Professor Henk Aay gives the inaugural lecture as the first Frederik Meijer Chair in Dutch Language and Culture.
Considering that West Michigan has the largest Dutch population enclave in the U.S., with nearly a quarter million people of Dutch ancestry, perhaps it should not have been a surprise that a sizeable crowd showed up for the inaugural lecture of the first Frederik Meijer Chair in Dutch Language and Culture at Calvin.
Yet even the first holder of that chair, Calvin professor of geography and environmental studies Henk Aay, admitted he was shocked, pleasantly so, when he strode to the podium in the Prince Conference Center, on a Tuesday evening in September, to deliver his talk, titled "Positioning a Heritage," and looked out at an audience of over 400 people.
Yet, while a little taken aback at the size of the crowd, Aay gave those in attendance a memorable address as he wove together a series of seemingly disparate elements into an entertaining and educational 45-minute overview of the Netherlands, Calvin's heritage and future, the role of the new Meijer Chair and much more.
Taking pride in the culture
Aay, a native Dutch speaker, who began at Calvin in 1983, will serve an initial three-year term as the Meijer Chair. And in his first public lecture he set a beautiful tone for what might lie ahead.
Aay's scholarly interests have several focal points: the history and philosophy of geography as well as cultural and historical geography. He has published research on the settlement geography of the Dutch in West Michigan, on the relationships between nature and culture in works of fiction, on environmental advertising, on the history of geographic education, on the accuracy of geography textbooks and on the nature of the cultural landscape. Currently, Aay is writing a book on Arie van Deursen, an important, but forgotten Dutch geographer.
His talk touched on many of his interests. But he began with an interesting example, close to the heart of the man for whom the Meijer Chair is named.
"Hendrik Meijer, Fred's father," said Aay, "did Dutch ethnicity a big favor when in 1933, just before he opened his first grocery store in Greenville, Mich., he changed the Anglicized spelling of Meyer with a y back to the Dutch ij."
Aay continued: "As a visual cue that distinctive ligature in the Meijer name has served the Meijer stores well. It also serves as a visible and widespread contemporary ethnic identification throughout the region. The ij ligature is the most distinctive quality of written Dutch and whenever one encounters it on the page or in the landscape, it points to Dutch culture."
Aay contrasted that with his own surname which, upon immigration of the Aaij family to Canada, became Aay and never returned to the authentic Dutch spelling.
Appreciating the heritage while becoming diverse
The donation from Meijer will go toward two tracks at Calvin. Part of the funds will support and ensure the continuation of Dutch language instruction at Calvin. The other track will underwrite efforts to promote understanding of past and present-day Netherlands. Aay says those efforts will include speakers, workshops, seminars and other efforts to help the Calvin campus, West Michigan and Calvin’s broader constituency understand the Netherlands of today and of the past.
He noted in his inaugural address that some might think a chair in Dutch language and culture to be a step backward for Calvin College, not helpful in building greater diversity and an attempt to bring back or hold on to the "commanding Dutchness" of this place.
"There are others," he added, "who have been made to feel as persons who did not belong or were not as good, made to feel as outsiders in this college, in area churches and in other West Michigan organizations by an often unselfconscious discrimination, a clubbishness and a sidelining on the part of a Dutch ethnic majority."
But, he said, this ethnocentrism is plain and simply wrong. Yet the opposite of ethnocentrism, he said, is denying and disowning the presence of a cultural tradition or confining it to a dusty corner
"Sometimes," he said with a sly smile, "I feel that at Calvin the Dutch heritage is the elephant in the room that no one wants to or is capable of addressing."
But by not addressing it, insisted Aay, even with tensions, the heritage is neglected and in neglect it becomes an empty shell.
The Meijer Chair, he said, empowers the college to address its heritage in ways that both recognize the past and look to the future.
"The Netherlands is an important part of Calvin's heritage," Aay said in an interview prior to his talk, "but we have changed in many ways in recent years with students and professors with a much greater diversity of backgrounds. And that's great. In addition, through off-campus interims and semesters abroad our students have the ability to study in numerous countries. Their international understanding and experience has expanded, which is also great. Yet I believe that better understanding where the college came from will help us stick to and further articulate our educational and scholarly mission."
Aay did his undergraduate work in geography and planning at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and his Ph.D. in geography was earned at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
Born in the Netherlands, Aay journeyed to Canada with his family at the age of 13. That country remained his home for 25 years, and he says its strong British-inherited tradition in geography captured his interest and enthusiasm already in high school.