In Memoriam: Vern Ehlers 1934-2017 A man who made a difference in the world


(l) - Vern Ehlers as he looked when he was the chair of the Kent County Commission. (r) - Vernon J. Ehlers; PHOTO OFFICIAL U.S. CONGRESS


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Many make a positive difference in the world in their own ways, but it is worthy of note when it is done with such grace and kindness as exhibited by former Congressman Vern Ehlers.

If Ehlers, who died on August 15 at the age of 83, had stopped at his physics teaching career at Calvin College, he still would have made his mark on the world. But he followed that with service as a Kent County Commissioner, State Representative and State Senator, and finally, a 17-year career as  Representative to the United States Congress.

Originally from Minnesota, Ehlers attended Calvin College starting in 1952, and then transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, eventually earning his Ph.D. in Physics.

Comments current Calvin physics department chair Matt Walhout, who has collaborated with a former Calvin student on a short biography,  “Vern was at the ground floor of a number of initiatives that are still with us today. He was visionary.”

Among many accomplishments at Calvin, Ehlers pioneered in what is now called STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) education. He initiated a physical science training, one of the first in the country.

He made many contributions to the betterment of Kent County, both when he served on the commission and while in Congress. Perhaps one of his most enduring legacies will be the still-innovative waste-to-energy plant.

As a legislator, he also implemented Michigan’s 911 protocol and helped computerize the state legislature. His efforts resulted in strengthening Michigan’s wetland policy as well.

He continued that work in Congress, where he helped early-on to bring the workings of Congress online.

Rep. Ehlers also took the lead in rewriting the national science policy in the 1990s, the first time since 1945. He continued to push for STEM education.

That he accomplished all this with a broad smile on his face and a genuine curiosity about others makes it even more impressive. Despite great intelligence and comprehensive knowledge, Dr. Ehlers made everyone who approached him feel welcome.

“I always believed that Vern represented the County, and ultimately our Third Congressional District, with those attributes that have historically defined West Michigan: integrity, thoughtfulness and duty. Vern will be greatly missed, and his legacy will certainly live on,” said attorney Jim Saalfeld, current Chair of the Kent County Commission.

A Republican, Ehlers carried out another long-standing West Michigan tradition, begun by President Gerald A. Ford, of reaching across the aisles to work with others. Nowhere was this more evident than in what may be his crowning achievement, the Great Lakes Legacy Act.

Because he was a scientist, he recognized the great need for funding to clean up some of the legacy pollution in the waterways of the Great Lakes, specifically contaminated sediments in what are called the Areas of Concern. Locally, Muskegon Lake and White Lake were designated Areas of Concern. Even though they were not in his district, Rep. Ehlers recognized that such cleanups were necessary to the overall health of the Great Lakes.

The EPA?website says, “The Great Lakes Legacy Act has been a tremendous success.” Since its passage, White Lake has been taken off the AOC list, and Muskegon, which required a number of the GLLA cleanups, is close.

His passion for the environment was never conducted in a vacuum; he continually sought the input of his constituent environmentalists.  In the 1990s, he made himself available to a broad range of environmentally-concerned citizens at annual Sierra-Club-sponsored breakfasts. Rep. Ehlers often spoke before environmental audiences on policy matters such as green energy, which he worked hard to promote.

Ecological concern and many of his other passions related to a lifelong commitment to justice, which in turn was informed by his strong Christian ethic. The son of a Christin Reformed Church pastor and member of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Rep. Ehlers used as his touchpoint the Blblical passage that asks followers to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

An article on the CRC website,, says that Ehlers always told his children and grandchildren he wanted to leave the world a better place than he found it. Using that as a measure, Vern Ehlers was an unmitigated success.

He is survived by wife Johanna, his children Heidi (Bob) Rienstra, Brian Ehlers, Marla Ehlers, Todd Ehlers and Mirjam Schaller, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

The family asked that contributions honoring Rep. Ehlers go to the Vernon and Johanna Ehlers scholarship at Calvin College; John and Alice Ehlers scholarship at Calvin Theological Seminary; Grand Rapids Community Foundation Challenge Scholars Program; or West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC).