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My father, Eugene Vander Well, died on July 8. Below is the eulogy I offered at his memorial service. If you wish, his obituary may be found here.
Someone once told me, “Don’t try to figure yourself out. It is too difficult. If you can figure out your parents and their life, you have accomplished a great deal.”
While this may sound odd, I have come to understand my dad as “the young boy whose mother dressed him in knickers, when all the other boys wore long pants.”
Probably this is why, almost to his dying day, he wanted to wear a fresh pressed shirt, or why a well-chosen necktie was a pleasure, not a pain for him.
Even more, I see in his mother’s need to dress young Gene in knickers her expectation that he was to be distinctive, exceptional; a great deal was expected of him. High school valedictorian, president of his college class. As an only child, born to older parents, I wonder if he wasn’t a bit of a Samuel-figure, a special child, dedicated to God. Faith in Jesus Christ was planted in his heart early and in a strong way. He often mentioned how his boyhood pastor was a very human and approachable man, not the usual intimidating dominie, so often associated with old Dutch Reformed culture.
Nonetheless, when a college professor called my dad, a math major, into to his office to suggest he consider the ministry, my dad laughed hysterically all the way home. But indeed he did become a minister in the Reformed Church in America.
At the same time, my dad detested wearing knickers, and in that I see the beginning of his lifelong push-back, questioning, a half buried anti-authority streak he never lost. You have to know the old King James Version of the Bible to understand this, but a good friend once asked young Gene, “Why must you always kick against the pricks?” These are words Jesus spoke to Saul-soon-to-become-Paul in the Acts of the Apostles (26:14). A contemporary paraphrase puts it this way, “Why do insist on going against the grain?”
He kicked against the church. Out of seminary, his search for free and authentic faith sent him out to New York. There he discovered the charismatic renewal, way back in the 1950’s, seeking a faith that was heartfelt and alive. Eventually, he went west to Washington state to start a congregation, hoping that it would a genuine, fresh church. This was long before starting churches was as cool as it is today. He would drive around the neighborhoods, with my sister leaning out the car window copying down addresses to assemble mailing lists. Finally, he went overseas, to Taiwan, and there at last it seemed he felt comfortable in his call, and embraced the role of minister.
But, it wasn’t just church life. As young boy, I remember my dad asking me if I wanted to go to a peace march with him. I visualized lots of other boys and their fathers in a coat and tie walking together. When we arrived, it was us and a sea of hippies and yippies and peaceniks. But we walked with them. I learned a lot that day—about life and convictions, people very different from me, and my father.
But my dad held his strong convictions in a gentle way. Someone said recently, “Gene wasn’t really a contrary voice, but he often dared to be a different voice.”
He listened. He cared. He enjoyed meaningful conversations and wanted to engage people. Said one person just yesterday, “I always felt like your dad respected me, and that meant a lot to me.”
He was peacemaker. Whenever there was conflict or controversy in local churches, my dad was called in to mediate. When he entered the room, the stress-level went down by 50 percent. At home too, he was a reconciler, the calm and steady one. However few people have used reading a newspaper as skillffully as he could as an impermeable emotional shield—“passive-aggressive” being the Dutch emotion of choice.
As I look over the various notes and memories people have already shared, certain words keep coming up—gracious, kind, gentle, humorous, understated. He was that way as a father too. He rarely lost his temper. I only heard him use a “bad word” once in my whole life. My sister was dangling her feet off the end of a dock when her new shoes slipped off and disappeared into the murky lake water. The word he called her isn’t really that bad, just a barnyard animal, mentioned in several Christmas carols. But when we kids heard it, we were astounded!
- Dark chocolate
- Boston terriers
- Black licorice
- A new suit
- Barbecuing salmon
- Breakfasts so orderly they felt like high-Anglican liturgy
These were a few of his favorite things.
Good father, good husband, good friend, good pastor. Christ-like. Spirit-filled. Someone to admire. Someone who loved us. Someone we loved. A life well-lived. For this and much more, we thank our loving God.
We commend to you, Merciful Lord, your child Gene, a sheep of your fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.
Welcome him into your loving presence, where he may dwell with you and all the saints and angels in glory and light forever. Amen.
I heard this as it was first spoken, and have now read it again. It was and is remarkably written, poignant, a moving tribute to a man, his faith, and his influence. Thank you Steve, for sharing this, then and now.
I am sorry I did not know until this day that your dear Dad passed away. My sympathy to you and Sophie and the family. This is a gorgeously written tribute. Peace to you.
This is touching and wonderful Steve.
I got to know your dad (and your mom) when I was the associate pastor at Third Reformed Church in Holland. Here is what I mostly remember about him: there was a weekly morning prayer time and your dad's spoken prayers blessed me EVERY SINGLE TIME he opened his mouth. They were so genuine. They were so poetic. They were so beautiful. They were prayed by a man who loved God immensely, and trusted God, and I will never forget them.
Thank you for sharing this here, Steve. It's a beautiful tribute. And it even, perhaps unintentionally, sheds some light on who you are. I can see now where you got your, shall we say, understated feistiness from!
Sorry to hear of your dads death. Death is never easy no matter what the circumstances, but it seems tha that your dad led a full life and that somewhere now he is in heaven doing all the things that he enjoyed here on earth and then some. A very touching eulogy.
Just marvelous. A blessing. Elegant.