I was somewhat startled this morning to notice the obituary for Dr. Glenn Niemeyer, 87, of Jenison.
The Good Doctor was my mentor and advisor when I was a student at then-Grand Valley State College. I took four classes from him in four years at the school. His influence on me was remarkable.
I was intimidated in my first class with him lecturing on Twentieth Century America, History 310, in the spring of my freshman year. As the academic term progressed, I became even more inspired to try to be a high school history teacher. Niemeyer lectured history just like a preacher giving a sermon, and at times he could be spell-binding for wide-eyed teen-agers such as me. His voice inflections compelled me to listen intently to the material he presented.
It was through Dr. Niemeyer that I learned in a trial by fire how to take copious notes in a hurry. To this day, I have been complimented for my ability to extract important concepts and comments from public meetings. I owe it all to my mentor and advisor.
I decided to declare my major in history at the close of History 310 and asked for and was granted Dr. Niemeyer as my advisor.
My academic career was plagued by mediocre grades (Bs and Cs) in most subjects, but I was able to shine in social studies, particularly history. Looking back, I am convinced I should have tried harder in language arts, geology, calculus, psychology and the like. But none of those disciplines piqued my interest.
Dr. Niemeyer was so skilled as a lecturer that when the final exam came along, I would simply spend about an hour reviewing notes and the next day take the test for which I would received the coveted “A.”
But my less than stellar grades in other subjects eventually brought me down, as well as my reluctance to do any football, basketball or baseball coaching. When I tried to sell myself to school districts, I learned history teachers were a dime a dozen and failed to land a full-time job. Instead, I was a security guard by night and a substitute teacher by day in a frantic effort to make a living. My problems weren’t resolved until Irvin P. Helmey offered me a job with the Wayland Globe in 1972.
Niemeyer had told me that he expected me to be better than the textbook while teaching history. He also expected me to continue my passion and pass it along to the kids. A huge part of me believed I had not lived up to his example. I even had recurrent dreams of going back to Grand Valley to take a course from him and failing miserably.
I have asserted that passion was the biggest reason why he was the best teacher I ever had. The subject mattered to him and his sermon style of presentation reflected a dynamic approach to the subject.
It’s more than ironic that he and my vacation Bible school teacher at age 8 were my best teachers. Both were deeply religious people, in contrast to me. It was their devotion to their subject and ability to get me to believe it mattered that made a difference.
Dr. Niemeyer earned his master’s degree and doctorate in history at Michigan State University, where he became a disciple of Dr. Robert E. Brown, the fierce critic of Charles Beard’s “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution.” My major senior paper was all about that debate.
I was not really surprised to learn in the obituary that he had started his teaching career at a Christian school, and that he was heavily involved with his church. I was somewhat saddened to learn he was the ringleader of the effort to thwart attempts by GVSC faculty to form a union.
I feared Niemeyer would become a victim of the Peter Principle. After I graduated, he was elevated to an administrative position, because he had been such a quality and respected instructor. My fears apparently were unfounded because he continued to rise through the ranks, reaching provost and vice president. And now on the GVSU campus, there is Niemeyer Hall, named in his honor.
Yet I was told that in a private tutorial he once told a close friend of mine, “Do you realize that a man like Ronald Reagan could be elected president some day?”
He probably voted for him.