August 29, 2008 | Kaite Landan

Calvin highlight's Professor Tom Hoeksema's life and career at Calvin as a graduate from the education program and the groundwork he laid for the special education program.

When Tom Hoeksema was about to graduate from Calvin’s education program in 1968, then-education professor Bert Bos noticed the work he was doing with people living with disabilities at Pine Rest Christian Hospital. “Maybe you can help us do that here,” said Bos. In 1975, Hoeksema returned to Calvin as an education professor and laid the groundwork for the special education program.

Professors and produce

Hoeksema’s interest in academia and people with disabilities began in his own neighborhood—Franklin Street, near Calvin’s former campus. His family owned Bert’s IGA, a grocery store frequented by Calvin faculty members. There, Hoeksema spent his days stocking shelves and manning the cash register. But during his countless conversations with professors, something dawned on him: “I realized there was a life of the mind, other than taking care of produce—or a canned good,” said Hoeksema. At the same time he was getting to know Calvin faculty members, Hoeksema was befriending a neighborhood boy with Downs Syndrome. “I was curious about him,” said Hoeksema. “I was pulled there. It feels like that is what God wanted me to do.” These experiences led Hoeksema to pursue a degree in education at Calvin in 1964.


When Hoeksema graduated from Calvin in 1968, he married Mary Pekelder—daughter of the then-college chaplain. At that time, Calvin chapel was mandatory three times a week. If a student missed chapel more than three times during a semester, a letter from Chaplain Pekelder arrived in his or her parent’s mailbox. Mary, Hoeksema said, missed chapel more than three times the first semester they were married, and Chaplain Pekelder received a letter from himself.

The draft

While his wife was getting into mild trouble, Hoeksema was making plans to attend graduate school. But it would have to wait.

The draft board told him, he said, “If you are in school in October, you will be wearing green.” And like any youth in 1960s America, Hoeksema had his own feelings about the Vietnam War, and he was opposed to it. Then he received an opportunity that would defer him from the draft: a job at Pine Rest. Eventually, the draft ended, and Hoeksema began graduate work at Michigan State University. He earned his master’s in mental retardation and then his PhD in special education in 1975. In his graduate work, he contemplated how to give a meaningful education to persons living with disabilities.

Changing programs and perspectives

In 1975, Hoeksema returned to Calvin as a professor of education. Right away, he began pioneering. He taught the first special education class at the college. “I was 28,” he said. “What a thrill that was. I was just a kid.” Before he began, students who wanted to study that field attended classes at Grand Valley State University. By 1978, Hoeksema had fully established Calvin’s program.

Time to go barrier free

Not only did Hoeksema pioneer a program, he changed the physical layout of the campus. In 1980, then-college president Tony Diekema explained to Hoeksema that the federal government now required that schools be “barrier free,” which means that the environment is accessible to those with disabilities. Diekema enlisted Hoeksema to determine what Calvin had to do become barrier free. For the next few months, Hoeksema studied laws and measured things such as how high the toilet paper was from the ground in bathrooms on-campus. He compiled an eight-page list of everything that needed to be fixed. “We were knocking out showers to make them barrier free,” said Hoeksema.

Reaching out to the church, community

Hoeksema was pioneering outside of the campus too; he was elected to a CRC synod committee that asked the question, “What should the church do about disability?” He explained to the synod that people with disabilities are an untapped resource with special gifts of their own. “Church without handicapped people was handicapped itself,” said Hoeksema. One of the questions that surfaced in Hoeksema’s field was: ‘How do you integrate people with disabilities into everyday schools?’ Out of that question, the Christian Learning Center (CLC) was formed. The CLC was incorporated in 1978, and though it started as a school for students with disabilities, it is now a resource for special education programs in area Christian schools.

Discovering together

In the midst of Hoeksema’s accomplishments, he has always enjoyed teaching. “They [students] want to discover the field I am still discovering,” said Hoeksema. “We develop an understanding together, rather than me pumping knowledge into someone’s head.”

Family life

Hoeksema and Mary have four children: Tom, Adam, Laura, Jenny and five grandchildren. The couple advocated the popular 1960s concept of zero population growth, which stipulated that couples should only have two biological children. They wanted a bigger family though, and they pursued domestic adoptions. Recognizing that civil rights was an important issue, the Hoeksemas wanted to have an interracial family—the couple adopted two African-American children in 1975 (Adam) and 1979 (Jenny). He described having an interracial family as sensitizing. “My black kids were treated differently than my white kids.”

As a family, they like to do “simple stuff,” Hoeksema said. For example, Hoeksema admits the family gets snobby about their style of camping. They only sleep on the ground, and are skeptical that anything else should be called camping. Hoeksema admits he and Mary have an adventurous side, and they are excited to act on it during their retirement. In his various endeavors, with work and family, Hoeksema reflected: “I look back on it and say, ‘I’m glad to have been involved.’”


Calvin College, education (1968)
Michigan State University, mental retardation (1972)
Michigan State University, special education (1975)

Research Interests
• Disability in film
• Inclusion of individuals with disabilities
• Faith development in persons with intellectual disabilities

Selected Publications
“Radical Shifts: New Ways of Thinking about Disability and Schooling” Christian Educators Journal (2007)

The Fusion of Film Studies and Disability Studies “Screening Disability” (book chapter) (2001)

Quirky Fact
Near obsession with guts-bocce (an aggressive game of bocce ball)

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