Holland (Michigan) Journal

(via Tulip Time Festival Facebook)
Notes on a classic West Michigan town

Sometimes, you get on YouTube jags, and sometimes you get on strange ones. For a couple of months, I was watching episodes of What’s My Line? (the panel show, or “guessing game,” that ran from 1950 to 1967). I mentioned it in my column a couple of times. Interesting things, you can learn.

One night, a contestant was from the Netherlands, and the celebrity panel had to guess his line. He was a windmill builder and repairman. And he was working on a project in Holland, Mich.

• Holland is here in western Michigan, about 30 miles from Grand Rapids. We are in Dutch country. The population of Holland is about 33,000, depending on how you count. It’s hard to imagine a lovelier, more inviting town. It’s neat as a pin, too, being Dutch. (They are famous for neatness and cleanliness, among other things.)

• The town was founded in 1847 by a band of Dutchmen. They were seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity. There is a sign in Centennial Park (established in, guess what year? 1876): “Plagued by illness and not accustomed to the task of clearing a wilderness, the settlers found their first year a hard one, but their suffering was to be repaid in the bountiful days ahead.”

• Michelle DeYoung, the opera singer, did some of her growing up here in West Michigan. (The family name was originally spelled “De Jong,” one of the commonest of Dutch names.) Years ago, she taught me a saying, popular here in West Michigan: “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”

• Let me be stereotypical for a moment: As a rule, the West Michigan Dutch are very, very nice, very, very polite, and very, very sincere. They are tall, healthy, hard-working, good-looking, and successful.

I’ve stereotyped (positively), but, you know what? I don’t care. What I have said is true. I grew up in Ann Arbor — a markedly different environment — but I know West Michigan a bit.

• A few years ago, I was giving a talk in Grand Rapids. I met a man named Hank Meijer. Now, you have to know that Meijer, Inc., is a big chain of superstores here in my home state. It’s based in Grand Rapids.

“Any relation?” I asked. Hank said, “You mean, to the stores? Why, yes, as a matter of fact I am.” I asked, “Do you work for the company?” “Yes, as a matter of fact I do,” he said, “but I started out as a journalist.” We had a pleasant chat.

Later, I found out that Hank is the executive chairman of the company (a multibillionaire). He could not have been humbler, nicer, or politer — pure West Michigan Dutch. He has since published a superb biography of Arthur Vandenberg, the famous senator from Michigan, which I wrote about in a two-part series, here and here.

• Speaking of West Michigan Dutch, billionaire class: Several weeks ago, I followed Betsy DeVos around during some school visits in Dallas. She is the secretary of education, and she’s from the town of Holland. As she talked with the teachers, students, and administrators, I thought, “I know this type: classic West Michigan Dutch.”

They’re all like that, for the most part. They’re all “raised right,” whether they are paupers — well, I doubt there are many paupers — or billionaires. The character traits are the same.

On 60 Minutes, Betsy DeVos came in for a rough time. I thought I knew what the problem was: Full of goodwill herself, she probably assumes that others are, too — and it ain’t necessarily so. Also, she tried to answer every question honestly. Can you imagine?

• The sign on the edge of town — Holland, I mean — says “Welkom.” It ought to. But it used to have wooden shoes and tulips on it. They’re not there. What happened? Here in town, there was a battle royal, apparently. Some thought all that Dutchness wasn’t “inclusive” enough, because plenty of non-Dutch live here too.

Well, as a non-Dutch, I say: Screw that. Plus, Dutchness is the town’s “brand.”

Cripe, come on.

• I have just missed the Tulip Festival — the big annual festival. It lasts a week. There are scads of tulips — some 5 million of them, in various colors — and dancing, eating, etc. Young people learn how to dance, Dutch style, in school. There is a biggish Hispanic population now, and I’m told that even they learn how to Dutch-dance, getting into the spirit of the thing.

A man tells me, “Tulip Time is sort of like St. Patrick’s Day: Everyone is Irish on March 17th, and everyone is Dutch during the festival.”

• Given the recent Hispanic influx, there is a big Cinco de Mayo party too, coinciding with Tulip Time. That’s a happy thing. But the history of Hispanic migration in Holland has not been entirely happy. Years ago, there were bad gang problems. I believe that they have been sorted out.

• “Cold weather is good for tulips,” a woman tells me. Holland had an especially cold winter. The tulips, in spring, have been great. Some years, of course, are not great, at all. In those years, “we have a stem festival,” says the lady, “not a tulip festival.”


• There are tulips, lingering, as in Centennial Park. Want a shot of them?

Want another shot?

How ’bout a third?

• I don’t mean to overstate the case, but all of Holland breathes an air of well-being — an air of prosperity, order, and civic goodwill. Norman Rockwell would have blushed. But Holland is not necessarily a community of goody-goodies. Don’t let me paint that picture. I have it on good authority that there is swinging here — yes, spouse-swapping, or partner-swapping, and parties for the purpose. (Don’t ask me how the subject came up.) (All quite innocent.) (And, no, I don’t have pictures.)

• Dutch names are distinguished by a few things. You got the “van,” of course. (Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer of Dutch origin.) Also, you got the double vowels (as in “Beethoven,” as a matter of fact). Also, you got the suffix “huizen.”

Back to the double vowels. A month ago, I was writing about a living Dutch composer named Michel van der Aa. A Dutch friend confirmed to me that the composer would be at the head of almost any class roll — because you go by “A,” and not by “V.” And Michel van der Aa has two of those. In a row.

You see?

• And, yes, they are tall, these Dutchmen. Over the years, Holland has been very good in basketball. Football, not so much, but basketball, for sure. They’re almost famous for it.

• At the college bookstore, I’m rung up by a friendly clerk, who is a student here. He grew up in Holland, too. His nametag says “Sean.” “That’s an Irish name,” I note, “not a Dutch name.” “Yes,” he says, “my mom was born in Northern Ireland. People look at me and say, ‘You’re not tall. You’re not Dutch.’”

True. Busted.

• That college is Hope College, begun by Dutch immigrants in the 1850s. “Hope” is not the name of a person: a founder or donor. There is no Mr. Hope, as in Bob Hope. “Hope” refers to the feeling, if that’s the right word. The motto of the college is “Spera in Deo,” “Hope in God.”

The sports teams are the Flying Dutchmen. What else? (And I’ve got the Wagner overture in my head.) The emblem of the school — it’s on a hat I buy — is an anchor. As in the anchor of hope, referred to in Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews (6:19).

• You want a taste of Hope College philanthropy? Here:

• The Holland post office has a windmill outside — a little windmill. No surprise.

Is this a surprise? A hot, sleek red ’vette in the parking lot.

• Elsewhere, a sign says “Realtor on Duty.” I love that — as though it were “Fireman on Duty” or “Cop on Duty.” By the way, how do you pronounce “realtor”? Like it’s spelled? Or “realitor”?

• The newspaper, the Holland Sentinel, has a logo — a tulip (why not?).

• It’s good to see the Good Earth Café. Once upon a time, that was a hugely popular book (The Good Earth, a novel by Pearl S. Buck, published in 1931).

• Outside the police department, there is a sculpture, unusual and touching — it shows a policeman holding the hand of a little girl, who’s looking up at him. The sculpture is called “The Protector.”

• You want something really, really Rockwellesque? Get ready:

• In Centennial Park, there is a monument, stating, “They Made the Ultimate Sacrifice.” Names are listed for the various wars. (Lots of Dutch names, of course.) For the Civil War, about 33 names. I’m sure that many of those fellows had just arrived in America! For World War I, about 23 names. For World War II, more than 100. For Korea, 10. For Vietnam, 22. One for Afghanistan — Daniel J. Price.

God bless them.

• The airport in Grand Rapids is — you’d better believe it — the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. There is a room I especially like:

• On the menu of a restaurant in the airport, you find a particular side: Bavarian Sauerkraut. See, it’s not all Dutch. We’re multicultural here.