Dale Cooper describes himself as an “unusually ordinary little fellow,” but of course, there’s no one in the Calvin College community that would agree with that assessment.
For 30 years, “Coop” made his mark on the Calvin community, both in religion department classrooms and as the college’s chaplain.
“His pastoral heart has endeared him to generations of students,” wrote Crystal De Weerd Unema ’67, who nominated Cooper for the award.
When he was 3 years old, his mother contracted polio and never left the iron lung to which she was confined; Cooper’s dad quit his job as an onion farmer and spent the next 39 years at her side.
The experience shaped his life. Today, reflecting on a career as a pastor of college students, he said, “To be given the privilege of being able to enter the arena of human pain, in my case, with younger people at Calvin College, students who were in the hospital or bereaved, those were certainly among my most fulfilling parts of ministry.
“Perhaps, probably, God used those circumstances in my family’s life so that I could minister to others,” said Cooper.
He believes he had “the best of three worlds” as a college teacher and chaplain: he could teach, he could preach and he could be a pastor to 4,000 young people.
Among his favorite classes to teach were courses on John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and the interim explorations of the contemplatives, especially Thomas Merton—and the meaningful time spent taking students to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where Merton lived.
Cooper said he is often asked if he is worried about the faith of the next generation and of the church they will be leading.
“With as much sincerity as I can muster, I can tell you that I am not discouraged about the future of the church,” he said.
“And young people—more specifically my students here at Calvin College— have been instruments of God to give me fresh hope.”
It was always Cooper’s aim to walk alongside his students and to orient his ministry around five things: to help them feel understood; to feel accepted; to feel that they are loved; when necessary, that they are forgiven; and to feel that he, as their chaplain, is trustworthy and would keep his promises to them.
He is Calvinist-characteristically humbled by receiving the Faith and Learning Award and believes that perhaps the spiritual virtue of gratitude is the best response.
“I think that one of the ways God could be honored in this would be—at least for this little fellow—to cultivate gratitude,” he said. “It has given me the opportunity to reflect on the gifts God has given, and one of them is my long, long participation in the life of Calvin College.”
One thing’s for certain: “Coop” is not a “little fellow” in the lives of hundreds and hundreds of Calvin graduates who had the blessing of his teaching, preaching and wise counsel.
“Rev. Cooper has influenced students for years as a Christian role model,” wrote Unema. “His caring, counseling and spiritual guidance to Calvin students is superior … and he truly embodies and reflects the Christian values to which all Calvin alumni can aspire.”