Dr. Sander de Haan is not a man who can be easily pinned down, even though he’s remained in one spot for 39 years. His willingness and ability to serve, to fill a need, to lead a cause, to be a steadfast hand on whatever wheel — these talents have actually made him elusive of a singular descriptor or solitary title for almost four decades at Hope and, actually, for his entire life.
Sure, de Haan is a professor of German, but he’s also taught Dutch and Russian in Hope’s modern and classical languages department, a department he also chaired for 15 years. A Dutch immigrant, he was a sergeant first class in U.S. Air Force and a spy for the National Security Agency (NSA). de Haan coached Hope volleyball for two seasons in the early ’80s, served as the Centurian fraternity advisor for numerous years, and was Hope’s faculty liaison for the Chicago Semester over three decades. His longtime teaching on the integration of faith and learning in the First-Year Seminar and Senior Seminar programs were additional ways he served Hope and fulfilled his call to follow Jesus and to lead others to Him.
And with each duty, or better yet, opportunity, de Haan applied his patent reliability and integrity. Nothing less could come from an unflappable Dutchman who adroitly does what needs to get done. “Plus I can’t think of a time when he’s complained about anything,” said Dr. Lee Forester, longtime colleague and professor of German, at de Haan’s recent retirement celebration. “And I can think of only one time when he’s been miffed.”
Why would deHaan ever be either annoyed or cross? To him, the question is moot. After all, “I’ve said on several occasions that it’s been nice that the college, year in and year out, has offered me a contract to teach here, but I’d have done it for nothing,” de Haan admits with a wry smile. “Not that I didn’t need the paycheck. It’s just that teaching at Hope was so fun and so enjoyable that I could hardly call it work.”
de Haan’s journey toward Hope and speaking four languages started when he was seven. Born in the Netherlands, he immigrated to the United States with his family in the fall of 1953 to escape what he calls “a homeland messed up by the Germans.” His parents had applied to immigrate in 1948, and the elder deHaans patiently waited five years — learning English all the while — before they were granted permission to board a ship, cross the Atlantic, and settle their young family in Pella, Iowa, where other immigrant family members were already living.
“We arrived on Saturday evening and we stayed with my Uncle John,” de Haan recalls. “We went to church on Sunday and I didn't understand a word. And then on Monday morning, we were sent to the Christian school. Fortunately, there was a first grade teacher there who spoke Dutch.
“When we got home from school that first Monday, we sat down at the table for our evening meal,” he continues, “and my parents said right away, "Let's reach the understanding that this will be the last meal at which we will speak Dutch.”
And with that, young Sander would become bilingual quite quickly. Mealtime and school time were meant for English, but when his Pella uncles came around, de Haan snuck in on Dutch conversations, keeping his native tongue fluent and unforgotten.
He would go on to Calvin College and there majored in — somewhat ironically — German, graduating in 1967 with fluency in a third language. He’d take that aptitude to Northwestern University to earn a master’s, with the intentions of a doctorate, but two years into his graduate work “the draft board in Iowa contacted me saying my name had come up and I should report for a physical which I did and, unfortunately, I was healthy as a horse.”
His master’s degree fortunately complete, de Haan chose to serve in the Air Force, and instead of being sent to Vietnam, he was sent to Syracuse, New York. His multilingual propensity caught a commander’s ear, and in Syracuse he learned Russian. “I did nothing but study Russian at Syracuse University,” he says. “Six hours of classes a day and then usually three or four hours of homework at night. Nothing else for a full academic year.”
With more than enough Russian in his multi-lingual cache, de Haan was sent to San Angelo, Texas, to learn radio operations for six months and from there, he went to Washington state for survival training for six weeks. His next tour would be in Germany, where, de Haan says in his typical matter-of-fact, no-big-detail manner, “I became a spy in the sky.”
Three days a week for 12 to 13 hours at a time, de Haan would be flown out over the Baltic or the Mediterranean to listen in on Russian military communications. On land he would write reports on what he had heard for the NSA. His operations were so covert, his commanding officer didn’t even know what he was literally up to.
“The base commander thought we were weather men,” de Haan chuckles. “Even he did not know that we were doing intelligence. He didn't have the classification or security clearance to know.”
“Once in a while, a Russian MIG would come out to look at us,” de Haan says, and neither his expression nor his eyes belie the reality of the sight, “but they pretty much knew what we were doing. They just didn't know how well we were doing it because we learned a lot of stuff they would not have divulged if they thought we were listening in. So the things I wrote to NSA were of real interest to them.”
For two years, this was de Haan’s unwavering, unquestioned, uncomplaining duty. He was offered “a nice bonus” to continue spying while stationed in Alaska, but he and his wife, Georgia, wanted to get back to Northwestern. His answer was a polite “no thanks.” A doctorate in German needed to be finished, and a teaching career needed to get started. The G.I. Bill and a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellowship helped him do both.
Straight out of Northwestern, Ph.D. in hand but with prior teaching experience at Elmhurst and Calvin Colleges, de Haan came to Hope in 1979 and helped to develop and be part of the faculty team that taught an intensive, interdisciplinary, two-semester, 19-credit sequence called “The Two Souls of Germany.” (A sister sequence was also offered in the classics called “The Golden Age of Greece.”) Each served as a precursor to Hope’s present-day cultural heritage (IDS 171 and 172) offerings that explore history, literature and philosophy concurrently. And it was de Haan, as the chair of the Academic Affairs Board, who led the rearranging of those general education requirements to their current-day state.
It didn’t take long for others at Hope to see de Haan as a willing and able participant in all of campus life. In 1980, he was asked to be Hope’s varsity volleyball coach because “someone had heard that I had played a lot of volleyball in the Air Force.” When he was asked to join the Hope coaching ranks, he unsurprisingly replied, “Sure, sure, I can help with that.” His two-year record was an impressive 51-12 overall and 19-5 in the MIAA.
For 39 years, de Haan would teach, research and advise. He led two alumni tours to Europe, participated in the Chapel program, went on student mission trips, and offered his FYS and Senior Seminar students the opportunity to join weekly prayer meetings with him. There is hardly an inch of Hope’s campus community that de Haan didn’t touch.
“I can’t possibly envision enjoying a career as much as I’ve enjoyed teaching at Hope,” he confirms. “To see the growth and maturation of our students from freshman to senior years has been a great joy.”
Now, when people congratulate him on his impending retirement, de Haan is not completely comfortable with the recognition, though he is grateful of their well wishes. Retirement is not an achievement, he says; it is just another thing he gets to do.
And no doubt, de Haan will do it well, just as he has with every other aspect of his life. While Georgia continues her work for a bit longer in Hope’s Admissions Office where she has been on staff for 25 years as an application processor, de Haan has plans to expand his role as a lay-shepherd for his church — Calvary Christian Reformed in Holland. “I visit people in hospital or shut-ins who ask if I would stop by more often,” he says. “Now I can.”
And he and Georgia will no doubt visit their four children — Christopher ’94, Elizabeth ’98 Boeve, Alex ’00 and Nicholas — and six grandchildren more often, too. Retirement may not be an accomplishment, but it can be a time to do more of what one loves to do. de Haan has had a good handle on that mantra for most of his life.