Memoirs of Robert P. Swierenga:
I was born on June 10, 1935 at Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago, the first child of John R. and Marie A. (Hoekstra) Swierenga. After completing kindergarten at McKinley School, which was directly across the street from our home at 1230 S. 59th Ave., I began first grade in February of 1941 at Timothy Christian School, which was little more than one block directly south. World War II started in December that year.
I remember very little of the early grades and our teachers, but Marty Stulp helped fill in the details from his great memory and personal archives. Elsie Ten Bos (later Slager) taught 1st grade and pulled the ears of naughty boys, Hermina Jansen 2nd grade, Harriet Bel 3rd grade (she let us draw war pictures), Helene De Goed 4th grade, and the Ten Harmsel sisters, Johanna and Henrietta, grades 5 and 6, respectively. Everdene Kooima taught the second half of 6th grade.
In junior high, our February class was split up a semester or two. In the fall semester we sat with the June class ahead of us, and in the spring semester we joined the June class behind us. Robert Vogel taught mathematics (when he wasn't telling personal war stories), Marjorie (Margie) Kallemeyn taught English, and Hilda Aukerman, Martha Visser, and Betty Brands covered the other subjects. All the boys adored the beautiful, dark haired Miss Brands, and after she announced her engagement to Jay Huitsing, we greeted her each day by singing the advertising slogan, "Jay's potato chips." The ubiquitous principal, Richard Talsma, roved the halls and kept order. We knew "Mr. Talsma" was coming when we heard his large ring of keys jingling in his pocket. Janitor James Boerman kept the school spick and span and imparted his wisdom to the boys in his haunt, the boiler room.
From the third grade on, each day included a time of singing favorite choruses and hymns. This is why I know so many songs today by memory. Once I remember playing an instrumental duet with my brother Ray, me on the trombone and Ray on trumpet. We played "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" because it was easy--b flat and only 5-6 notes in each part.
Morning and afternoon recess times in the playground directly across the back alley were fun, especially playing "Come over, Red Rover," "Buck, buck, how many fingers up?" and "Pump Pump, Get Away." The city also allowed the school to barricade Fourteenth Street in front of the building at recess and lunch for a play area. Traffic had to give way to students in those simpler days. When it rained, recess was in the basement, which was divided into separate boys and girls rooms. The city later gave permission for Timothy to use the public playground across 59th Ct. It had a fearsome giant slide, a building to circle when playing "hide and seek," and tennis courts that we used to play softball. In the Timothy assembly hall/auditorium, I learned to play basketball and enjoyed school plays, musical programs, and assemblies. Practice fire drills were a memorable and exciting part of the school semester. We could exit the building in single file in record time!
The most traumatic time for me at Timothy was in the 6th grade (1946), when the majority of Ebenezer students joined us because their school was closed. Timothy became so crammed that the basement recess room and the gym had to be carved into classrooms. My 6th grade room was squeezed next to the boiler room. And poor Miss Kooima had such a hard time keeping order. The boys from the Old West Side seemed to be so big and street smart, and could they fight! They even knew about things like brass knuckles and knives, and had fearsome nicknames like "Greaseballs." As a sheltered little suburban kid in lily-white Cicero, I was never the same after the 6th grade. Neither were the teachers. But did our softball team improve!! Marty Essenburg, Hank Hoeks, Jim Van Kampen, Al Vander Dyke, among others, knew how to hit! We could even hold our own against the despised Catholics from St. Francis of Rome school on 15th St. and 59th Ct. and the "heathen" from Burnham public school just south of 16th street. Our team jerseys proudly carried the name Wooden Shoes, but later we adopted the more original moniker "Wooden Heads."
Relationships with the opposite sex were rather limited in those days, but I recall having a crush on Marilyn Bolt, who lived right across the street after our family moved to 1418 S. 58th Ct. Then for the 8th grade party, I asked Kitty Wiltjer to be my date. It was the first for both of us and we had a good time. I even walked her home. My future wife, Joan Boomker, was in the June class, but I took no notice of her until the 9th grade.
As a wizened 8th grader, I anticipated graduation and going on the bus to CCHS in far off Engelwood. Remember the autograph books that we had everyone sign? My grandpa Swierenga, for whom I was named, wrote a full page of congratulations and wise advice. He was so proud that his oldest grandchild was graduating from Timothy. And so was I. Unfortunately, within a year he died from cancer. The impressive graduation ceremony, where we processed in robes and mortar board, was in the commodious First Cicero Christian Reformed Church, which was big enough for all the families and friends.
The high school years, 1949-1953, spanned the Korean war, but I hardly noticed. Life was full of classes with both good and not so good teachers, interspersed with band and choir rehearsals, play practice, and basketball games in the crackerbox gym against other Private School League teams. The teachers who most influenced me were Frances Van Rosendale in mathematics, Gerda Bos in English, Lorraine Bossenga in biology, Fritz Ploegman in Physical Education, and Rev. Herman Bel in Bible. Bel's classes were held in the infamous "portables." Kay Smilde (later Kooy) was an excellent Latin teacher but little stuck, unfortunately. Ploegman's bus was the "singing bus" (remember "Do Lord, Oh, do Lord?"), and Bel cheerfully greeted each student in the morning with the words "Climb aboard, all God's children." John Roose, Clara Van Til, and Stewart Vander Woude tried to interest me in history, but their efforts didn't come to fruition until my years at Calvin College (1953-57).
For me the music program at CCHS was most memorable. The A Capella choir was first directed by the Baars, James and then his son Robert, to be followed for the last two years by Willard Clutter. James Baar was a master musician who also directed the Christian Choral Club, made up of CCHS alumni. I remember in the 9th grade that James Baar arranged to perform Brahms Requiem at Orchestra Hall with the combined CCHS A Capella choir and the Choral Club, accompanied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. That was hitting the big time!! Rehearsals were held in the school auditorium one night a week, besides the regular choir periods during the day.
While waiting to board the Garfield "L" train at the Austin Blvd station, to attend the dress rehearsal at Orchestra Hall, I saw Joan Boomker on the platform all alone. She had boarded the train at Oak Park Ave. but got off at Austin to meet my cousin Joan Hoekstra, but Joan didn't show up, so I suggested that we go together. That was our first "date." We continued to date for five years until finally getting engaged at Christmas 1955. We married in the Oak Park CRC on June 16, 1956 and then moved to Grand Rapids for me to complete my senior year at Calvin. Joan had attended the freshman year and then dropped out to work full-time in Chicago. Her leaving Calvin helped my GPA considerably, but the long commutes home every two or three weeks for two academic years was a challenge too.
In April of my senior year we had a son, John Robert, who was born prematurely and died after two days. I accompanied the casket by plane from Grand Rapids to Chicago for viewing at the Mulder Chapel in Cicero and burial at Forest Home Cemetery. Joan remained at Blodgett Hospital. This tragedy helped two youngsters grow up very quickly to the seriousness of life and the importance of God's covenant promises.
I graduated from Calvin with a secondary education degree and a history major. I had expected to take a job in a Christian high school, but the death of our child allowed us to return to the Chicago area and I earned a Masters Degree in History at Northwestern University in 1958. Joan returned to her former job as a typist at the London & Lancashire Insurance Company at 223 W. Jackson Blvd. In February of 1958 Robert Jr. was born at Evanston Hospital. So I finished writing my masters thesis to the crying of an infant, and Joan lovingly made time to type it on a small portable, manual typewriter. In August we moved to Iowa, where I began a three-year stint (1958-1961) as social studies teacher at Pella Christian High School.
The little (5,000 population) Dutch farming center of Pella was quite a contrast to Chicago, but we made the adjustment and became very fond of our new school and community. We bought a home and joined Calvary CRC, where I helped lead the men's society and direct the choir. Our second child, Sarah Jane, was born there in 1960.
In 1961, President William Spoelhof of Calvin College surprised me with a phone call, asking me to come for one year to fill in for a professor on sabbatical leave. I agreed, provided that at the end of the school year, if my work was satisfactory, Calvin would offer me a permanent position when I finished my doctorate. They did, and we moved to Iowa City in August of 1962, now with three children, since our daughter Celia had just been born at Blodgett Hospital in July. At the University of Iowa, I continued studies begun during the summer of 1961 and after three years, in 1965, I graduated with a PhD in History and we returned to Calvin. These moves from Chicago to Iowa to Michigan, then back to Iowa and another return to Michigan, all with U-Haul trucks or one of my father's cartage trucks, made us feel like vagabonds, but we became expert packers and movers.
At Calvin I taught courses in Western Civilization and U.S. History and published my first book in 1968, Pioneers and Profits: Land Speculation on the Iowa Frontier (Iowa State University Press), which was based on my doctoral dissertation. The Dutch immigration records in the Calvin College Archives also sparked my interest, and I turned to that subject after completing a second book on Iowa land history in 1976, Acres for Cents: Delinquent Tax Auctions in Frontier Iowa (Greenwood Press). Our second son and fourth child, Daniel, was born in 1967.
The next year we moved to Ohio after I accepted a position as professor of history at Kent State University, a large and growing state institution. I felt called to be a witness for Christ in a blatantly secular environment and knew I would be stretched professionally by directing graduate seminars and research projects. Almost immediately, the local InterVarsity chapter asked me to be their faculty advisor.
Little did I know that in less than two years I would be in the middle of one of the great American tragedies, the shooting by the Ohio National Guard of students protesting against the Vietnam War. I witnessed the confrontation between guardsmen and students, heard the shots that killed four students and wounded nine others, and was caught up in the emotional aftermath of a university and city under the control of armed troops, of attending memorial services, and following the extended legal wrangling over who was at fault. Christian faculty and graduate students responded with clarion calls to the campus community to turn to Christianity as the solution to the turmoil.
After the shootings, as the University cast about to right itself, Christian faculty were allowed to teach faith-based courses in a newly-created Experimental College. For nearly ten years I taught classes on Christian social and political ethics, based on the writings of C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Perkins, and others. As a result, the 1970s was the most stimulating decade of my life, and my faith deepened as never before or since. Our youngest child, Suzanna, who was born in 1969 just six months before the shootings, brought great joy in our home in the midst of the anxiety on campus.
Professionally, Fulbright Fellowships in 1976 and 1985 at the University of Leiden allowed me to become an expert in the history of Dutch immigration to the USA. This subject increasingly became my central focus in research and writing. In 1982 I published (with Leiden Professor J.W. Scholte Nordholt) A Bilateral Bicentennial: A History of Dutch-American Relations (Octagon Books), and in 1985 The Dutch in America: Immigration, Settlement and Cultural Change (Rutgers University Press). In 1994 came the first study of Dutch Jewish immigration to America in The Forerunners: Dutch Jewry in the North American Diaspora (Wayne State University Press). This work, in turn, led Hope College in 1996 to appoint me the Albertus C. Van Raalte Research Professor in the A.C. Van Raalte Institute, a research center devoted to the study of the Dutch in America. The Peter Huizenga family generously funded the Institute.
The Institute is the perfect place for me. In June of 1999 I co-published (with my colleague Elton Bruins) a series of lectures given at the Pillar Christian Reformed Church in Holland in commemoration of the city's Sesquicentennial. The book, Family Quarrels in the Dutch Reformed Churches of the Nineteenth Century (Wm. B. Eerdmans), recounts the Secession of 1834 in the Netherlands State Church, the immigration of the Seceders, and the struggles in planting Reformed churches in the American midwest. This fall came the culmination of three decades of research in my book, Faith and Family: Dutch Immigration and Settlement in the United States, 1820-1920 (Holmes & Meier).
Now it is time for research closer to home--the history of the Dutch on Chicago's West Side, where we Timothy graduates and our families have lived for up to five generations. My great grandfather arrived from Groningen in 1893 and settled near 14th Street and Ashland Avenue in the heart of the "Groninger Hoek," among the Kooys, Evenhouses, and others, who had come before. The book is tentatively titled, Chicago's Groninger Hoek: The Dutch Reformed of the Old West Side. I hope by keeping our history and heritage alive for the next generations, that I can give back to my family and friends something of the blessings I gained from growing up in a wonderful Christian community of Reformed churches and schools.