Remembering a Leader
President Emeritus Gordon Van Wylen, who died on November 5 following a determined fight with COVID-19, lauded for his quality of character and lasting, transformational impact on Hope.
Dr. Gordon Van Wylen of Holland, Michigan, who served as Hope’s ninth president from 1972 until retiring in 1987 and was also actively involved in the Holland community both during and following his time at Hope, died on Thursday, Nov. 5, after a determined fight with COVID-19. He was 100.
Van Wylen is remembered at Hope for the quality of his character and for his lasting, transformational impact on the college through his 15-year tenure.
“Dr. Van Wylen was a remarkable human being — a vibrant and passionate leader who devoted his life to God, the pursuit of knowledge and public service. He had a profound impact on countless lives,” said Hope College President Matthew A. Scogin ’02.
“His extraordinary leadership and vision has left an enduring mark on this college,” Scogin said. “As president, Dr. Van Wylen penned the mission statement that still guides us. He was also a champion of the physical development of our campus — notably architecting the closure of 12th Street that helped make the Pine Grove what it is today. In short, he helped us center our purpose and created the center of our campus. That’s a remarkable legacy, and we will miss him greatly.”
Van Wylen’s son Dr. David Van Wylen, who has been a member of the Hope faculty and administration since 2015, describes his father’s strong Christian faith, work ethic and emphasis on teamwork, and love of students as key to understanding Gordon’s service to Hope.
“Dad’s Christian faith was his defining dimension. It shaped his family, work, and community life,” Dave said. “He drew upon it as his personal foundation and motivation, and in turn this was a catalyst and inspiration for many others. He loved Hope College, but saw his service to the college ultimately as an avenue for God’s love and the realization of grace through Jesus Christ.”
“One of Dad’s favorite phrases was, ‘Great things can be accomplished if you do not care who gets the credit.’ As such, he was deeply grateful for the talented and dedicated colleagues with whom much was accomplished during his 15 years as Hope College’s president,” he said. “He was a tireless worker and expected others to join the effort, but found joy and satisfaction in advancing the college’s mission through facilitation of the intellectual, spiritual and physical development of students.”
Van Wylen’s years as Hope’s president featured extensive development of the college’s programs as well as its physical plant. He received national recognition for his leadership in 1986, when he was named one of the nation’s 100 most outstanding college presidents in the study “The Effective College President” funded by the Exxon Education Foundation.
“He had a huge impact on the college and has left a remarkable legacy: renewal of the Christian character of Hope, strengthening the academic program through recruitment of an outstanding faculty, enhancement of the campus by setting high standards for excellence in architecture, enrichment of the endowment (10-fold increase), establishment of a strong program of fiscal management, improvement of living facilities for students, and a more competitive athletic program,” said Dr. Jacob E. Nyenhuis, who joined the Hope faculty in 1975 and served as a professor of Classics, dean for the arts and humanities, and provost during Van Wylen’s presidency. “There are of course intangible aspects of his legacy, too, but that list is a good beginning on assessing his impact on this college that we love so dearly.”
The mission statement that Van Wylen led Hope in developing in the 1970s has been revised only lightly in the years since: “The mission of Hope College is to educate students for lives of leadership and service in a global society through academic and co-curricular programs of recognized excellence in the liberal arts and in the context of the historic Christian faith.”
Academic departments initiated during his presidency included the Department of Dance, Department of Computer Science and — initially as a joint program with Calvin University — Department of Nursing. Hope also revised its core curriculum, began offering pre-engineering courses (establishing a major in 1997) and in 1980 began offering its first Bachelor of Science degrees.
Major campus buildings completed or begun during his presidency included the Peale Science Center (1973), now part of the A. Paul Schaap Science Center; the Dow Health and Physical Education Center (1978); College East Apartments (1982); the De Pree Art Center and Gallery (1982); the Maas Student and Conference Center (1986); Bekkering Admissions Office (1988); and Gordon J. and Margaret D. Van Wylen Library (1988), named in honor of him and his wife Dr. Margaret Van Wylen by the college’s Board of Trustees. Hope also extensively renovated multiple facilities, including the DeWitt Student and Cultural Center, Lubbers Hall, Phelps Dining Hall, Van Vleck Hall and Voorhees Hall. Other significant campus development included the closing of 12th Street between College and Columbia avenues.
His presidency included two major comprehensive fund-raising campaigns, each the largest in the college’s history at the time: Build Hope, which was initiated prior to his tenure and concluded during the 1976-77 school year having raised more than $10.4 million, and The Campaign for Hope, which concluded in 1987 having raised nearly $31.7 million.
Dave recalls that one of Gordon’s most memorable days at Hope College was February 6, 1980, the day that he turned 60. “That morning, he spoke during the college’s Chapel service,” Dave said. “That evening, Hope played Calvin in basketball, the fans sang happy birthday to him at halftime while a cake was presented, and then Hope went on to beat Calvin, ending a string of 22 consecutive losses to its arch rival.”
Van Wylen’s community and volunteer involvements through the years included serving as a member and elder of Christ Memorial Church; as a board member and president of the Holland Community Foundation; and as a board member with Bethany Christian Services, Trinity Christian College, Words of Hope and Pine Rest Christian Hospital. After retiring from Hope he was active in the renewal of downtown Holland, launched Homecor for the revitalization of central city neighborhoods, and various other community projects and was involved in the establishment of the Van Andel Institute, also serving on the Van Andel Education Institute board. Recently, he was instrumental in the rejuvenation of Pillar Church as a joint RCA/CRC congregation.
In conjunction with the year of their retirement from Hope, Gordon and Margaret established an endowed scholarship at the college in the name of the graduating Class of 1987. The couple also stayed actively engaged with the college after retiring, including attending May Term courses abroad and Hope events on campus. Gordon was the featured speaker during the college’s weekday Chapel service on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013.
Prior to assuming the Hope presidency, he was dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan, where he had been on the faculty since 1951. He was a veteran of World War II, having served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific as an officer aboard the submarine USS Hardhead. In honor of his military service, he received on-court recognition through the University of Michigan’s Toyota Hero of the Game program during the university’s home basketball game versus UCLA in December 2018.
“Dr. Van Wylen was a remarkable human being — a vibrant and passionate leader who devoted his life to God, the pursuit of knowledge and public service. He had a profound impact on countless lives.”
His publications include a 1959 textbook on thermodynamics that was republished in multiple editions through the years and translated into seven other languages; Vision for a Christian College, a collection of essays from his time at Hope; and Encounter at Sea And a Heroic Lifeboat Journey, which he co-authored in 1994 with Ichiro Matsunaga, who had been an officer aboard a Japanese light cruiser sunk by the USS Hardhead in 1944.
He received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Calvin University in 1967, an honorary degree from Meiji Gakuin University of Japan in 1987, and the Alumni Society Medal from the University of Michigan College of Engineering Society in 1995. He also received multiple honors from organizations in West Michigan, including a Distinguished Service Award from the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce in 1983; the Distinguished Service Award from the Holland Rotary Club in 1991; induction into the Community Hall of Fame by the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area in 2001; and the West Michigan Dutch-American Leadership Award during the West Michigan Dutch Heritage Community Celebration in 2006. Gordon and Margaret were the grand marshals for Holland’s Tulip Time Volksparade in May 2005.
He received an honorary degree from Hope in 1972 in conjunction with his inauguration as president. Faculty, staff and friends of the college established the Gordon J. and Margaret D. Van Wylen Scholarship Fund at Hope in 1982 in honor of the couple’s service to the college. Gordon delivered the Commencement address at the invitation of the graduating class in 1987. The college’s Alumni Association honored the couple with Meritorious Service Awards in 1998.
Born in Grant Township, Michigan, on Feb. 6, 1920, Van Wylen grew up in Grand Rapids and graduated from Ottawa Hills High School in 1937. He attended Calvin University on the 3-2 engineering program with the University of Michigan, graduating in 1942 with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Calvin and a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the University of Michigan. He completed a master’s in engineering at the University of Michigan in 1947 and his doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951.
He was preceded in death by Margaret, who died on Aug. 4, 2018, at age 93. Survivors include their five children: Elizabeth (Jack) Rudenga, Steve (Kathy) Van Wylen ’77; Ruth Van Wylen ’79 (Neil) Jasperse; Dave (Pat Lunderberg ’80) Van Wylen, and Emily Van Wylen ’85 (Tim) Overway; 16 grandchildren; 12 great -grandchildren; and his brother, Wayne Van Wylen. Dave became the dean for the natural and applied sciences at Hope in 2015 and is now leading the launch of Hope’s new Office of Possibilities and Applied Innovation.
View a gallery of photographs taken throughout Gordon Van Wylen’s time as president and during the years that followed.