This post was supposed to be about something else. But that’s the thing about death, isn’t it? It’s unexpected; it messes up plans. It throws a wrench into your life.
Wednesday started out as a good day: my Man of Steel review was published and got some pretty good attention, I heard from some editors I had been trying to talk to for forever, and the weather was rather nice.
Then I got told to check Facebook, specifically the page of Calvin College’s English Department. I did. That’s where I learned–also in a text from a friend–that William J. Vande Kopple, the co-chair of the Department had died at 63. Apparently he had been diagnosed with a tumor on his pancreas a week ago and was planning to undergo treatment when he passed away suddenly.
The post on the Department’s page says his death was peaceful. That strikes me as making perfect sense. That’s one of the best adjectives I can think of for him: peaceful. I’d never seen him raise his voice, except in mockery.
That’s my first memory of him–of this giant of a man (he was about 6’5″ or so by my estimate)–is of his laughter. He had a very particular laugh: it started low and rumbling then would crescendo in volume until you were laughing along with him. All told, I never remember him ever mad or upset, though I’m sure he was from time to time.
A former high school English teacher who came to Calvin in 1980, Vande Kopple quickly established himself as an expert in linguistics and languages, publishing a remarkable array of academic books or being included in such. In recent years, though, he began writing creative nonfiction, eventually publishing three collections of it, all centered on his love of family, his rock-hard Christian faith and his ardent enthusiasm for fishing.
I have a copy of the first book, The Catch, and I have it signed: “To Tom–Hope you enjoy these tales!–BVK.” I’ve never finished it, though I plan to soon. I also never had a class with Vande Kopple and now I never shall; it’s immensely saddening.
It’s funny, the things you remember about a man once he’s gone. In this case, I remember talking and walking with him throughout New England, where I spent a month studying my freshman year and where my profile picture was taken. I remember rushing after him at the conclusive snowball fight as well as the one at the Department’s annual Writer’s Retreat at the University of Michigan Biological Station in the Upper Peninsula. I remember telling him excitedly about all the things I had written and planned to write. I remember coming to him at the Reader’s Retreat after having read Green Earth by Frederick Manfred and breathlessly telling him it was the most honest book I had ever read.
I remember trudging out into darkness on that retreat to find books he had hidden in Ziploc bags throughout the campsite we were at. I remember discussing with him and the other professors at our New England group’s retreat–on my birthday–what made the trip work and what didn’t, and how eager those of us who could were eager to go again.
But again, I remember that laugh. That genility. That warmth. He wasn’t open towards students at first, but going to New England softened him. He told us how for most of his life, he had thought of the famous Simon and Garfunkel song “I Am A Rock” as a metaphor for his life: that he stood alone in isolation. But our trip, and the closeness we grew to have, softened him, he said with chagrin, though we knew he was grateful.
So I’ll miss him. I’ll miss casually chatting on Facebook late at night during the school year. I’ll miss ribbing him in the hallways of the English department. I’ll miss seeing him and his ever-present Canon camera at department events; I’ll miss getting tagged in his photos on Facebook. But most of all, I’ll miss the man himself.
Where I’m from is, with exception, a generally unfriendly area towards intellectuals. Realizing my iconoclast nature at an early age, this led me to be ostracized and later depressed. College changed all that and he was a big part of the reason why.
Truly, Vande Kopple, you were like no one else. You were a Rock and an Island. I know you love where you are now and I can’t wait to see you when I get there.