Biology professor David DeHeer passed away Friday, September 16. His colleagues remember him as a leader, mentor and man of science.
Visitation: 6–9 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19; 2–4 p.m., 6–8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20
Zaagman Memorial Chapel, 2800 Burton St. SE
Funeral: 11. a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21
Lagrave Ave. Christian Reformed Church, 107 Lagrave Ave. SE
The Calvin community is mourning the loss of biology professor David DeHeer, who died at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, September 16, at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital. DeHeer, who had a long struggle with pulmonary fibrosis, had declined suddenly in recent weeks. He was 66.
“We’ll miss him terribly,” said biology professor Peter Tigchelaar, DeHeer’s colleague of 26 years. “There’s a finality to this that has been hard to accept.”
Colleagues remember DeHeer’s unflagging efforts to build the research infrastructure and opportunities in the science division. They also remember him as an enthusiastic proponent of their work and a devoted mentor to generations of students.
Building the department
A Grand Haven native, DeHeer attended Calvin through 1966, but completed a degree in zoology (with a minor in chemistry) at the University of Arizona in 1968. He earned a PhD in molecular biology with a minor in biochemisty at the same institution in 1972. Prior to coming to Calvin in 1985, DeHeer worked at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, Calif.
He served as chair of the biology department from 2005 through 2010. “He has certainly been the visionary leader in that department,” said Lois Konyndyk, director of foundational relations for Calvin College. “I think he had immense ability to plan strategically for curriculum, for research and for partnerships, all of which are designed to benefit the students in the science division.”
Since coming to Calvin, DeHeer has developed strategic relationships that expanded the science division’s presence in the community. He supervised orthopedic residents in their research through Grand Rapids Area Medical Group. DeHeer also pioneered the use of external funding in both the biology department and the science division as a whole.
“He had the vision for research playing a larger role in the educational life of the department and he had the confidence to go after the funding for it,” said biology professor Randy Van Dragt.
Among DeHeer’s career highlights are the development of the West Michigan Regional Lab (WMRL)—a medical research facility built in DeVries Hall in 1998—the establishment of Calvin’s biotechnology program through a $700,000 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and, in 2009, the foundation of the Integrated Science Research Institute through a $1.1 million HHMI grant. DeHeer also landed major grants from the National Science Foundation and other sources to fund equipment and facilities for Calvin’s science research. And he encouraged his colleagues to do the same.
“He really mentored other faculty to submit proposals as well. I don’t think you can overstate his ability to mentor others,” said Konyndyk.
Mentoring colleagues and students
“He was very supportive of younger faculty,” said Van Dragt. “He would really draw others into the sorts of things that he saw had real promise as enterprises.”
Said biology administrative assistant Pat Buist: “He loves people and loves to be involved with the students.”
DeHeer worked hard to constantly improve the biology research experience and to give more students access to research. “When he came, the opportunities were limited; now they’re flourishing, and he deserves substantial credit for that,” said biology professor Hessel (Bud) Bouma, who first met DeHeer in 1975 when they were both doing postdoctoral research in San Diego, Calif.
“I credit David pretty much with getting me to go to grad school,” said Yaw Bediako. “He took a keen interest in me. I had just done freshman biology, and he gave me a chance to do research, and I loved it.” A 2004 graduate, Bediako is finishing his doctoral work at Northwestern University.
DeHeer also connected with students on a personal level, Bouma said: “David and (wife) Jolene became surrogate parents to a significant number of Calvin students … . I think they maybe practiced hospitality in a way most of us couldn’t or wouldn’t. For them, I think it was almost a weekly occurrence.”
Bediako also sat at the DeHeer’s dinner table, and he returned to Calvin this fall to team-teach with the man he considers his most significant academic mentor.
“He always said that I’d come here to replace him, but …I thought he’d always be an emeritus around …,” Bediako said. “I’m just going to try to make the class as good as he would have made it.” Professor David DeHeer is survived by wife Jolene and son Jeff.
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“He had an infectious laugh—infectious not in the medical sense.”
“I think he was one of the most creative thinkers I've ever met ... . He was a great boss. He made me feel very special when I came to work in this department.”
“He always said his favorite cell was the macrophage–which was important to his research on joint implants. He has a favorite cell. I think that sums up David DeHeer.”
“He had enormous skills in explaining complex things in dynamic ways to ordinary folks—as well as his peers in the scientific world.”
“It was easier for him to start a project than finish a project because in the middle of the project, he had another idea he was working on.”
“Every once in a while, you need to have someone tell you that you are good at something. David did that.”
“He was so personable. He connected with parents. He connected with donors. He gave them individual attention. He made them all feel like they wanted to be a part of what was going on in that department.”
“Thank you for being such a good next door neighbor in DeVries Hall over the years. You have been a dear colleague, mentor and friend.”