A gifted teacher and scholar, Henrietta Ten Harmsel made room for poetry and won honors for her Dutch translations.

Emeritus English professor Henrietta Ten Harmsel died on Friday, March 16. She was 90 years old. Ten Harmsel taught English at Calvin for 27 years, from 1957 to 1985, and she was the first woman to serve as that department's chair. “I remember Henie ran the department with great joy and with great grace,” said English professor John Timmerman, Jr., who Ten Harmsel recruited to teach at Calvin. “She was always a happy witness, a happy soldier in the kingdom, and she was a very gracious one.” Ten Harmsel was a talented teacher with “a terrific classroom presence,” said James Vanden Bosch, another English colleague: “Everyone who had her as a professor just loved that kind of demanding but very charitable and kind and warm engagement that she had with them in the classroom ... I think she made as much room for poets and the public reading of poetry as anyone in the department,” he added.

Ten Harmsel was also a gifted translator of the Dutch language. Her translation of Pink Lemonade, Good Friday and other Dutch writings earned her the 1985 Martinus Nijhoff Award for Translation. In 1998, she was honored with Calvin’s Faith and Learning Award—which recognizes emeritus faculty for their excellence in teaching, spiritual impact, concern for students and lasting influence. In 2000, the Henrietta Ten Harmsel English Scholarship was established in her honor. In her later years, Ten Harmsel suffered from severe vision impairment: “That’s when friends and family kicked in and read to her and took her places and … visited her all the time. She still loved to hear about poetry and former students,” Vanden Bosch said.

Her former English colleague, Richard Tiemersma, wrote the following tribute to Ten Harmsel upon her 1985 retirement:

Henrietta Ten Harmsel’s retirement from the Calvin faculty at the end of the 1984 fall semester was greeted with mixed emotions by her colleagues and friends, whom she served so well during her twenty-seven years on the staff. While congratulating her on the prospect of greater freedom to pursue her scholarly interests, we regret the loss of an outstanding scholar-teacher and an exuberant colleague.

Born in Hull, Iowa, in 1921, “Henie” enjoyed a distinction shared by few, if any, of her colleaguesthat of having taught on all levels from the primary grades to college. After graduating from Western Christian High School in 1938, she taught for a number of years in the primary grades in Rock Valley, Iowa, taking courses at Western Union College in LeMars, Iowa, during summers before coming to Calvin in 1947.

As an undergraduate, she distinguished herself not only as a student but also as a musician, lending her rich alto voice to such organizations as the Oratorio Society, the A Capella Choir, and the Musicians Guild. Returning to Western Christian upon graduation from Calvin in 1949, she taught English and German there until, in 1957, she came to Calvin as an assistant in English and German, having continued her education at the University of Michigan during the summers of 1955 to 1957. Beginning in 1958, however, she devoted her full teaching to English and in 1959 began an extended leave that culminated in her receiving the Ph.D. degree from the University of Michigan.

As a member of the English Department, Henie taught a wide variety of courses, including the ubiquitous Freshman Composition, Introduction to Literature, Survey of English Literature, Shakespeare, and the English Novelthe last which became peculiarly her ownas well as a number of interim courses. An enthusiastic teacher, she communicated her love of great literature and her high standards to the many students who regularly filled her classes; and she spent hours counseling and tutoring in her tastefully decorated office, urging on the gifted, encouraging the slow to learn, and lending a sympathetic ear to those with particular problems.

Under no compulsion to “publish or perish,” Henie nevertheless enhanced her reputation as a teacher by earning a similarly enviable reputation as a scholar. Since the publication of her doctoral dissertation, Jane Austen: A Study in Fictional Conventions, in 1964, she published numerous articles in learned journals and religious periodicals. The issuing of her Jacobus Revius: Dutch Metaphysical Poet in 1968 was her first major publication in an area that was to gain her international recognition as a scholar and translator of Dutch poetry. In 1981, Eerdmans published her translation of Pink Lemonade, a delightful collection of poems for children by Annie Schmidt; and within the past few months, Paideia Press published her translation of Jeremias Den Decker’s Good Friday, a book-length poem on the Passion Week.

The recipient of numerous awards and grants for scholarship and publication over the years, Henie was made a member of the Dutch Academy of Literature in 1975. And, coincident with her retirement this past winter, she received the prestigious 1985 Martinus Nijhoff Award for Translation from the Prince Bernhard Foundation of the Netherlands.

Indefatigable in her efforts to promote the college and the education to which she contributed so richly at Calvin, Henie also served the college in a wide-ranging number of roles. She was the first woman to serve as chairperson of the English Department, an office that she filled with astute sensitivity to the needs of the college and the wishes of her colleagues. Her efforts in recruiting students and in raising funds for the college were also a significant part of her service.

The English Department and the college will miss Henie. But we trust that, as she and Jo pursue other pleasures, they will continue to grace the campus from time to time with their presence, and we wish for a long, exhilarating, productive retirement for our colleague and dear friend.


Knowing of Ten Harmsel's love of Genevan Psalms, English professor James Vanden Bosch wrote the following psalm for her retirement:


Come, let us sing in celebration

Of Henrietta’s years

Of faithful teaching and translation

Of poems, prose, and peers.

If reading texts is just one version

Of reading human lives,

She reads each colleague (as diversion),

Each pretext who arrives.


Far from Sioux County though she’s wandered

She’s managed to remain

A civil servant of the Kingdom,

Sovereign in her domain

Of Dutch and English humane letters,

In lectures, books, and talk.

She’s found the paths of her true country

Are paths she chose to walk.


Here’s to Ten Harmsel (noble surname)––

We’ve gathered here to say

We’re for you, Henie (yes, that’s her name),

On your commencement day.

Your plot line now will take a new turn,

Reforming work and play,

And teaching us who watch as you learn:

God bless you on your way.


Anonymous Bosch                  

May 9, 1985

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