William J. Vande Kopple (author of three Eerdmans books including, most recently, The Lure) died unexpectedly last Wednesday, just days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Andrew Hoogheem, who knew Bill Vande Kopple well, first as his student and later as his editor, has written the following tribute in remembrance of his — and our — friend.
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This, of course, now feels like foreshadowing: there was a humid, cloud-heavy afternoon in August of 1999 when I ran into Bill Vande Kopple in the stacks at the Calvin College Bookstore. Bill had been my linguistics professor a few terms before; I was an English major back for my senior year after a semester in London. It delighted me to see a familiar face, and confused me when instead of striking up a conversation or trying out a Tom Swifty, Bill could barely offer a smile. “Did you hear about Lionel?” he asked. I hadn’t, so he shared the news that Lionel Basney — poet, environmentalist, and respected professor in Calvin’s English department — had died suddenly in a swimming accident just the day before. After I paid for a stack of new novels and Norton Anthologies, Bill and I left the bookstore together in uncharacteristic silence, then went our separate ways.
Fourteen summers later it’s Bill’s sudden death at age sixty-three that leaves a profound, essentially incomprehensible absence in our midst. Oh, we have a medical explanation: he died, peacefully by all accounts, of pancreatic cancer diagnosed only days before it ended his life. But medical explanations don’t go far in answering grief’s whys and hows.
Others — particularly those whom he shepherded through semesters of student teaching — will speak better than I can of Bill’s giftedness as a teacher. Enough to say he was a master: full of enthusiasm, warmth, and humor (his love for groan-inducing puns was boundless and utterly sincere). In 2004 he was voted Professor of the Year at Calvin and he surely deserved it. And he was a prolific scholar as well.
I would offer a thought or two on Bill as a writer. After college I landed a position at a small, independent publishing company that since 1911 has been publishing some of the world’s very finest books about religion. It was for Eerdmans that I had the honor and pleasure of editing Bill’s last book, The Lure: Still More Stories of Family, Fishing, and Faith (2012). The Lure was the final volume in what turned out to be a trilogy; I’m not sure whether Bill or anyone at Eerdmans initially envisioned it that way, but fishermen famously never run out of stories. Though he and I hadn’t talked in a while, we picked up where we’d left off, sharing word games and waxing poetic on the beauty of Northwestern Ontario, where I have family and where Bill loved to fish.
By turns The Lure is funny and tender, wistful and wry, often within the same story. Yet as I leaf through my copy now, what I notice is the particular way in which death haunts its tales. In one, Bill recounts an afternoon fishing with his aging father. The outing is a success, including the landing of a five-pound bass (I’m not a fisherman, but I guess that’s big). But in its last moments Bill sees his dad struggle to reconnect the lights on the boat trailer. “Oh, my God,” Bill wonders then, “did I wait too long?” In another, Bill’s son watches a musky he is trying to release back into the water die in his arms. When Bill tells him the beautiful fish’s death is just a freak accident, the aggrieved son fires back, “One minute this is all a special blessing from God . . . and then the next minute it’s a freak accident. Since when can we have things both ways?” Both questions hang in the air, unresolved.
As we who knew him — and certainly very many knew him better than I did — grieve his death, this willingness to let uncertainty linger and to set life’s impossible questions in the contexts of the stories of the people, the places, and the God we love, seems like the very kind of warmhearted, humble wisdom Bill Vande Kopple would offer us if we had him with us now. Until we meet on the far shore, where we will likely find him fishing, we are blessed that his voice lives on through his fine stories.
Click to read William J. Vande Kopple’s obituary in The Grand Rapids Press, to read a guest post (“Time, Eternity, and Perfect Fishing“) he wrote last summer for EerdWord, or to learn more about his final book The Lure: Still More Stories of Family, Fishing, and Faith.