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John J. Timmerman: 1908-2004

By March 16, 2004 No Comments

John J. Timmerman was a father, grandfather, great-grandfather, friend, a teacher’s teacher, a master stylist, a fine literary critic, a good and fair-minded chairman, a fine writer, and above all, an exemplary Christian.  Perhaps telling the story of my long acquaintance with him will give some particulars to nail down these assertions.

My first acquaintance with John J. Timmerman was when I sat, on my first day at Grand Rapids Christian High School, in a freshman class. The door opened and in walked an imposing figure: wild hair, a purple shirt, a startling necktie, and a white sling for his arm, which had been injured, we were told, in a baseball game. Then the voice, and the wit, and the excellent teaching caught our attention. We began to learn about the American writers we had heard about, and to love their writings and understand their place in the world and in the country’s literature.

He engaged us in reading from the beginning, and even the roughnecks were seen reading on warm days at the nearby fire station, usually the scene of penny tossing and other misdeeds.  He organized a writing club, and gave wise counsel–especially to the roughnecks, some of whom needed it very much. He and his wife, Cary, even threw a dinner for the club at their flat on the West Side of Grand Rapids, the first of many wonderful meals for which Cary was famous. We learned so much, and many of us began to think about changing our career objectives, most of which had previously centered on a decent job at Keeler Brass or at a local bank. John J. Timmerman bred English teachers, even without trying, in that club and later again at Calvin College.

Then came World War II, and Timmy wrote to many of his former students, and he wrote often as well. I once received mail after a long time away in the boondocks of a Pacific place.   The mail then was mostly thin stuff: two copies of the Banner, a pious form letter from a nice lady in my church, but then there was also a long and rich letter with good suggestions for my reading from Timmy, and welcome spiritual advice as well.

After the war I arrived at Calvin College, and had a second taste of English, now on a collegiate level, with Timmy again at the head of the room.  His shirt now was a kind of orange, his tie was fighting with that color, and his hair was still wild. But his performance was even more intriguing, being on a higher level and in front of wise-guys in bits and pieces of uniforms. He caught our attention, and went out of  his way as usual, and we learned. Again, I reconsidered my career objective: forest ranger looked less intriguing now by comparison with teacher of English.

Then, with his and his friend Henry Zylstra’s encouragement, I applied for graduate school, but my record was not very good, so Timmy wrote to his own grad school mentor, who admired Timmy’s work greatly, and his letter did the magic thing: I was admitted.  Later I heard from his mentor that I had better get busy, for I would have to work hard to keep from besmirching Timmy’s great reputation.

Then still later Timmy became my boss, and he and Henry Zylstra taught me much about college teaching and the management of interesting but sometimes obstreperous students. And by an odd twist I became his chairman in turn, and I learned then something more about the meaning of grace–our roles were officially reversed, but he was still my mentor, though he never came on as anything but another teacher on the team. And after his retirement in 1975, he continued to influence many of us, and to delight so many more with his excellent books and articles.

John J. Timmerman had a strong and lasting influence on many lives, and I hope I speak for all those other recipients of that good Christian’s charity and wisdom and wit. I owe him so much, and know that I speak for all his old colleagues, albeit a rapidly thinning group. He would have inserted a sharp, witty, and perhaps ironic comment by this point; but the truth is what it is: he was a great and good and godly man, and we are all the better for having known him and worked with him.


George G. Harper is professor emeritus of english at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.