A memorial service to celebrate the life of Wen Chao Chen, one of Kalamazoo College’s most beloved professors and administrators, will be held Sunday Sept. 23 at 2:00 p.m. in Stetson Chapel on the Kalamazoo College campus. Speakers will include Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, Timothy Light, Jack Hopkins, Joe Fugate, Milt Rohwer, and Alice Chen. A reception in the Hicks Student Center will follow.
Dr. Chen died Aug. 13 at age 92. During his 36-year career with the College, he served as professor of political science, librarian, director of academic services, dean of special services, vice president, acting president, and executive director of the L. Lee Stryker Center. He also held leadership roles in the Kalamazoo community, provided sage advice to many, possessed unfailingly good humor, and played a mean pinball.
Dr. Wen Chao Chen was an extraordinarily loving person. 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.
President, Kalamazoo College
When I first got to K, I went to see every current and retired faculty member. I had scheduled two hours for each. When I was through about thirty minutes with Chen, I cancelled the rest of my appointments. I found him fascinating in spades. He gave me a copy of his autobiography that I took home. I could not put it down: from his childhood in China, to receiving his degrees from America, to his coming to Kalamazoo, to his trying to get a haircut and being told that the shop was closing, to his returning to the shop the next morning to find that the barber was “out to lunch.” From that time on, his wife, Lilia, cut his hair. He was devoted to Kalamazoo College. I considered it an honor to know him. And he provided an example for everyone else to emulate.
James F. Jones, Jr.
President and Trinity College Professor in the Humanities
President, Kalamazoo College, 1996 – 2004
Dr. Chen played a vital role in the early years of my presidency, as I reduced the number of vice presidents and he became the vice president of everything. He had two sayings that I remember well. First was, “President responsible for money and students; faculty and staff do all the rest.” Second comment was that I should always wear the white hat, and he the black hat (an academic version of good cop-bad cop). He will be sorely missed by all of us who knew and worked with him.
David W. Breneman
Newton and Rita Meyers Professor in Economics of Education, University of Virginia
President, Kalamazoo College, 1983 – 1989
When President Jones was ending his tenure as president of K, and I was about to begin my role as acting president, Chen invited us to lunch and presented us with gifts. Jimmy’s was a very elegant farewell gift. Mine was three small refrigerator magnets each about the size of a walnut. They were replicas of warrior masks used in Chinese opera. He noted my puzzled expression as I unwrapped the last one, and then explained these masks would help me ward off the “evil spirits of bad administration.” They were red, yellow, and green, and with a twinkle in his eye he explained the power of each one. I kept them in the president’s desk for that year, looked at them frequently, and often asked what Chen would recommend at that moment. They worked. In the Provost’s Conference Room in Mandelle Hall hangs “Prexie’s Zodiac,” one of my paintings. In it, two of those masks are blown up to life size. They are there as a tribute to Chen—for his valuable guidance to many, his love of K, and his love for all those that make it a jewel. I miss him.
Professor of Art, Emeritus
Acting President, Kalamazoo College, 2004 – 2005
I am one of many whom Chen mentored and whose career he fostered. His remarkable empathy extended to an instinctive knowledge of where the people whom he encountered were in their lives and how to relate to them. His insights were always remarkable and accurate, and his advice invariably wise. He had a unique talent to be fully present in dealing with individuals and also with groups of people. We in Kalamazoo have indeed been blessed by his presence over these 62 years.
Acting President, Kalamazoo College, 1989 – 1990
Dr. Chen was a humble and incredibly effective leader who was fearless and selfless in bringing sometimes contentious constituencies together – on campus or in the community – to find ways to collaborate. His kind, gentle, wise, persistent, caring, and wickedly funny manner defused tensions, minimized differences, led to creative partnerships, and served as an example to everyone blessed with the chance to work with him.
Phil Carra ’69
Kalamazoo College Trustee, Emeritus
I will miss Dr. Chen’s quiet, wise counsel and jovial laugh, both of which I have appreciated in my work with the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music (MFSM). This organization was created largely through his vision: he saw a need to increase community interaction and worked to bring community leaders together to help create MFSM. It is yet another example of his ability to make significant connections, even in his retirement. Perhaps the jovial laugh is my strongest impression of Dr. Chen: I remember it also from when I was a child—he always spent a little time entertaining us kids before joining the adults at parties. We are so lucky to have had him with us in Kalamazoo for so long.
Dr. Elizabeth Start
Executive Director, Michigan Festival of Sacred Music
I never was able to bring myself to call Dr. Chen, “Chen,” as all the faculty did. I just couldn’t do it (and still can’t). One day, Dr. Chen said to me, “You really know you are old when your colleagues call you ‘doctor.’” At the time, Dr. Chen was probably in his mid-50s. He was extremely supportive of me and, I’m sure, other young faculty.
Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Emerita
Chen liked to play the pinball machines. There was a time when we had some of these machines in the game room and it was not uncommon to see Chen in there testing his skills. But he would also visit off-campus establishments and play. The story circulated on campus that on one such occasion when he was playing off-campus a group of students entered the place and to their amazement found the venerable Dr. Chen merrily banging away on a machine – and of course winning.
Professor of German Language and Literature and Director of Foreign Study, Emeritus
I recognize and thoroughly appreciate Chen’s importance to Kalamazoo College and the community. But for me, he was my valued professor and faculty advisor who became my indispensable mentor and counselor for an entire career. Perhaps my fondest recollections of student life at K were the regular meetings of political science majors and faculty members in Chen’s conference room at the library. The discussions he facilitated were undoubtedly the most valuable and enjoyable of my academic experience and that of many peers. After K, he continued to support, prod, and challenge. Two years into my first position, he asked “Are you comfortable in your job?” My response was that I was. His response was, “Time to find new a one!”
Milt Rohwer ’66
Senior Fellow, Center for Michigan
Former President, Frey Foundation
One part of Dr. Chen was shaped by traditional Chinese culture from the 30s-40s; another part was very much tuned into our contemporary U.S. world. Beginning in 1950, he and Elton Ham were colleagues at the College and at the City of Kalamazoo. After Elton died in 1975, Chen said to me “if you ever need or want to work, come and see me.” I did, and worked for and with him from 1978 to 1992 at the L. Lee Stryker Center on various projects: the Business-Academia Dialogue, (a luncheon meeting with area business people, students, and faculty), the Kalamazoo Forum, Council of Governments, a personnel directors monthly luncheon, to name a few. Chen had been conducting a seminar titled Management Development for Women, and one day in the early 80s said: “Caroline, go find out what those women want.” So, I talked to about a dozen women in small business, banks, newspapers, The Upjohn Co., academia, nonprofits. I asked “How did you get where you are, what help did you have, what help could you have used, and what help could you use now?” Thus, the Kalamazoo Network and various courses at the Stryker Center were launched. Chen was a master small “p” politician. His forward looking, community orientation and awareness were a great asset to Kalamazoo College. He was unique.
Caroline R. Ham ’48
City Commissioner and Mayor (1981-83) City of Kalamazoo
Dr. Chen, a deeply humble yet wise man, demonstrated his brilliance daily throughout our community, as he skillfully brought people together even though they would have disparate points of view, political perspectives, and organizational allegiances. Throughout my local career in higher education and community philanthropy, I continually marveled at how Chen could lead community citizens to find a strategic path to solving local problems when all the time he had thoughtfully and perhaps intuitively already conceived of “the way.” This remarkable man remains a Kalamazoo icon. He is clearly beloved by all those he touched, revered by those he personally affected by his focused and visionary example, remembered as a true community servant leader, and loved for his personal sensitivities and humane approach to all peoples. We’ll forever miss Chen and his leadership!
Former Academic Vice President and President (1975-83), Nazareth College
Assistant Director and President, The Kalamazoo Community Foundation (1983-2008)
As a member of Dr. Chen’s home department (Political Science), I was always able to witness up close his love of the liberal arts and of Kalamazoo College. He and I also shared another academic experience: his Ph.D. was from St. Louis University and mine was from Washington University in St. Louis; we would frequently compare notes about our St. Louis activities. Of all my many memories of Dr. Chen, perhaps the most vivid occurred the night that I arrived on campus for my interview as a candidate for a faculty position at Kalamazoo College. He spent the entire evening with me, giving a detailed description of the College and of the Kalamazoo community (including where I would buy my furniture if I came to this city). It was the beginning of a close friendship that would last fifty years.
Donald C. Flesche
Professor of Political Science, Emeritus
Throughout the many years that I worked with Dr. Chen, I came to know him as a man of wisdom, integrity and humility. I especially remember his courageous willingness to speak truth to power when issues of discrimination occurred. He was, of course, widely respected as an outstanding administrator and teacher, but he also served quietly and effectively as tutor and counselor to a host of students and young colleagues, I among them.
Eleanor Pinkham ’48
Director of Libraries and Media Services, Emerita
I was so fortunate to have Dr. Chen as my advisor during my four years at K. No one knew more about the college than Dr. Chen, or could have been more generous with his time despite his very busy schedule. He did not limit his advice to what courses to take, but also gave me advice about life that I appreciate even more today than I did at the time! He was one of the first people to get me interested in a business career. Stepping back from my individual experience, I am in awe of the contributions he made to the college and the community in his many roles.
Gene Bissell ’76
Kalamazoo College Trustee
Dr.Chen was indeed my savior. Not only did I work for him in the library for three years, but he made it possible for me to graduate with my class in the spring of l960. I had more than enough credits, but they did not seem to fall in the right categories. (I thought they did.) He attended the meeting in which it was decided who would graduate on time and who would not. My name came up as a “would not graduate on time” student. He told me about this situation and that he would represent me at the next meeting, which he did handily. Needless to say, I graduated on time, thanks to Dr. Chen.
Ellie (Helfen) Miller ’60
Wen-Chao Chen was the contact person responsible for my joining the faculty some 44 years ago. It was he, along with Paul Collins, who convinced me that K would be a good fit for me, considering my uniqueness. From my interview on, this talented, unique, quiet gentleman appeared to have made it his business to see to it that my being here was a positive experience for the College and me. I thanked him for his personal efforts and he, in his humorous way, said years later, that until I arrived he was the “only colored person on the faculty!”
Chen was a man who practiced what he preached, and I do not mourn his passing; I cherish his memory.
Romeo Eldridge Phillips
Professor Education and Music, Emeritus