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A Great Celebration: Au Sable Community Honors Founding Executive Director Dr. Cal DeWitt

Sep 20, 2017

Many talented and dedicated women and men have contributed to making the Au Sable Institute what it is today, beginning with the transforming vision of Au Sable’s Founder, Dr. Harold Snyder, who first purchased the land that would become the Au Sable campus in 1956 for what he then envisioned as a science camp for junior high boys. But, after Harold, perhaps no single individual contributed more to making Au Sable a true Institute of national and international recognition in Christian environmental stewardship than its founding Executive Director, Dr. Calvin B. DeWitt, Professor of Environmental Studies Emeritus at the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. To honor his contributions and enduring legacy, the Au Sable faculty, staff, students, Board of Trustees, and alumni and friends gathered at Au Sable’s Great Lakes Campus from August 3rd through 5th to combine a Symposium of Recognition, dedication of the Calvin B. DeWitt Library, and 5th Annual Alumni and Friends Reunion to remember and honor Cal’s work.

After opening remarks and a welcome by current Executive Director Dr. Fred Van Dyke, the Keynote Address was offered by Dr. Joel Carpenter, Director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College. Dr. Carpenter offered insights not only about the breadth of Cal DeWitt’s contributions to the development of a genuinely Christian theology of environmental stewardship, but also explained the effect of these contributions on the role of the church in creation care today. The Symposium also recognized Cal for his contributions to environmental education in Christian higher education, building a network of colleges within the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) that would form the foundation for the academic family of 52 CCCU schools participating in creation care education with Au Sable today. Dr. Orin Gelderloos, Professor of Biology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn offered insights, with remarkable humor, in describing not only the early years of academic development at the Institute, but the development of a passionate love for God’s creation in the early years of  Cal’s life. Dr. Susan Emmerich, former Senior Environmental Officer with the US Department of State, described Cal’s role as her mentor as a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin and led a panel discussion examining Cal’s role in the lives of other grad students, some of whom, like Dr. David Foster of Messiah College and Dr. Dorothy Boorse of Gordon College, recently served / currently serve on Au Sable’s Board, David formerly as Chair and Dorothy currently as Vice Chair of the Trustees. Dr. Rolf Bouma, Coordinator of the Au Sable Graduate Fellows Program, a ministry providing mentoring and support to Christians in graduate programs at state universities, brought a scholarly perspective on Cal’s contributions to the development of the theology of creation care while Dr. Del VanderZee, one of the “Founding Faculty” of the Au Sable Institute, read letters of recognition and tribute from notable Christian scientists, conservationists, and teachers, including Larry Schweiger, former President of the National Wildlife Foundation, Dr. Ghillean Prance, former Director of the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, England, and Peter Harris, Founder of the international Christian conservation organization A Rocha.

The Board of Trustees recognized Cal on Friday with the dedication of the Calvin B. DeWitt Library, a collection of Cal’s books, papers, and articles that will henceforth be housed in the Earth Hall Library of the Au Sable Institute. The same evening the Alumni and Friends Reunion began with Cal’s opening remarks to the community of Au Sable alumni and supporters gathered at the Institute. Saturday marked a wonderful time of fellowship, reunion, and new relationships for the alumni and friends of Au Sable assembled to see one another, reaffirm old friendships, share their stories from their days at Au Sable, and learn about the work of others in creation care. The Reunion ended with final remarks by Cal about his own journey to Au Sable, and his work in keeping God’s earth that became the center of the Au Sable mission.

Perhaps the heart of Cal’s insights, and the steadfast foundation upon which he designed the development of Au Sable as an 'institute,' was revealed in his words explaining what we mean by an 'institute.' Quoting the noted economist Douglass North, Cal noted, “There is an intimate relationship between belief systems and the institutional framework. Belief systems are an internal representation of the human landscape. Institutions are the structure that humans impose on that landscape in order to produce the desired outcome. Belief systems, therefore, are the internal representation and institutions the external manifestation of that representation.” So, Cal explained, Au Sable came to be designed as an institute that would be a living and vibrant manifestation of the belief that the proper human response to the good creation God made is in its care and keeping.

Since its formation under Cal’s leadership in 1979, Au Sable has indeed fulfilled the vision of vitality and vibrancy of Christian witness and leadership in creation care that Cal envisioned. Over 4,000 people have taken courses in Au Sable’s College Academic Program. Over 130,000 have participated as students in its Environmental Education Program for K-8 students in northern Michigan. Less easy to quantify, but perhaps even more influential and important, are the thousands of Au Sable alumni now actively engaged in creation care.

One of these, Dr. David Foster, Professor of Biology at Messiah College (Pennsylvania) and Chair of Au Sable’s Board of Trustees, explained the effect this way. “Cal provided a profound example in being a life-long student in studying the wonders of the Lord’s Creation and applying that knowledge through stewardship. His enthusiasm is contagious. He also encouraged all students, professors, and every person with him to ask questions and seek answers with awe and wonder. It is rare that an institution is able to take this on as a principle character trait and continue with that trait well after the direct leadership of its instilling member is passed. Such a character trait is at the root of understanding our place in the Creation.”

Dr. Susan Emmerich, one of Cal’s first graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, added this insight about Au Sable’s effect on both Christian education and environmental stewardship. “Au Sable Institute uniquely provides a biblically-based, scientific and intellectual community in which students and faculty ‘reason together’ both in the classroom and in the field to discover the intricacies of God’s creation and ways to steward it.” Nathan Aaberg, a program director for a non-profit organization in Illinois that promotes sustainable agriculture, visited Au Sable for the first time by attending the Symposium and Reunion, and said “It was a delight to be with so many warm and welcoming Christians who care deeply about Creation and who are acting on that conviction through the unique institution that is Au Sable. I’m hopeful that Au Sable’s impact will continue to grow in depth and breadth. At a time when God’s earth is in desperate need, more Christians need to be inspired and equipped to respond.” In all of its effects, Dr. Fred Van Dyke, Au Sable’s current Executive Director, noted, “Au Sable has an outstanding educational program, to which we have now added original, primary research investigations in creation care to give credibility to our mission to serve, protect, and restore God’s earth. But Au Sable has always been and continues to be more than the sum of these things. The dynamic biblically-centered mission which Cal instilled in the very fabric of the Institute continues to be the driving force of Au Sable’s work, and the source of its ability to inspire people to take up these efforts.”

A great celebration indeed! As Au Sable looks forward to new work in the year ahead, but not without careful, informed, and warm remembrance of what has brought the Institute this far. Thank you, Cal DeWitt, for all you have given to Au Sable.