The DeGraaf Lecture Series
About the DeGraaf Lecture
The De Graaf lecture was established in 1988 in honor of Dr. Clarence De Graaf, who was a legendary presence in the history of Hope’s English department. We thank his daughter Ruth De Graaf Dirkse and his son-in-law Lamont Dirkse, and the rest of Dr. De Graaf’s family for this gift. Over the years the De Graaf lecture has brought us a procession of luminaries. It was initiated by Thomas Werge of Notre Dame, who had been one of Dr. De Graaf’s students; since then we have been privileged to hear from such admired scholars as Lawrence Buell, V. A. Kolve, Jane Tompkins, Tom Shippey, Terry Eagleton, Stephen Sumida, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth Price.
Dr. De Graaf taught at Hope for forty-four years, from 1928 to 1972, and for twenty-five of those years he served the department as chair. The son of Dutch immigrants, he grew up in Grand Rapids, where his father ran a small grocery business on Leonard Street and delivered his wares by horse and wagon. But the family believed in education, and Clarence was able to graduate from Calvin College and later to receive his doctorate from the University of Michigan. As a professor and even as department chair he insisted on teaching the full range of courses, from freshman composition on up: but his real love was the poetry of Milton. Indeed, I am told that when a future son-in-law politely asked Dr. De Graaf for the hand of his daughter Ruth in marriage, the good professor pointed out that the young man had never taken a course from him, a delinquency to be made up without delay; and it was thus, like Jacob laboring for Rachel, that Lamont Dirkse spent an entire semester reading Paradise Lost.
Dr. De Graaf loved his work at Hope and turned down more than one offer to teach elsewhere. Over the years, he was a major figure in shaping the department: he presided over the enormous influx of ex-G.I.s in 1946, and he was responsible for the hiring of professors whose names are now similarly legendary: Henry ten Hoor, John Hollenbach, Jim Prins. As a teacher he was demanding but fair, and he was generous enough to overlook a few absences when the perch were biting. He was learned, kindly, and gratified by his students’ achievements. But there were many things students did not know about Dr. De Graaf. That he was an avid fisherman and hunter, for example. That he enjoyed boating and owned a Chris Craft. That in winter he liked to skate on Lake Macatawa. That he raised dahlias. That he worked tirelessly for his church on Fourteenth Street but also held season tickets for the Grand Rapids Symphony. That he read the Banner and other church papers but also devoured the Atlantic Monthly.
Clarence De Graaf was the best of the old tradition: steadfast, hard-working,
free from malice and not given to self-dramatization. As former colleague Dirk
Jellema put it, Clarence De Graaf “was a graceful and a gracious and
a courtly man. His acute sense of human limitations was balanced by his good
humor about human foibles.” It is right that we honor his memory.