June 26, 2009 | Matt Decker

Young Jeff Winkle had a life-altering experience via a 1981 hit movie. “I remember very distinctly in the early ‘80s my mom took me to see Clash of the Titans ...”

Young Jeff Winkle had a life-altering experience via a 1981 hit movie.

“I remember very distinctly in the early ’80s my mom took me to see Clash of the Titans. Now watching it, it is such a dreadful, horrible movie. But I remember watching it as a 10-year-old kid and thinking: this is the best thing I’ve ever seen!” said Winkle, now a Calvin classical languages professor. “There is something about myth that just put an arrow through my heart.”

Tolkien for tots

Growing up in Jenison, Mich., Winkle had a love of the classics that was fed by his mother: “I was a huge reader and my mom was always giving me stuff. She gave me her old copies of Tolkien when I was in first and second grade,” said Winkle. “I remember reading the Lord of the Rings in elementary school. Of course there was loads of it that I just didn’t comprehend, but I knew that I loved this. There was something about epic myth that just sort of grabbed me from an early point.”

Music was another thing to which his parents exposed him.

“My Mom and Dad forced me into piano lessons which I loathed and hated and fought. I think I was in the 4th grade. It was terrible … ,” said Winkle. “My parents had this piano, which they still have, that is a horrible piano. I remember them dragging my brother and I around piano shopping, which was just dreadful. I distinctly remember a salesman telling my Dad: ‘You don’t want this piano, because it goes out of tune every week,’ but my Dad is extremely Dutch in an economic sense.”

Van Halen in tune

He loved music, Winkle said, but just didn’t like the structure of being told what to do. He recounted a story of “banging on the piano” until he figured out the opening chords of Van Halen’s Jump. He also picked up the guitar when he was in college and still loves the piano “as long as it is in tune.”

Coming to Calvin after high school in 1989 was an easy decision for Winkle because both of his parents are alums and his older brother was attending Calvin.

“I was indoctrinated in the joys and virtues of Calvin,” he said with a laugh. “Looking back, maybe I didn’t really have a choice. I was really kind of pushed in that direction, but I don’t regret it for a minute.” Winkle came to Calvin as a history major but became a history and classics double-major—partially because of how much he enjoyed his classes with Professors Ken Bratt and Mark Williams, now his colleagues in the classics department.

Winkle in development

“He was an excellent student. You could see the same qualities that he has now sort of in embryo there,” said Professor Williams, the chair of the classics department. “He related well to people in his class, had good humor, that sort of thing.”

Winkle then went on to Northwestern University, where he eventually earned his PhD in classics in 2001. Winkle accepted a temporary teaching position with the Calvin classics department in 2000. He then taught briefly at Grand Valley State University before returning to Calvin permanently in the fall of 2005.

In addition to teaching, he leads off-campus interims with his colleagues to both Greece and Italy. Williams, who co-led the 2009 Greece interim trip, said that Winkle related very well to the students on that trip. “And he knows his stuff. We wouldn’t have hired him here if he didn’t know his stuff,” said Williams.

Winkle said that leading the trips with Williams and Bratt, his former professors, has been a seamless process.

Professors are people too

“It was strange for me, just simply calling them ‘Mark’ and ‘Ken.’ It is that weird thing that I think everybody has with teachers or people who were authority figures in your past,” said Winkle. “When you have people as professors you see the formal side to them. You don’t see behind the veil. You don’t get to see them as husbands, and fathers, and friends, and wisecrackers and that kind of thing. And that has been great fun.”

Winkle has a non-formal side to himself as well, which includes his role as lead guitarist, back-up vocalist and pianist in his cover band Five Minutes Tardy.

“They had the name before I joined the band. I am not all that crazy about the name, but it is what it is, and that is fine,” said Winkle. “They are all elementary school teachers, where phrases like ‘five minutes tardy’ are part of the common lexicon.” The band has been together for six and a half years and has a regular gig at a bar in Grandville.

He said music is a creative outlet.

For the soul

“My wife knows that if I don’t get some time alone with my acoustic guitar or my electric guitar every week, then I am a much more unpleasant person,” said Winkle with a laugh. “It is definitely a soul-feeding kind of thing. But when I get together with the band it is this kind of stupid male-bonding thing that every guy needs and every woman doesn’t understand. There is that element to it as well.”

He met his wife through the band.

When Winkle moved back to Grand Rapids to teach at Calvin, his best friend Steve, who taught at Holland Christian High School, said that he had a new colleague who had a fantastic voice and should sing with the band. “We hit it off, we dated for about five months then she dumped me,” said Winkle. “We continued to be in the band, and it was weird and unpleasant, very Fleetwood Mac.” A few years later they put the past behind them and got married. They have a son, Ian, who will turn two in October.

Classics: the next generation

Winkle is curious to see if his son takes an interest in the classics.

“I do have kid’s versions of the myths. He will know his Odyssey and Iliad. He will know his Homer before he is in first grade. I haven’t decided how much,” said Winkle, who added that his father was a biology teacher and tried to get Winkle to be interested in biology from a young age—to no avail. “My hope is that I will be able to take him, and whatever other child my wife and I have, to Italy and Greece piggy-backing on academic trips,” added Winkle, chuckling: “He might be into NASCAR and country music for all I know.”

Winkle sometimes puzzles over the fact that he can’t seem to ever get out of the Midwest (having gone to school here, grad school, and held other jobs in the region).

“He is another Calvin apple that didn’t fall far from the tree,” added Williams.


BA in classical languages and history, Calvin College, 1993
PhD classics, Northwestern University, 2001

Research Interests
Mining the philosophical, religious, and mystical elements of the Metamorphoses by Apuleius. Reading up on the largely misunderstood horse goddess Epona.

Selected Publications
"The Right Way to Reach the Wrong-Headed,” Christian History (2000); “Epona Salvator?: Isis and the Horse Goddess in Apuleius' Metamorphoses,” Proceedings of ICAN IV (2008)

Little-Known Fact
Has had abbreviated experiences with being a syndicated cartoonist.

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