February 08, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

He's a teacher, scholar, mentor and biochem pioneer who traffics in flaming soap bubbles.

The boy standing center stage in the darkened auditorium, sporting goggles and an orange T-shirt, is holding what looks like a plate of foam. Standing next to him is a man in a white lab coat, who instructs him, “When you see something happen, don’t react. No smiles, no laughter, no flinching, nothing—like rock.” The man lights the foam. It explodes in the boy’s face, but he doesn’t react. Out in the audience, the kids are screaming, and a few leap to their feet, applauding.

The scene is from a 2011 Vimeo clip, and the man prowling the stage in the white coat is Calvin chemistry professor Larry Louters. In 23 years of “Chem Demos,” he has had a few close calls but no real mishaps as he has revealed to thousands of area middle schoolers the scientific principles behind exploding soda bottles and flaming soap bubbles.

“That’s a special talent,” said chemistry professor Douglas Vander Griend. “People think that any chemist could step up and do that. It takes a lot of talent. It takes a lot of performance art ... That goes a long way toward keeping students interested in science.”

It’s also a lot of fun, Louters admitted, laughing. “For one day,” he said, “you’re a rock star.”

For those same motives, education, promotion of chemistry and fun, Louters has run summer Chem Camps (chemistry camps) for 18 years and chemistry-focused Academic Camps for Excellence for 11 years—all for the same age group. And this year, he pioneered a Christmas chemistry camp, where students made paper tree ornaments decorated with chromatography.

When he’s not unfolding the mysteries of chemistry for the younger set, Louters busies himself teaching the glories of biochemistry to undergrads. He’s researching and publishing and mentoring students in both. He’s expanding the presence of his discipline.

“Larry has been the lead faculty member in our department to build the biochemistry program,” said chemistry professor Roger De Kock. “He just gets things done.”

As 2011 segued into 2012, Louters learned that he had been granted Calvin’s highest accolade as a faculty member: the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching. “I think of this as an honor for the chemistry department,” he said. “I have such good colleagues.”

Larry Louters was born Jan. 20, 1949, in Wilmar, Minn., but mostly grew up in Hollandale, Minn., a town of 263 or 273 souls, depending on which side of town you drive in on. (The population signs didn’t agree.) He is one of five sons of Herman and Ruth Louters, and he has a twin sister. His grandfather helped found both the Reformed Church and the Christian Reformed Church in that town.

Louters grew up working in the sugar beet fields and playing Anty-Anty Over and Kick the Can and Cowboys and Indians. “It was a lot of imagined play,” he said. “We found things to do.” He loved playing softball and basketball. He read a lot.

Louters participated in the 4-H Club and gardened and did other chores: “The boys were responsible for dishes,” he said. “Mom couldn’t watch us wash the dishes because we made a game out of it. One would wash; one would dry and sail the dishes across the room to the third brother, who stacked them away. We lost a few dishes that way.”

Learning how to live

When Louters was 11 years old, his father died of a heart attack. “My mother had to tell me,” he said. When he was 18 years old, his younger brother Steve drowned. Louters sometimes revisits the regrets he associates with those deaths: He failed to thank his father for a baseball glove; he yelled at his brother for failing to time him accurately on a run.

The lesson he learned from those regrets, Louters passes on to students: “It’s a good reminder just to be kind. Life is too short. No use getting everybody ticked off as you walk through,” he said.

Louters attended Prinsburg Christian School and Hollandale Christian School and, for ninth through 12th grades, Albert Lee High School. “In my high school, the way to be accepted was to be good looking and popular, which I wasn’t, or to be athletic, which I could do,” he said. He played basketball and ran track and cross country.

Following high school, Louters attended the college of choice for his community: “My cousin went to Calvin, and my younger brother went to Calvin, but, for the most part, if you went to college, you went to Dordt,” he said.

In college, Louters experienced television for the first time: “My freshman year, I was glued to that thing.” He played forward on the basketball team (his coach was Calvin kinesiology professor emeritus Jim Timmer) and averaged 25.2 points per game his senior season along with 12.9 rebounds per game which remains a school record. He was named Outstanding Senior Athlete of 1971. At Dordt College, Louters also met his future wife, education major Mary Jo Janssen.

To pay for college, he worked summers in the local meatpacking plant. “I just had the worst jobs in the world,” Louters said. One of them was to wade in and unplug the drain in the kill floor so the blood would drain out.

Louters “backed into” his passion for science. His high school science teacher was inspiring, and he enjoyed using science to explain everyday things, he said. Then, toward the end of his junior year at Dordt, Louters heard the call:

“The dean called and said, ‘Larry, you graduate next year.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘You have to choose a major,’ and I said, ‘Well, what do I have the most classes in?’ and he said, ‘Well, I think you can finish a chemistry major,’ and I said, ‘OK, put me down for that.’ That’s how it happened,” Louters recounted.

It’s another lesson he passes on to students: “You know, you don’t have to know everything that will happen,” he said.

Louters graduated from Dordt in 1971, and he earned a master’s in organic chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1974. He and Mary Jo married in 1973, and they have three children, all Calvin grads: Lauren '00 (married to Jason Kolfenbach), Jeremy ‘03 (married to Michelle Katt '03) and Julienne ’10; plus two future grads: grandchildren Bella ’30 and Hayden ‘32.

He always thought he’d like to try teaching, so when a Dordt buddy called to say that the Evangelical Christian School (ECS) in Memphis, Tenn., needed a chemistry teacher, Louters heeded that call, too. The couple landed teaching jobs at (ECS)—as did four of Larry’s Dordt roommates.

Louters learned that he liked teaching. “They just worked teachers to the bone,” he said. “We taught and we mentored those kids.” Louters also coached basketball, cross country and track. “When Mary Jo and I went on Facebook, our first 100 friends were former students from Memphis,” he said.

The Dordt expatriates worked together, socialized together and together founded a Christian fellowship. It was a time of spiritual development, Louters said. “It’s the first time you were on your own. You’re establishing your own family, your own identity. We were all Yankees. We were all from the North. So, friendships were deep,” he said.

After six years at the school, Louters decided to forge ahead with his graduate studies, this time at the University of Iowa. He switched fields as well as schools, moving into biochemistry. The change meant that he had to start over; none of his previous graduate work applied. While pursuing his doctorate, Louters faced the rigors of practicing science.

“Research is a very fickle thing, and you have to have patience ...,” he said. In 1984, Louters earned his PhD in biochemistry. “I made a list of target schools,” he said. Many of them were in the Midwest. “Well, ultimately, it’s home,” he explained. He got an offer from Calvin, his brother’s alma mater: “It just seemed like a good fit.”

He started teaching at Calvin in 1984 on a two-year term position as one of two biochemists in the department. Midway through his first Calvin semester, Louters’ colleague Bob Albers was diagnosed with stomach cancer and was unable to continue teaching. Louters stepped in. “That one vignette illustrates much of what Larry has done over the years,” De Kock wrote in his nomination letter for the exemplary teaching award. “He has filled in where needed without complaining and without asking for compensating release time.” When Albers died, the department did a search, and Louters got the position.

Teaching, being taught

“It’s been good from the get-go,” he said of teaching at Calvin. “I think what I really like about it is the puzzle of figuring out where the student is at and helping them to understand ...,” he said. “When students come into my office and we sit down with a pen and paper to figure something out—that’s a fun thing to me.”

When Louters debuted at Calvin, there was one 300-level biochemistry course taught per year. Due largely to his pioneering efforts, now there are three and three faculty to teach them—and there are biochem labs in the fall and spring.

“He’s a very good teacher, well-liked by students,” said Vander Griend. “I think he’s particularly warm and even pastoral when it comes to advising.”

Louters is also a researcher. His current focus is GLUT 1, a protein involved in the transport of glucose into cells. It’s work that could have implications for cancer and diabetes research.

Though he’s landed grants from the National Institutes of Health, Merck-AAS and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Louters doesn’t have grandiose ambitions for his work. “Nobody in the science division is critically close to winning the Nobel Prize,” he said. “We’re all just puttering along. We are contributing some solid new scientific information, but they’re not knocking down our doors because of our science. They’re knocking down our doors for our students because of their training in science.”

His technique for mentoring students in research is to train older students to mentor the younger students in the processes. “I was the first student ever to work with him over the summer,” said Chris Holstege ’88, the head of medical toxicology at the University of Virginia. Holstege—who has worked on the poisoning of Ukrainian president Victor Yushchenko in 2004 and the post-Sept. 11 anthrax mail scare in the United States in 2001—has good memories of the two summers he worked with Louters: researching histones, going for runs, playing hallway basketball. “He’d get involved, too. He’s kind of hard to beat. He’s a riot,” Holstege said. Louters advised Holstege on graduate schools and two also now collaborate on projects.

“It’s easy for the profs who are brighter than their students to be arrogant,” Holstege said. “Calvin professors are compassionate—but Larry goes way beyond that.”

Louters has an aversion to academic arrogance. “To me, if you’re going to be an intellectual, you should be humble about it,” he said. “Bill Spoelhof taught me that.” Louters met Spoelhof, the former Calvin president, when he moved to Grand Rapids and joined Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church. Spoelhof had recently lost both his wife and his best friend when the Louters met him, and they began having breakfast with him once a week. “We’d go to the Gathering Place, and Bill and I would order pecan pancakes, and Mary Jo would order blueberry pancakes, and we’d talk ...,” Louters said. “He had such wisdom.”

Once when the two were at the cemetery, visiting Spoelhof’s wife’s grave, they came across a gravestone bearing all of the academic degrees and honors of the deceased. “Bill looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think God cares. Do you?’”

It’s another lesson Louters takes to heart and preaches. “There’s a time and place for credentials, but, certainly, among your peers, you should let it go,” he said. “We are a liberal arts community, and we should be celebrating each other. I think we do that well in the chemistry department.”

Spoelhof died in 2009, and Louters wears one of his academic gowns at official gatherings. He also, unbeknownst to his colleagues, listens at their doors for ideas on how to teach. He likes to pray while swimming laps. Every other year, starting in 2002, he led a cycling trip around Australia. “I think one of the things I like about Australian culture is they don’t define themselves by what they do,” he said. He teaches; he advises. He chairs the department. “He’s a good chair for us,” said Vander Griend. “Listens well to his colleagues. He’s reliable, calm, wise, balanced, healthy. He’s not caught up in himself ... . I’ve never seen him mistreat anyone in the slightest, even in the more subtle ways of dismissing them or ignoring them.”

Louters is honored to be named an exemplary teacher, but he’s more gratified by the honor Holstege recently conferred on him. The former student researcher sent his son Erik to Calvin. “His mentor is Larry Louters,” Holstege said.

The Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching comes with a custom medallion and a financial stipend, funded by the George B. and Margaret K. Tinholt Endowment Fund. Thefund was established in 1993 to honor George Tinholt, a former member of the Calvin College board of trustees, and his wife, Margaret.

Previous Honorees:

2011 Lawrence Herzberg, Asian and Germanic languages
2010 James Vanden Bosch, English
2009 Dave Warners, biology
2008 Judy Vander Woude, communication arts & sciences
2007 Lee Hardy, philosophy
2006 Ken Bratt, classical languages
2005 Jim Jadrich, physics and astronomy
2004 Barbara Carvill, germanic languages
2003 Peter De Jong, sociology
2002 Larry Nyhoff, computer science
2001 Tom Hoeksema, education
2000 Quentin Schultze, communication arts & sciences
1999 Mary Ann Walters, English
1998 Bert de Vries, history
1997 Martin Bolt, psychology
1996 Ron Blankespoor, chemistry
1995 Paul Zwier, mathematics
1994 Wally Bratt, German
1993 Ken Kuiper, English

Seven other faculty were honored with awards for excellence in teaching at the annual Faculty Awards Dinner:

Innovative Teaching Award
David I. Smith, Germanic languages

Student-Faculty Research Award
S. Kumar Sinniah, chemistry

Community-Based Teaching Award
Robert H. Eames, business

Collaborative Change Award
Gail G. Heffner, Community Engagement; Matthew K. Heun,engineering; Clarence W. Joldersma, education; David P. Warners, biology

FEN Award for Excellence in Teaching
Brian D. Ingraffia, English

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