Former Congressman Vern Ehlers dead at 83

Vern Ehlers
An undated courtesy photo of former Congressman Vern Ehlers.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A congressman who served Kent, Barry and Ionia counties for nearly two decades has died.

Former U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers passed away Tuesday, according to a Wednesday news release from a former staffer. He was 83 years old.

Ehlers represented the 3rd Congressional District from December 1993 until he retired in January 2011.

“The one thing I will remember is Vern would walk over the House floor to cast a vote and he’d still be reading, learning everything he could about a bill to make sure that he’s going to go and cast the right vote,” Chris Barbee, who served as Ehlers’ press secretary for years, told 24 Hour News 8. “Head down — there would be times where he’d walk out in the street to head over the Capitol, not paying attention to the signs. I’m like, ‘Vern, you can’t walk out there like that!’ But again, he was trying to get as much information as he could so that he could make the right decision for the people of the 3rd District. And that’s who he was.”

Before going to Congress, Ehlers was a four-term member of the Kent County Board of Commissioners, spent two years serving in Michigan’s House and eight years in the state Senate.

Ehlers also worked as a nuclear physicist and college professor, according to the Wednesday news release. That carried over into his public service as he used his knowledge and teaching skills to explain complex issues to those he represented.

While in Congress, he chaired the STEM Education Caucus — then an idea that was new to many but now a plan championed in most educational arenas to increase learning in science, technology, engineering and math.

“The thing about Vern is … the guy had a great sense of humor,” Barbee said. “In fact, I was in charge in DC of his joke file so that he could have good jokes for his speeches. That was the human side of Vern, that he could give you every chemistry equation in the book, but he could also laugh and have a good time and be the boss that he was — a great boss.”

Ehler’s efforts to get a more equitable share of transportation funding back to Michigan was a mainstay of his tenure in Washington. The Amtrak station that opened in Grand Rapids in 2014 bears his name.

Another of his passions was taking care of the Great Lakes, from making sure the water stayed pure to ensuring it was not shipped to southwestern states to fighting invasive Asian carp.

Lesser known, perhaps, was Ehlers’ involvement in bringing the U.S. House into the information age. He worked on the House Administration Committee to bring the internet to Capitol Hill offices and helped create a website for the Library of Congress that allows anyone to look up legislation Congress is working on.

–24 Hour News 8 political reporter Rick Albin contributed to this report.

EHLERS REMEMBERED AS ‘HARD-WORKING,’ ‘STATESMAN’

After news of Ehlers’ death broke Wednesday, local and state leaders as well as several members of Congress released statements mourning his passing and honoring his legacy.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph:

“They don’t make them like Vern anymore. He was so well respected on both sides of the aisle, hard-working, and always a teacher at heart. He committed his life to the service of others ensuring our students were well prepared for careers in math and science and raising awareness for protecting our environment and Great Lakes. He was a family man and a Christian who made his community and country a better place for all. We will certainly miss his common-sense voice, the likes of which is all too rare in today’s political climate.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland:

“Vern Ehlers embodied what it meant to be a statesman. Vern’s thoughtful leadership earned the respect and admiration of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Vern never lost his passion for teaching which he utilized to build bipartisan support for protecting the Great Lakes as well as the environment. Additionally, he was a tireless advocate for science research funding and STEM education. Vern was a tremendous voice for West Michigan in both Lansing and Washington who will be deeply missed.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint:

“I am saddened to learn of Congressman Ehlers’ passing. Vern was a passionate public servant that loved his constituents, our state and the Great Lakes. While we did not serve together in Congress, his reputation preceded him. Vern was a leader who valued country over party and always strived for bipartisan consensus.

“Jennifer and I extend our condolences to his wife Johanna and the entire Ehlers family during this difficult time.”

Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser:

“Michigan lost an outstanding statesman today. Vern Ehlers was an incredible man who served our state with distinction. He will be missed.”

According to Ehlers’ online obituary, visitation is scheduled to be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 22 and from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 23 at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. A funeral service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Aug. 24 at the church.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Vernon and Johanna Ehlers scholarship at Calvin College; the John and Alice Ehlers scholarship at Calvin Theological Seminary; the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the Challenge Scholars Program; or the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.