Wen Chao Chen, Ph.D., a farmer’s son from rural China who became a celebrated Kalamazoo College educator and civic leader, died August 13, 2012, at Friendship Village in Kalamazoo. He was 92.
“Dr. Wen Chao Chen was an extraordinarily loving person,” said Kalamazoo College President Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran. “He especially loved Kalamazoo College and the Kalamazoo community. He worked tirelessly for decades to help make each the best it could be.
“Dr. Chen had a brilliant mind and a gift for bringing people together. He often said he felt fortunate to be embraced by the community, but the people who continue to be touched by his legacy know just how much his life enriched all of ours.”
Chen joined the faculty of Kalamazoo College in 1950 as professor of political science. During his 36-year career with the College, he also served as librarian, director of academic services, dean of special services, vice president, acting president, and executive director of the L. Lee Stryker Center. He also helped establish the Heyl Scholarship program, which brings outstanding area high school graduates to Kalamazoo College to study science and to Western Michigan University to study nursing.
Throughout his career, Chen was a mentor to countless Kalamazoo College students, faculty, staff, alumni, and several presidents. His impact was so significant that he was repeatedly honored by the College. He was a recipient of Kalamazoo College’s Weimer K. Hicks Award, which honors current or retired employees who have provided significant long-term contributions to the College, and was named a Fellow of the College, Emeritus.
Shortly before his 1986 retirement, a faculty resolution acknowledged the College’s “long history of debts owed” to Dr. Chen,” his “steady hand” as “a source of security and reassurance,” and his commitment to K as “a treasured resource.”
In 1998, Chen’s friends and former students provided more than $1 million to endow the Wen Chao Chen Chair in East Asian Social Sciences at the College. In 2000, he and wife Lilia, a long-time substitute teacher in Kalamazoo Public Schools and a gifted artist, created a scholarship fund for art students.
During and after his years at Kalamazoo College, Dr. Chen was also active in local civic, business, and cultural matters. He co-founded the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music and helped establish the Kalamazoo Network, which developed leadership opportunities for women. He also helped establish the Kalamazoo Forum, which brought together business and academic leaders to discuss communitywide issues, and the Core Council of Governments, which sought greater cooperation among Kalamazoo County municipalities.
Wen Chao Chen was born October 14, 1919, in Chen Village, Fenxi County, Shanxi Province, China. He was one of seven children. At the age of six he began working on his father’s 33-acre farm. After several years in small village elementary schools, an older brother paid for him to attend a boarding school and later an American-administered Christian missionary training center.
Before he could complete high school, however, the Japanese army invaded China, and in 1937 Chen’s family was forced to flee the fighting. For several years, he worked a series of jobs as a tax collector, medic, and newspaper proofreader, in addition to taking some college courses.
By 1943, Chen was a lieutenant in the Chinese Army assigned to translation duties with United States Army forces in China. Toward the end of World War II, he was among 100 Chinese translators sent to the U.S. for further training. When the war ended, he enrolled at Grinnell College in Iowa where he completed his bachelor’s degree in political science. He went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration and doctorate in political science, both at St. Louis University.
Later, while teaching at Kalamazoo, he earned a master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago. He also was awarded honorary degrees from Nazareth College, WMU, and Kalamazoo College.
Chen became a naturalized United States citizen in 1983.
In addition to Lilia, his wife of 62 years, Dr. Chen is survived by sons Michael (Niki) of St. Charles, Ill., and Philip (Janet Lootens Chen) of Ann Arbor, Mich.; and grandchildren Alice Chen of San Antonio, Tex.; Megan Chen of Falls Church, Va., and Dylan Chen of Ann Arbor.
Memorial gifts may be directed to the Wen Chao Chen Chair in East Asian Social Sciences at Kalamazoo College, 1200 Academy St., Kalamazoo, MI, 49006.
A memorial service for Dr. Wen Chao Chen will take place at Stetson Chapel on the Kalamazoo College campus at a date and time to be determined.