Thinking about Vern: A Personal Reflection on the Late Vern Ehlers

Written by Terry DeBoer on . Posted in Local

vernVernon J. Ehlers was a scientist, educator, politician, photographer and gardener. But after the August 15, 2017 passing of the former West Michigan Congressman, I reflected on a special connection I felt with this gifted man that resurfaced throughout the years.

Any formal biography of Ehlers lists his hometown as Pipestone, a city in southwest Minnesota. Actually, that's the location of the hospital where he was born and the county seat where birth records are kept. His "real" hometown was in nearby Edgerton, a small Minnesota community of around 700 at his 1934 birth.

His father, John, was a pastor and served Edgerton's First Christian Reformed Church. That meant Vern, his two sisters and brother grew up in the church parsonage and were a part of life in that largely Dutch-ethnic community.

Edgerton is where Vern met my mother.

My mother – Marva Huisken, just a year older than Vern - recalled him as a "runny-nosed kid." The description, although incomplete, reflected his medical challenges. Vern's difficulty with allergies and asthma kept him at home more than most children. His condition forced him to do most of his school work on the home front. Vern's siblings brought school books and assignments to the parsonage each day from the local Christian elementary school.


Vern was barely a teen when the Ehlers family left Edgerton as his father took a call to a church in Ohio.

After high school Vern chose to attend Calvin College in Grand Rapids, but later transferred to the University of California at Berkley going all the way to achieve a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. In 1966 he accepted a teaching position back at Calvin.

However, Ehlers gradually made a transition from academic to political life.

During my days in radio news in the late 1970s and early '80s, I covered Vern's actions while he was on the Kent County Board of Commissioners. I continued to keep tabs on him when he left his teaching post at Calvin to serve full time in the Michigan state legislature.

Whenever we spoke, we renewed our Edgerton connection. My mother married in Edgerton but had moved to Michigan before my sisters and I were born. Nevertheless, Vern would still ask about my mom and her sisters, one of whom was his classmate.

On the political scene, a special Congressional election in 1993 to replace the late Paul Henry saw Vern out point a seven-person Republican primary field and then win in the general election. He was re-elected numerous times before retiring in 2010.


Vern held to his lifelong Christian faith, taking as his theme verse Micah 6:8; "act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

He served several terms as elder at his long time Grand Rapids church home, Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church where memorial services were held. Attending were former and current members of Congress, and a former Michigan governor.

Vern had twice been part of the Christian Reformed Synodical Task Force on World Hunger, and co-authored several summary reports including 1991's "Earthkeeping in the '90s: Stewardship of Creation."

Vern was up to the challenges of partisan politics.

He demonstrated his gracious manner in 2007 when anti-Iraqi War protesters picketed his Grand Rapids home. He supported the right of citizens to protest, and said he met regularly with war opponents. But he was concerned about the distraction the commotion of the picketers caused his neighbors.

While in the House of Representatives, Vern participated in Congressional prayer and Bible study groups.

His life was summarized in a warm-hearted, newsy obituary in the Washington Post.

I don't recall the last time I spoke with Vern. Likely, it was on the telephone. I have interviewed him several times for articles I've written about him in his hometown newspaper, The Edgerton Enterprise. I will always remember his commitment to justice and mercy and his humble approach both in and out of public service. And I'll remember Edgerton, where he got his start. From my mother and I.....thanks, Vern.
Author Information
Terry DeBoer
Terry is journalist who writes for newspapers, magazines, newsletters and websites. His most frequented “beat” is arts and entertainment. He is married with two children and lives in Grand Rapids.

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