The great thing about being a historian, according to Calvin archivist Dick Harms ’73, is that there is no limit to the number of questions you can ask.

“Whatever you’re curious about, you can explore,” he said. “Whatever question comes to you, you can research; not every one is answerable, but many are.”

Harms has pursued many of those questions throughout his career, first serving as the assistant historian for the city of Grand Rapids and for the past 19 years as Calvin’s archivist. Some questions Harms has raised himself—in research he went on to pursue—but most have been asked by patrons.

“We get questions about baptismal records, ancestries or details about how a particular program at Calvin was set up,” he said. “Recently we were asked to find the original course description for a course here, and someone from Africa needed the deed to a property that a mission owned there.”

The answers to these and many, many more are available through Heritage Hall in Calvin’s Hekman Library, which houses four collections: the Calvin College archives, the Calvin Theological Seminary archives, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) archives, and manuscripts of the Dutch in North America since 1840.

Dick Harms inspecting a book in the archives.

Under Harms’ purview over the last two decades, the holdings of college and denominational records have grown exponentially. Numerous collections, such as the papers of Paul Henry and Vern Ehlers, have also been added to the holdings.

He has also been diligent in keeping the database of CRC ministers up to date. “That’s going to be hard to cut loose,” said Harms. “I’ve worked very hard to keep that accurate, keeping track of 3,800 ministers.”

Harms, though, will be passing oversight of that database and all of the records on, as he recently retired from Calvin.

“An archive is an institution’s repository of records of enduring value. It is the ‘go-to’ resource for an institution’s history,” said David Malone, dean of the college and seminary library. “As curator of archives, Dick Harms mimics that enduring value, that ‘go-to-edness.’ An archivist of his pedigree and length of service is irreplaceable. We can reacquire some of his skills, but not in the same combination. His retirement is a milestone and his departure a loss.”

Prior to his departure from the college, though, we asked him to draw on his depth of knowledge about this place and pull together little-known facts about Calvin, resulting in the following list of 10 Truths about Calvin.

10 truths about Calvin

1 “Our school” began in 1876 to train candidates for ministry in Dutch immigrant congregations, so everything was in Dutch. Dr. Geerhardus Vos was hired in 1888 to teach, among his assignments, both English and non- theological subjects in English. Almost immediately students began to petition for exemptions, because “English is too difficult.” Reluctantly the board began granting exemptions to students over the age of 40—the age at which it was determined learning foreign languages was too difficult. The board also agreed that perhaps philosophy was too difficult in English, but all other non-theological subjects would continue being taught in English. When enrollment was opened to potential schoolteachers in 1894, English became the language of instruction in all non-theological subjects.

2 Calvin students are very familiar with grades, of course. But before 1900 there were no grades. At the end of the semester, there were final exams, which were pass or fail. The board of trustees reviewed the exam results and decided who had passed and therefore could advance and who would have to repeat, or if the exam results were sufficiently dismal, who would be encouraged to leave the school. In 1900, steps to begin a college required the adoption of grades.

3 Officially, basketball and the beginning of the Calvin-Hope athletic rivalry date back to the 1920–1921 school year. But basketball and playing teams from Hope began earlier. Already in 1914 student Ralph Stob (college president, 1933–1939) unsuccessfully petitioned to allow a baseball team to represent the school. Three years later a group of students unofficially formed a basketball team and challenged the team from Hope. According to reports, it was a long game for Calvin, losing 56-8, with players surprised that they had been able to score eight points. Since the faculty did not approve this team, the game does not count in the official rivalry.

4 During World War I, a wave of super-patriotism swept the nation and things German suddenly became unacceptable. Frankfurters became hot dogs, hamburger became Salisbury steak and the post office refused to deliver mail to Berlin, Michigan, so the village’s name became Marne. Calvin came under ongoing editorial criticism from the Michigan Tradesman for refusing to discontinue teaching German. Twice the particularly vitriolic periodical denounced Calvin College as a “hotbed of pro-German ideas, prejudices and propaganda” for continuing to teach the enemy’s language. The school stood firm, and German remains part of the curriculum a century later.

5 Rev. John Hiemenga, the first president of Calvin, asked the board of trustees for permission to raise funds for a much-needed dormitory on the then-new Franklin campus in 1922. The board refused his request since his job was to run the college, not raise funds. He did receive permission to raise funds at his own expense and on his own time, so during the summers, he began preaching in congregations whose ministers were vacationing. In Cincinnati, Ohio, he met William A. Van Agthoven (1861–1930), who was unmarried, lived in his parents’ modest home and, according to later reports, quietly gave to charities. Van Agthoven gave Hiemenga $10,000 in municipal bearer bonds, redeemable like cash, for the dormitory. Hiemenga rode the night train home sitting on the valise containing the bonds, not sleeping, for fear of being robbed. Ultimately, Van Agthoven gave $40,000 toward the dorm that cost $140,000 to build.

6 In 1966 Garrett Heyns, with Amry Vandenbosch, were named the first Distinguished Alumni of Calvin College. An accomplished educator and administrator early in his career, Heyns had spent three decades as a respected innovator and leader in the area of penology, focusing on helping young and first-time offenders change the directions of their lives. His father, William, had served on the seminary faculty for 24 years. Four years later, Garrett’s son, Roger, also received the honor for his outstanding teaching at the University of Michigan and then his leadership as chancellor of the University of California-Berkeley during the student unrest of the 1960s. They are the only parent and child combination to be named Calvin Distinguished Alumni.

7 Calvin has a long and often colorful history of student misbehavior. Some of it was relatively benign and humorous, and some not. Brothers David and Meindert De Jong were among the student scofflaws. David was the older of the two but came to Calvin in 1925, a year after Meindert, having left school after the eighth grade to work and contribute to the family income—as was often the case with immigrant families. Both were bright and eventually became successful authors. The brothers looked enough alike that they took each other’s exams, depending on whoever knew the subject matter best. If neither knew the subject well, one began taking the exam while the other sent an urgent telegram requesting that the test-taker be excused to deal with a family emergency. Since such telegrams were rare and costly, they were accepted as legitimate without question.

8 When Edgar Boevé joined the Calvin faculty in 1958, his wife, Ervina, had already been on the faculty four years, and taught seven years before coming to Calvin. The college determined that both wife and husband could not hold faculty status since this would give their family two votes in the faculty senate. Ervina chose to give up her faculty status since Edgar earned more than she. For the next 12 years her name was not included in the catalog, or otherwise acknowledged by the college, in spite of her continuing to teach and direct student theatrical productions. In 1970 she was reinstated to faculty status. She retired in 1990, after 36 years at Calvin, one-third of which she was a “non-person,” to use her own words.

9 In 1982 the Hanneford Circus rented the Calvin Fieldhouse for performances. Among the circus features were four elephants, including Trumpet, a 12-year-old Asian elephant, named for the distinctive sounds she made. She was the youngest of the four elephants and the best performer of the group, and so a favorite of spectators. As the circus was being set up, the four elephants were chained to stakes driven into the grassy ground north of the Fieldhouse. The stake for Trumpet was driven into a 440-volt electrical line that powered an auxiliary pump for the campus lawn sprinkling system. Early the next morning, power was automatically sent to the pump and tragically electrocuted Trumpet.

10 As a student, I learned how difficult it was to change the “permanent record.” Among the electives I took were two courses in education and after my sophomore year began receiving notes from the registrar’s office indicating that I was not taking the requisite courses for an education degree. I went twice to explain that I was not working toward an education degree and each time was told my record would be updated. The notes continued coming. During my last semester, not wanting a problem with graduation, I went again, and again heard that this would be corrected. On graduation day, I opened the program and saw I was listed with those receiving a degree in secondary education instead of the humanities. Another trip to the registrar that same day again resulted assurances. When my diploma arrived several weeks later, it noted, of course, that my degree was in secondary education. I asked for and later received a correct diploma and ever since have been the holder of two diplomas from Calvin.