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Prof. Arnold Koekkoek, 1932-2022

Posted: July 6th, 2022
Tags: General, WWW Front Page

Professor Emeritus of History Arnold "Arnie" Koekkoek passed away on June 30, 2022, at the age of 89. He served as an associate professor of history at Dordt for 34 years. As is stated in his obituary, while working at Dordt, "he acted in several plays, refereed at basketball games, threw erasers at sleeping students, and reportedly remembered the names of every student he ever taught (although he insisted he forgot some now and then)."

Professor Emeritus of English Dr. James Calvin Schaap remembers Koekkoek in an essay he recently published in "Stuff in the Basement":

Prof. Arnold Koekkoek, 1932-2022

I can't help but think that he would have made a wonderful Hollywood general, in the Patton mold maybe, more so than a soft-spoken Ike. He was short and stumpy, blessed with a megaphone that had no problem reaching the far corners of a sprawling classroom without strain.

He taught huge classes. Had the college elected to send him half the student body on the gym bleachers. He'd have done it because he was as devoted to the institution as he was to his students, as he was to his first love--history. For decades, every student sat through history with Arnold Koekkoek, often in the early, early mornings.

He wasn't shy of belittling people should they fall asleep. He was known to throw erasers, one of which was ever in his hand as he lectured. He wasn't shy about blackboards; by the end of the hour what was there, up front, looked like a jungle he politely erase before he left the hall.

It was a performance, really, as lecturing, back then, sort of had to be. Among such lecturers, he was a General Patton, sans expletives. I don't remember anyone who disliked his course, even those not partial to the conflicts a thousand years in the past. World History 201 was, back then--hard as it is to imagine today--required of every last soul enrolled at Dordt College, so everyone sat through the Peloponnesian Wars. The college believed history essential, and they entrusted a thousand young minds to a little man with a huge voice and a memory for names and faces and years, not to mention almost any lyric from Gilbert and Sullivan.

I knew Arnie Koekkoek as a prof and as a friend and neighbor. He was one of those faculty members still around when I became a colleague and our family moved into the neighborhood where he and his wife, Carol, were raising their family. He was, as we used to say, a blast, blessed with a huge smile and a booming bass that made it a joy to take a church pew in front of him. He was a wonderful man, in some ways irreplaceable.

When he reached retirement age, a much younger coterie of history profs and administrators fought for smaller classes--say 35 or so; they argued that college students needed to discuss history among themselves in order  to learn. Discussion, not lecture, was the key to making history alive for a student body coming to campus less prepared and less well-read.

The argument went like this: we really can't teach history as history must be taught if we simply fill the room with students. No one said used his name back then, but the argument assumed that history was never really taught well by Arnold Koekkoek and his genre of professors. Small groups, lots of buzz, lots of discussion--that was the key. The lecture hall is a museum piece.

In a sense, the argument made the Arnold Koekkoeks of the world an anachronism, "a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, especially a thing that is conspicuously old-fashioned." 

Try as we might, those of us who'd had Prof. Koekkoek couldn't convince the young that, sadly enough, they'd never had an Arnold Koekkoek. Of course we wanted the best for our students, but the best, in the eyes of those who remembered him up front at the chalkboard, was Arnold Koekkoek, whose classroom/lecture hall never once employed a small group. What I'll never forget my own inability to describe that having had Arnold Koekkoek in a class of 100 students was no disservice. My last book, I'm happy to point out, was almost entirely history.

Quite simply, the man was loved, still is.

When he retired he became field general of his sprawling backyard garden, a garden which eventually was dedicated solely to the most beautiful irises imaginable. I can't imagine he ever raised that big voice of his back there among his treasures, but I'd bet by the end of the summer those showcase irises heard half the Psalter Hymnal and most all of the silliness of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Arnold Koekkoek made my life--and the lives of many others--more wonderful. We'll bury something of him today, but that big bass voice isn't still, I'm sure. I don't doubt for a moment that heaven has choirs. Count me among those many hundreds of Dordt alumni who will never forget him.

Professor Emeritus of English Dr. Calvin James Schaap, "Stuff in the Basement"