noonball trademarks. So, too, is his nifty left hook shot and a selfless propensity to pass the ball to a teammate out on the wing even though he could have taken the open shot himself.

“My father loves playing games because he loves his family and friends. It’s a healthy outlet for the demands of leadership,” notes son Karsten.

Those demands now require that Voskuil guide the college during a time when external tensions and internal challenges need clear-eyed and compassionate leadership. He knows this full well, and he’s ready because Voskuil “believes in Hope College and its strategic position in shaping leaders for the church and world. He really does,” concludes Karsten. “It may have been easier for him to do something different in this season of life, but for him vocational calling is not something he could dismiss. This has always been true as he ends every night kneeling at the side of his bed in humility and prayer.”

Dennis Voskuil — pastor, professor, president — will now lead Hope only as he knows how: head-on and knees-down.