Jim Graham served Central College for 48 years and was dean of the college for 13 of them in the ’60s and early ’70s. During his tenure at the college, Graham also served as associate professor of English and coached men’s tennis and women’s volleyball at different times. He now lives in Sierra Vista, Ariz.
I came to Central in the fall of 1950, at age 25, right out of grad school. I became academic dean in the fall of 1962 and gave way to Harold Kolenbrander ’60 in the fall of 1975. I began a reduced teaching schedule in the fall of 1990, kept reducing and taught my last class in ’98. My wife Martha Chiarella, associate professor emerita of Spanish, retired in 1999, and we left Pella for our new home in Sierra Vista, Ariz., in January of 2000, after waiting to make sure the world had survived the millennium.
Those who have served as both academic dean and head women’s tennis coach are probably in a rather exclusive club. When did you coach?
I had three separate coaching careers at Central, the dates for all of them a bit fuzzy. I coached men’s tennis for a few years in the early ’50s. Early players were Elliot Tanis ’56, Arnie Ver Hoef ’55, Roger Bruggink ’58 and my brother Bob Graham’53. We had just the two cement courts at the site of the present music building and played a limited schedule.
In 1976, I accepted (athletics director Ron Schipper) Skip’s plea to coach women’s volleyball. I did it for three years. A bad mistake. I couldn’t recruit and was little better as an instructor. Then in 1983 I began coaching women’s tennis. Our first stars were Deanna Mosley and Beth Van Voorhis ’87. Toward the end was Shannan Mattiace ’90. I lasted until 1990. It was a long enough run that I felt I’d made a contribution. I also avoided disastrous accidents while driving the vans (I’m a truly dangerous driver). I was pleased to turn over the reins to Doug Stursma, whom I first got to know during my years running a summer instructional tennis program.
Your most vivid coaching memory?
Arnie VerHoef ’55, star basketball player from Sioux Center, had never played before and came out for tennis to avoid Coach (Marinus) Kregel’s command to run cross country. He had great reflexes but used ping pong strokes. In an early match versus Simpson, he popped up a short lob. As his opponent lined up a smash, Arnie dropped his racquet, rushed the net, waved both arms like a basketball defender and shouted “HA HUH HA!” The opponent missed the smash. I had to go out on court to instruct Arnie in tennis etiquette—while laughing hysterically.
What are you doing now?
We are caretakers for Martha’s son, Julio Chiarella ’96, a Central grad who is on mental health disability. That’s full-time work for her and backup for me. This city is 70 miles southeast of Tucson and just 10 miles from the border with Mexico, tucked into a mountain range, just a short distance from Tombstone—famous for mature behavior by Pella’s famed child, Wyatt Earp. We began exercise with lots of mountain hiking and have cut back to sidewalks, with occasional forays into nearby desert. I read a lot and watch too much sports on TV.
Incredibly, you served Central for 48 years. How do you view your time here?
I think I lived through, and contributed to, important changes at Central. I’m amazed and deeply pleased with what the college is today.
When I began teaching, I had given up my childhood wish to follow my parents and be a missionary in Brazil. But I still reverenced their commitment and admired their lifelong effort to build up a boarding school in the backwoods. That made it easy and also fulfilling to work at Central all my life, to invest and grow in one place. In time I came to understand and even admire faculty members and administrators who distributed their lives and talents among a bunch of different institutions, but I felt good about doing as many different tasks as I could right there at Central.
I was lucky to fall into a college where it was OK to contribute wherever and no fuss was made over proper qualifications, status or prestige. In the 1950s, when my professional life took shape, Central was a parochial school, drawing students from Reformed Church homes, usually the first generation to attend college. Our job was to awaken, nurture and (in the eyes of parents) protect. Faculty and staff were paid little but encouraged strongly. Anything extra we could do was appreciated.
When Arend (Don) Lubbers became president in 1960, we had a faculty eager to lift Central to a higher level. We had a probably inflated view of our abilities, but we were eager to work harder to bring home dreams. And Don Lubbers knew how to feed us. I am most proud of what happened in that decade. We started the study abroad programs specifically to change the parochial image and to expand student experience and vision. We took more than half the faculty on a two-week summer workshop to hammer out a new curriculum and new calendar.
Emblematic of this decade (one among many I could tell) was the appointment and evolution of Ron Schipper. It was a huge gamble by the young, untried president, whose image in the community was still that of the young boy he had been in Pella when his dad was president. Central’s athletic director, football coach, Mr. Everything, was Babe Tysseling, the greatest athlete inPellahistory. Chastened by decades of budget starvation, Babe had developed a sardonic wit and ingrained skepticism. Lubbers persuaded Babe to give up athletics and take on the admission office, which badly needed help. With incredible dignity, Babe accepted the switch for the greater good and sold it to the town jocks. Of course, Skip soon proved Lubbers right—and so did Babe.
Skip fit the mold of Central commitment: no standing on status, willing to try anything. He taught math—filling in where needed. He took chances on me as a fill-in coach. And he and Bette Brunsting ’56 had memorable, short careers as deans of students.
The ‘60s were exuberant, raw. We were amateurs running on self-confidence and good will. Thankfully we got President Ken Weller and Dean Harold Kolenbrander— professional, patient, skillful and just as committed. The college became solid, not explosive.
Besides study abroad, I’d say the most obvious and heart-warming development of the college has been the athletic program. And within that large story is the female subset. Credit Skip, credit Weller, credit Bette Brunsting and, of course, (associate dean of students) Marjorie Giles. We had no Title IX pressure, just the typical Central commitment to all students and the will to take chances.
I saw the first female Central athletes have to fight stereotypes (mostly from non-athletes). They lived through their own fears of big muscles and unfeminine sweat. They probably had to put up with Skip’s football-style encouragement. And look where we’ve been now for years—good, disciplined and not self-conscious.
I learned a lot from coaching women, mostly in the long trips in the van, but also in the wins and losses, the practice sessions and the decisions coaches have to make. I’ll mention just one of several. The women tennis players I coached were never so focused on wins and losses as were male athletes, never willing to buy that rhetoric. They had more in their lives. During matches they were always much more aware of their opponent’s attitude and aware of the spectators. After the match they recovered quickly, changed pace and got back into daily rhythm.
I was used to making doubles pairings based entirely on tennis skills, forehands to the center, baseliners together, etc. But the players wanted compatibility, mutual respect and encouragement, never mind the likelihood of forming a winning combo.
As an academic, do you see any value for students competing in college athletics beyond working up a good sweat?
From the female athletes, I learned how sports fit in with and reinforce the academic program. At college, the whole person is ahead of the one-dimensional person. The college student needs success somewhere to provide staying power everywhere. Sports suddenly filled a vacuum for women, gave them another field, put them up there with the males, reduced the need to play role games. Team sports provide a sense of mutual effort and mutual support.
A concluding thought?
What I’ve been trying to emphasize about Central’s growth and achievement is more easily understood in a team-sports metaphor than in a classic academic excellence model. Central’s growth and staying power is due to its faculty and staff contributing, voluntarily, well beyond what they are paid or promoted. In short, it comes from a joy in belonging and being encouraged to do better, in contributing to the institution, the team.