In 1993, Dirk and JoAnn Mellema provided a generous donation to establish a Western American Studies Program at Calvin College in the History department. The purpose of the MPWAS is to promote the study of the culture, land, and history of the Western U.S. The program promotes research and teaching related to the West as well as public lectures and cultural events that serve the larger Western Michigan and Calvin College communities.

The first phase of the program, organized by History Department chair and acting director James Bratt, begin in 1995-1996 and included library enhancement, course development, and an inaugural conference.

Library enhancement began with the purchase of several hundred books, entire runs of five scholarly journals, microform collections containing some 1,500 nineteenth century primary sources, and three video series related to the American West. Early course development grants funded courses in natural resources and westward expansion and Western American literature.

The inaugural Mellema Program conference was held in 1997 and included lectures by prominent historians of the American West as well as seminars for Calvin College alumni social science teachers working in Western states. The inaugural also familiarized the larger College community with the subject and promise of the new program. Developments in 1997-1998 expanded the program to include the Canadian West and Northern Mexico, providing MPWAS with a distinctive identity in the field and reflecting Calvin College’s historic Canadian connection.

In 1998-1999, Calvin College conducted a search for a permanent director who would promote Western American studies across the disciplines, an American cultural historian who could develop an ongoing program of research in the North American West and encourage Christian perspectives on Western American cultural studies. In February 1999, William Katerberg was hired to direct the MPWAS and teach in the History Department. He has been the director of Mellema since 2000.

MPWAS has continued to fund and host annual Mellema lectures; provide grants for research and course development by faculty in departments such as History, Literature, Religion, and Geology; and purchase library materials, including significant microform collections of primary sources. Calvin College’s library now holds the largest collection of Western American studies material in Michigan. The Mellema Program also has helped to sponsor cultural events such as concerts, film series, readings by writers, and dance recitals.