As Gaylen and Susan Byker sit in the breakfast nook of DeWit Manor and think about leaving Calvin College, they can hardly believe 17 years have come and gone. So much has happened.
“When I first accepted the position, I told people I would be at Calvin for at least seven years, probably 10, and here we are, 17 years later. I’ve had strong affirmation and a strong sense of calling that this was where God wanted us to serve,” said Gaylen.
In June, the Bykers will move out of the manor and to their new home on the shores of Lake Michigan.
“I think the first reflection about our time at Calvin ending hit me when Fitah [Rasendrahasina, a Calvin student] was singing ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ at the November scholarship dinner,” said Susan. “The moment was so worshipful. I thought, ‘How important this work is! Look at what God has done in the lives of all of these students.’ I was deeply moved and grateful.”
An unexpected career change
In 1995, very few in the Calvin community would have predicted that a world-traveling Calvin alumnus with a history of law, international finance and energy exploration would become the college’s eighth president. Although Gaylen held a doctorate, had done some teaching (including time at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon) and had recently served on the college’s first comprehensive fund-raising campaign, the presidency of the institution was not on the Byker family radar screen, either.
However, Gaylen and Susan had been discussing Calvin the day before the search committee’s first phone call.
“While we were on a plane headed back to our home in Houston, we talked about how we were going to get our daughter Gayle to attend Calvin,” said Gaylen. “That’s where we really wanted her to go. The next day, Calvin called about the presidency.”
“That call was surprising and interesting,” added Susan. “We both thought about the possibility all day long—Gaylen was at work, and I was at Bible study fellowship. Could this be God’s call to us?”
Of course, history tells us that the Bykers did indeed perceive God leading them to Calvin and, yes, Gayle did enroll and later graduated on a pre-med track—and, after earning her medical degree and an MBA, works for the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., on end-of-life and hospice care issues. Another daughter, Tanya, took some courses at Calvin as well and is now a PhD candidate in behavioral economics at the University of Michigan.
Making DeWit Manor home
A key decision the Bykers made as they prepared for their time at Calvin has transformed college hospitality: They decided to live in DeWit Manor.
Before the arrival of the Bykers, the stately former residence of J.P. Miller, the owner of the Knollcrest Farms property that Calvin purchased in 1956, had been looked after by live-in caretakers and only occasionally used for college events. As the home of Gaylen and Susan Byker, the manor took on a much more significant role.
“Gaylen said right from the start that we wanted to live in the center of the campus, so we could be immersed in the life of the college,” said Susan. “I also think hospitality is enhanced when you invite someone into your own home. The invitation is more personal and meaningful.”
“We often hear from alumni and other guests of the college that they had never been in the house before. We think we’ve had somewhere over 36,000 guests in the manor during our time here,” said Gaylen.
Talking about DeWit Manor brings additional memories to the Bykers. Beyond all of the Calvin events they have hosted, it has been their family home, too. Over 17 years, scores of family memories come to mind.
The manor was the setting for holidays and special events for the extended Byker family. While it might be hard to picture, given the historic nature of the home, the DeWit living room was the place where grandson Bastian learned to ride a tricycle, granddaughter Eva tried on skis for the first time and grandson Johannes played with his first bowling set.
“I told Bas that we’d soon be moving out of this house. He took that in for a bit and then asked, ‘Oma, is there any way we can get Pakka to change his mind?’ We will have wonderful stories to cherish about this place,” said Susan.
The manor has been the setting for 17 years of January Series luncheons, the culinary and conversational highlight for special guests of the college after each January Series lecture. The roster of intriguing people who have dined in the house is staggering.
That’s another unique facet of life as Calvin’s presidential couple that the Bykers will miss. “So many interesting people and fascinating conversations,” said Gaylen. “I remember sitting here at the table for three hours with Elie Wiesel. Chaim Potok was an overnight guest. It has been a privilege not only to meet these people, but in many cases to get to know them.”
When asked about what was among their favorite experiences during their time at Calvin, Susan’s thoughts about the January Series segued into the marvelous talents of the college’s executive chefs, Tim England for 15 years and, more recently, Ian Ramirez. She will always be grateful for the many artistic and delicious meals created by these professionals.
Gaylen mentioned his relationship with president emeritus William Spoelhof, who was a close friend and constant encourager.
“I’ll never forget the plane trip to and from Virginia with Dr. Spoelhof for the 2000 men’s basketball championship,” Gaylen said. “On the way home, I asked him what his best Calvin experience was. He paused for a time, then smiled and said, ‘Right now.’”
Mentoring young people
Another treasured Calvin experience for both Gaylen and Susan has been mentoring students. Susan—with a heart for international students from her time as a teacher in the U.N. International School and the family’s time in Lebanon—conducted Bible studies for international students and spent time in one-on-one and group mentorships.
Bimala Pokharel, who is Nepalese, is an example of the deep friendships that have come from these experiences. Pokharel came to Calvin from Hong Kong on the recommendation of an alumnus and thrived in her years on campus, mentored by Susan and other members of the Calvin community. Pokharel made profession of faith her junior year, received a bachelor’s degree from the college and a master’s degree from the seminary and is now back in her home country, in ministry with her husband and family.
“It is hard to fully convey how moving it is to be involved in the lives of students such as Bimala,” said Susan. “Your life is changed as you see their lives change.”
Susan has also been involved in Calvin’s Youth Writing Festival for many of her years at Calvin, helping to grow that program into an impressive three-day affair that draws over 1,600 students.
For Gaylen, the mentorship experience has involved regular meetings with every student senate president during his tenure and Bible studies with a variety of student groups.
These mentorships have included many hours sharing with students in DeWit Manor. In addition, the Bykers have opened up their Stokely Creek Lodge, a cross country ski resort in Ontario, to Calvin’s cross country teams and other student groups.
In addition, mentoring has gone beyond Calvin students. The Bykers have been ardent supporters of an urban ministry program for youths led by Pearl Banks of Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church.
“Gaylen and Sue have been involved in our ministries since I started at Neland in 2007,” said Banks. “They have supported our youth summer ministry teams—with Susan coming with us to Montana—and now our apprenticeship program, conceived as a way to address the needs of youth who weren’t college-bound and lacked the resources or opportunities to learn a trade. Gaylen and Susan may never understand the magnitude of what they have done for others.”
Of course, Banks and the young men from the apprenticeship program will be guests at DeWit Manor before the Bykers depart.
'The essence of the Calvin project'
Establishing and supporting a world-class faculty has also been important to Gaylen. He refers to the work of the faculty, in the classroom and in its scholarship, as the “essence of the Calvin project” and is always awestruck to be present as young faculty members are hired and also as heralded professors retire.
“We host new faculty members here in the manor during the Kuiper Seminars [the orientation session on Calvin’s Reformed Christian teaching-and-learning perspective], and it is thrilling to hear about their life journeys as Christian scholars and what drew them to Calvin,” said Gaylen. “Late in the year, Susan and I host a retirement dinner where veteran faculty members reflect on their careers. One year, we had 13 professors here, and their combined service at Calvin totaled 400 years! These gatherings are incredible bookends that help you understand the importance of the teaching that goes on at Calvin.”
Susan recalled the testimony of Calvin’s athletic teams over the years. “I love hearing the way national championship team members explain what the year has meant to them. It is never ‘Yeah, we won!’ but instead, ‘Look how we grew as Christians together,’” she said.
So, 17 years later, how do the Bykers assess their time at Calvin College?
Former Calvin philosophy professor (and now president of Fuller Theological Seminary) Richard Mouw, a longtime mentor and friend, told Gaylen on the eve of the Byker presidency to pick two or three themes to begin—and if those themes were the right ones, they would still be important as his presidential tenure ended.
“I chose three,” said Gaylen. “The continued insistence on making sure Calvin was both academically excellent and distinctively Christian, the financial sustainability of the college and the internationalization of the institution.”
Those themes have resulted in a series of statements and procedures related to academic freedom at a confessional college; numerous state-of-the-art buildings on both sides of the East Beltline; a tremendous growth in annual fund-raising, student scholarships and faculty research grants; a robust globe-spanning study program; and a faculty and student population that comes from dozens of countries worldwide.
Susan is impressed with the growth in endowed chairs and institutes, allowing Calvin to dig deeper into important issues and extend the college’s influence in higher education.
Certainly, the presidential years have not always been easy for the Bykers. After years of working in international education, Susan wondered how she would be introduced and what her role might be. Giving up her profession and privacy was hard, but she found ways to use her gifts in strategic places—in mentoring, working on the Youth Writing Festival and developing an admired set of artistic cards featuring her photography of the campus.
Turning to her husband, Susan noted that when they first arrived, some people assumed that Gaylen was simply “an oil man buildings. They skipped over the fact that he had his PhD in international relations and had been teaching and lecturing.
Mouw knew that characterization of Gaylen was wrong; in fact, as Gaylen took office in 1995, Mouw said that Calvin’s new president “cares about theory and practice” and was “Plato’s ideal of a philosopher-king.”
Gaylen acknowledges that wrestling with the unique tensions that are part of Calvin’s challenging path in higher education has, at times, been difficult—for him and for others. But he is buoyant about Calvin’s future as one of the finest Christian colleges in the world and grateful to have been an important part of the school’s distinguished history.
“Calvin has always been about providing students with what young people need to know to be transformative in society,” he said. “Clearly, the college is a role model for many educational institutions worldwide, and the important work that gets done on this campus will only increase its influence.”
As they depart from the manor, the campus and the college, the Bykers expect to stay closely engaged with Calvin, eager to participate in the next chapter of the institution’s life. Both of them are lifelong fans of the January Series and will be back in the Covenant Fine Arts Center to take in many of the lectures.
Gaylen is contemplating an off-campus experience for students and alumni in Vietnam, where he served in the U.S. Army as a young man before attending Calvin in earnest.
“Life will be very different,” he said. “After over 50 board of trustee meetings, 18 synods and a hundred-some faculty senate meetings, there will be a different rhythm to my schedule.”
Susan is departing with warm memories and smiled while recalling some of the lighter moments, many of them connected to Gaylen’s appearances at student events such as Airband and the Cold Knight Club seminary pond winter jump.
“I’ll never forget that very first Airband appearance, when he had many costume changes behind the stage. It was crazy—and fun—to get him ready for each segment,” she said.
While life as Calvin’s presidential couple includes special moments with Nobel laureates in your home, it also includes lip-syncing “YMCA” in front of 4,000 screaming students. For the Bykers, every bit of it has been a privilege and a joy, and gratitude is their primary emotion.
“I had a chance to spend time with Dr. Spoelhof shortly before he went to glory,” said Susan. “He whispered to me, ‘Gaylen’s doing a great job.’ That is a moment that will always stay with me.”
Because of the Bykers, the walls of DeWit Manor have many more inspiring stories to tell, stories of God’s faithfulness to a special place called Calvin College.