Like most economists, I do not have many heroes. If asked, my colleagues might ascribe heroic stature to Adam Smith, the father of modern economics. Some would consider Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes as heroes worthy of appearing on an economics Mount Rushmore. But a hero of mine once lived in Holland, Michigan and was the President of Hope College: Gordon Van Wylen.

I had the privilege of being on a first name basis with my hero. So, even though he was a “larger than life” figure to me, I shall refer to him as Gordon. We met years ago when I was a young pup on the University of Virginia faculty and was asked to give the inaugural lectures for Hope College’s new chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Gordon invited me to spend an evening in the President’s home on campus. I was taken aback by his humility, his winsome manner, and his interest in me. I still remember that evening vividly.

I soon realized that Gordon’s humility had to be the product of his Christian faith and perhaps his upbringing. By the world’s standards, Gordon had no need to be humble. Indeed, he had every reason to be proud, if not arrogant, given his accomplishments. Gordon had a Ph.D. from MIT; he was the author of a major book on thermodynamics; he was a former submarine officer in World War II (and an author of a book about his exploits); and he had been Dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Michigan.

Then, Gordon humbled himself to become the President of Hope College. Now, to many Hope College graduates, becoming President of their alma mater may not seem like a step down. However, in the academic pecking order, for Gordon it was. To be the Dean of one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the country is to preside over a budget and faculty much larger than that of Hope College. It likely is a stepping-stone to the presidency of a major university or corporation. Notwithstanding, Gordon (a Calvin College graduate yet) accepted the offer to assume the presidency of Hope College. As some of my students would put it, “this had to be a God thing.”

Gordon saw his life as one of “calling,” not of “career.” Like the Apostle Paul, Gordon chose to boast in the humility of Christ, not his earthly accomplishments. This is one reason I began to admire Gordon.

Gordon invited me (a Kalamazoo College graduate) to join the Hope College Board of Trustees, where I served for 14 years. In that context, I saw Gordon from a unique perspective. Unlike many leaders who enjoyed and abused power, Gordon viewed a leader as one who often shouldered the pain of those around him. This he did without self-pity or grumbling. I was humbled to observe a man who was so “credentialed,” who was usually “the smartest guy in the room,” take on the role of a servant: to students, to faculty, to administrators, even to me.

Gordon, at the confluence of his extraordinary talent and energy, set aside the prospect of power for the cross of servanthood. No wonder he became a model to so many: a hero as it were.

As if this cake needed any icing, anyone who spent time with Gordon realized that his commitment to the Christian faith and to Hope College did not diminish the love he had for his family. This too made Gordon a hero to me. How many leaders, absorbed by the tugs and pulls of leadership, neglect their families? The servant-leadership that Gordon brought to Hope College somehow was matched by sacrificial love to his wife Margaret and their children.

With the death of Gordon – at age 100 – I say goodbye to a personal hero. However, as the Apostle Paul counsels, I “do not sorrow as those who have no hope.” For I can imagine the Lord Jesus welcoming Gordon to heaven with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Kenneth G. Elzinga is the Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics, University of Virginia.

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