Vernon J. Ehlers, who taught at Calvin College for 17 years and later became a Michigan state legislator and a United States congressman, died Aug. 15 in Grand Rapids, Mich. He was 83.
Throughout his life, Ehlers sought to follow the words of the Old Testament prophet Micah “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
“Vern Ehlers embodied what it meant to be a statesman,” said Bill Huizenga, a current U.S. congressman and member of Haven Christian Reformed Church in Zeeland, Mich. “Vern's thoughtful leadership earned the respect and admiration of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”
Born in Minnesota, Ehlers attended Calvin as a student in the early 1950s. He later transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, where he became a nuclear physicist and earned his doctorate. He then returned to his alma mater in 1966 as a professor in the physics department.
During his tenure on the Calvin faculty, Ehlers became actively involved in local government, winning election to the Kent County Board of Commissioners in the mid-1970s and serving on the board for eight years. He was then elected to the Michigan State House in 1982 and to the state Senate two years after that.
After serving in the Michigan Senate for nine years, Ehlers ran in a special election in 1993 to fill a congressional seat left vacant by the death of another former Calvin faculty member, Paul Henry. He won that seat, becoming the first research physicist ever elected to Congress. A Republican, Ehlers went on to represent western Michigan in Washington for 18 years.
As a congressman, Ehlers led the development of the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which poured $270 million over five years toward cleaning up sediment from the Great Lakes. He was a champion of promoting science and technology education programs and also worked on developing an equitable funding formula for roads, highways, and transit systems, according to Chris Barbee, his longtime press secretary.
“From start to finish, Vern’s career was animated by the Reformed outlook that Christians need to be a blessing to people in the world around them,” said Matt Walhout, current chair of the Calvin physics department, who has been working on an archival research project on Ehlers’ life.
Ehlers was a member of Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids and is survived by his wife of 59 years, Johanna; and by four children, five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and two sisters.