Within the span of about the last month, two of my very dear professors passed away. William Vande Kopple died July 3 and Jean Bethke Elshtain died this past Sunday, August 11.
There’s not much for me to say except that both were exceptional professors, heroic in the way that only teachers can be.
Professor Vande Kopple loved his students. He really loved them. I never even had him in a class, and still I think of him as my professor by the way he taught me and treated me. He was always in the English department when I passed through. He was always funny. He constantly talked of fishing. He was among the first professors to encourage me to publish. He was there on Calvin’s Writer’s Retreats, reading and laughing and playing, and teaching through those things as much as any words he spoke. He was a wonderful person.
To me, he was a beloved professor, made many times more beloved by the way dozens of other students — those he knew and who knew him better than I ever did — cared about him and were cared for by him.
I knew professor Elshtain well — as well as any student could know a professor so totally engrossed in the most important political, ethical and religious scholarship and all that goes with it. She was my professor in class and my thesis advisor outside of it. She was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. I had read pieces of her bibliography before ever meeting her, so I was anxious to ask her to be my advisor — she was too important to bother with me — but she jumped on board with an eagerness peculiar to an academic of her stature. She made me think very hard, which is the job of good teachers, and she had a lovely aura. Always kind, always open, always helpful, despite being the smartest and busiest person in any room she entered.
Professor Elshtain introduced me to very important thinkers — thinkers who have shaped my own thinking — Bonhoeffer, Camus, Augustine, Arendt. Elshtain fits with them in wisdom, if not in circumstances. I remember she took such personal care to help me through the furnace that is U Chicago. She took an interest when she didn’t have to, took pleasure where it was hard to find and took time when there was none to spare.
I think both of these professors will live on in their writing — professor Vande Kopple’s stories and professor Elshtain’s philosophical treatises — and, perhaps just as importantly, in their students. They have both definitely contributed to my own thinking — and not just intellectually, but in terms of how to live and how to treat people. Neither can be replaced, and it must be with trembling that Calvin and U Chicago are coming back into session without these veteran stalwarts to bear them along. These institutions and their students have suffered a real loss, but there will be celebrations, too, because both were followers of Christ, and now are reaping the treasures of grace.