Where Did My Mentor Go? Thoughts After His Unexpected Passing Away

I never expected that casually logging in to Facebook would bring tears. But they just started falling, and I couldn’t stop them. I still can’t stop them entirely. Maybe because it’s sinking in, and I know that I’ll go back to Calvin College in the fall and Professor Vande Kopple won’t be there any more.

What kind of sissy cries over a professor? Well, I do, apparently. His death was just so unexpected — I talked to him not that long ago. I’d never recalled him being sick a day in his life. So to log on to Facebook and see this made me pause for a moment.

Some very sad and unexpected news: Professor Bill Vande Kopple passed away peacefully at home this morning. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about a week ago. We will post more information as it becomes available. Please keep his wife Wanda, his sons, and the rest of his family in your prayers.

The only response I could muster was to comment, “Praying.” The thought was bouncing around in my mind, and I just couldn’t understand it. Maybe it’s a prank. Maybe that crafty English department just wants to see how long everyone will play along. He was a great professor and a great role model, and he was a good friend. He’s still there, sitting in his little office with all his fancy fishing lures on the wall, surrounded by really geeky English books. But I guess it’s not a prank after all. And I wish it was.

When I first got to Calvin College, I was alone — I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know what to do or where to go. When I met Professor Vande Kopple, I found a friend. I told him so a few months ago — he mused for a minute, then, with a big smile, said, “Now that’s something really special.” From the time that I met him in my first semester at college, he would go on to be a precious mentor, someone I could look up to, someone whose office I could just appear in and have a warm welcome and a conversation that was only supposed to be five minutes but lasted an hour and had more to do with fishing and traveling than with class credits. The way he had a snarky comment about anything and everything put a smile on everyone’s faces whenever he was around.

I do have to thank him for all the work that he did to make my time at Calvin the most productive and enjoyable experience that he could. I looked forward to going to see him during advising, not because he’d help me with classes but because he would help me with LIFE. After all that he’d done for me, all that he’d taught me, I wanted him to be around to see me succeed — to see me take all those things he taught me and use them and change something somewhere for the better. But now I log in to my Calvin account and see this and know that, when the new semester starts, that heading will be gone forever.

Vande Kopple

And I’ll never get to let him know how grad school is going and joke about how I wasn’t prepared enough and should have taken his advice, and when I go to the English department to visit Professor Urban I’ll see that the office on the end is empty. I wanted to take just one of his classes. But I guess I’m too late for that, and it hurts a little. Or a lot.

He saw attitudes and aspects of me that I didn’t see about myself, and he helped them to grow and make the person that I am now. He often joked, “So when are you actually going to be around the English department?” because I traveled so much. He’d always say, with a smile, “It’d be nice to see you around more often.” And when we did finally get the chance to see each other after I got back from a semester abroad, we didn’t talk for long.

That was stupid of me.

Did he see my blog posts about Japan? He was so excited for me to be there. I was going to send him a postcard but didn’t. Why?

When I wrote the proposal for my honors thesis — a topic that, to be honest, I thought was just a tad stupid on my part — he made sure to comment on the bottom of my proposal, “This should be fascinating.” I now cherish that little sentence as one of the last things he said to me — of course, it would be something encouraging. It was something that made me feel like, in the scope of everything else he had to do, I mattered. And so I wanted to show him that he put his faith in a good place, that I DO matter, and that I can carry his confidence in me and do great things, even if only for a few people. I wanted him to be there for my thesis presentation because he actually cared about it. I wanted him to be there for my graduation because he cared about me, and that made me feel awesome. But that’s not my place, because his family also wanted him to be there for birthdays, anniversaries, and grand babies. He was not my family, and I cannot imagine what they feel.

He was really excited about that thesis. So I will be excited about it too, and I will give it my best. And when I present it in April, I will stop and notice that there is no frantic click-clack-buzz of the Vande Kopple camera taking dozens of pictures just like he did at every English department event.

You know, I said “does” at first.

I will miss him immensely, and I know that I am not the only one. I have many more people in the English department that I look up to — Professor Vander Lei, Professor Urban, Professor Vanden Bosch — but there was only one Vande Kopple. I hope that his family can find comfort and peace in this trying time. Even after a few hours, the tears are still here, but they won’t stay forever.

Thank you, Professor Vande Kopple. You have changed so many people’s lives in ways you don’t even know. You are an inspiration, and you will always be my mentor and my friend.  And yes, present tense works because right now this English major doesn’t care. And that’s a big deal for me.

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3 thoughts on “Where Did My Mentor Go? Thoughts After His Unexpected Passing Away

  1. christy says:

    My own mentor passed away in high school (2010), something that helped me deal with feeling lost and suffocated, is this line Miharu said, “it’s not really the time you got to spend with this person that mattered, it’s how much it mattered”.

    • christy says:

      Another thing that offered me some sort of closure and consolation, is this book, “The Fault in Our Stars”, by John Green, check it out in the library when you have time.

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