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Spring 2023 Connections Alumni Profile

If you have heard of Grandma Alice, it’s probably because you have eaten her home-baked cookies, slightly crumbly, but melt-in-your-mouth from all the butter. If you’re really lucky, you’ve even tried her cream puffs, frosted with chocolate and just the right dainty size to fit perfectly into an elementary kid’s hand, with homemade custard oozing out the sides to lick off before you take a bite.

Grandma Alice—or Alice DeRuiter, officially born in the Netherlands as Aalje—bakes cookies for her church, for her neighborhood, or for friends whenever the arthritis in her knees is just too painful. Instead of feeling sorry for her 93-year-old self, Alice generously whips up several batches of chocolate chip, pecan sandies, or Dutch sugar cookies. Then calls the next person on her list she has been praying for or wants to bless.

You want to get on her cookie list. But you also want to hear her stories. Alice herself is not a Holland Christian alum, and neither was Case, or Cornelius, her husband of 63 years. Instead this is a story of how an amazing family sent six children through Holland Christian Schools: Five DeRuiter children graduated from Holland Christian and went on to college, four on to graduate school, three completed PhDs and postdocs. And the sixth? The DeRuiters’ fifth child, Paul, died of cancer while a third grader in Mrs. Homkes’class at Holland Christian in the early ’70s. That’s an amazing story for another article, and Alice still tears up talking about Paul’s death 50 years later. How at the very end he reached up his arms to Someone, smiled a huge smile, and joyfully said, “Oh!” to Someone only he could see.

Grandma Alice smiling at the camera

I always said ‘No matter what we go without, the kids go to the Christian school.'

There also are WW2 stories of growing up in a small town near the southern Dutch border, about how Case hid from the Germans in a houseboat for two-plus years, working for a farmer who signaled to them when Germans were nearby. How as a teenager, Alice herself helped hide a boy under the floorboards in the dark wee morning hours, quickly changing his bedsheets in the dark so the Nazis wouldn’t discover an empty but warm bed. How she met Case when he was still hiding from the Germans, but living then with her neighbor, and how they wanted to get married in post-war Netherlands, but could find nowhere to live together. So they applied for visas to America.

Case and Alice picked Holland, Michigan because Alice’s uncle lived there. A grumpy, controlling uncle they didn’t really know, but who let them move in and happily took half their income in rent until they could figure out in a foreign language how to get married and find their own apartment in this foreign country. (“We never met people who spoke Dutch here!” Alice said.) Case worked finishing furniture for Holland Furniture Company and eventually the Worden Company, and Alice worked at the shoe factory until their first son, John, came in 1952. They sent home $20 each month for her widowed mother, at the Dutch church’s request, their own rent $40 a month.

So how on earth did they send six children through a Holland Christian education?

A lot of really hard work: While Case worked four 10-hour days at the furniture factory, usually setting off in the early mornings walking or riding his bike, Alice “stayed home” with the kids, but also cleaned houses for Hope College professors or for cottages on the lake; took in laundry (including Dutch costumes one time accidentally!) for extra pay; and clerked at the donut store. On Fridays, Case painted houses or cared for lawns.

Beth DeRuiter VanderWa smiling at the camera

Our parents worked super hard—they set an example there, and I don’t remember them grousing—they just did it.

“I cleaned six houses a week—and I wonder now why I got sore knees! [But Holland Christian] was worth every nickel to me!” Alice said. “I always said ‘No matter what we go without, the kids go to the Christian school,’ and the funny part—the money was always there, too.”

Alice’s children talk of the work ethic passed on to them by their first-generation American parents and how important education always was to their parents. The fourth child and only daughter, Elizabeth ’78, said “Our parents worked super hard—they set an example there, and I don’t remember them grousing—they just did it, which helped shape our work ethic.” But also watching how hard their parents worked manually, “made us think about other options,” she admitted.

Even though she ended up in the sciences and medical field eventually, Beth has “a lot of fond teacher memories” from Holland Christian, but especially loved history with Mr. Lanninga and Mr. Tuls—“both I think the world of!” she said, telling how Mr. Tuls “was the kind of guy who would meet us for breakfast on Saturday morning—he would always show up and pay for all of us!”

John, the oldest son born in 1952, was often sick as a child and even had a kidney removed when he was four, continuing to struggle with health throughout his adult life. However, some of Alice’s favorite stories include how John and his HC buddies plotted their senior prank hiding out in a friend’s garage, carefully pulling the engine out of a small car, making it lightweight enough to drop down over a wall into the high school’s courtyard. They completely shocked teachers and students who all wondered how on earth a whole car could suddenly appear in the school’s walled-in courtyard!

“To me, I thought it was awesome,” Alice chuckled— something she does a lot. “They came up with something that didn’t cost anything, it wasn’t anything nasty. I knew they were up to something—but I am glad I did not know that while it was happening. But it was something unique!”

“Case and I always said how important it is to get an education,” Alice said. [That was one of] “the main reasons we left, because in the Netherlands you could only go to college by lottery at that time. I never had any diamonds—I always would tell my kids they’re my diamonds!” she said.

Alice still speaks proudly of her adult children: John ’70, no longer secretly pulling engines out of cars for senior pranks, is retired from teaching special education in the Muskegon area, still plays the organ beautifully, and sends her small gifts to give to her neighborhood kids, after years of giving generously to his students throughout Muskegon. “You don’t know what that ‘boy’ does for so many poor kids in school!” Alice asserted.

Jack, HC class of ’72, is a professor of Drug Discovery and Development at the Harrison College of Pharmacy at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. After 40 years of research and teaching both graduate and undergraduate pharmacology, Jack is currently postponing retirement at the request of the provost to create a whole new curriculum of pharmacology education for a BS pharmacology program. He’s published over 50 books and/or book chapters, along with 300 scientific papers and 200 journal articles, but his mother is probably just as proud of him for playing the organ in church weekly.

Bill ’75, who as a three-year-old gave strict instructions to his mother heading out the door to the hospital to have their fourth child that she was NOT to come home with a girl, and was then hugely unhappy with the return of his newborn sister Elizabeth, is now married and with two grown children of his own. Content with his bachelor’s degree, he enjoys family and life in Kalamazoo.

Whenever Alice needs medical advice, she calls Beth ’78, who teaches both undergrad and graduate-level nursing students pharmacology and pathophysiology at the University of South Alabama College of Nursing in Mobile, Alabama.

I never had any diamonds—I always would tell my kids they’re my diamonds!

Mark ’85 has double degrees and certifications in both audiology and speech-language pathology and is professor and director of the Clinical Science Doctoral Program in Speech-Language Pathology in the Department of Communication Science and Disorders at the University of Pittsburgh.

“My kids really give Holland Christian a lot of credit for what they accomplished,” Alice added. “We never took help from anybody else, but paid [their tuition] all every year. It’s a big sacrifice, but we were proud of ourselves. Maybe that wasn’t so good? But we were so glad when it was all paid up!”

Alice has eight grandchildren and recently five great-grandchildren, besides her extensive collection of fans and friends from her neighborhood, church, and vast community that she’s gathered and loved and blessed and fed cookies to over the years.

Although we started out trying to tell through one story how so many families value Christian education, and the sacrifices they make to send their kids to Holland Christian Schools, in the end it’s really about the incredible people we get to do life with in our HC community. We are so grateful to be a part of each other’s stories for a time, both our students and their amazing families. But then we also treasure cheering on former students and families off doing amazing things in their own corner of God’s world, spreading His light–whether through teaching meticulous medical care, writing for national medical journals. Or playing the organ for church and baking cookies for neighbor kids.