Kind, thoughtful, intellectual: W. MI remembers Vern Ehlers

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


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The death of former Congressman Vern Ehlers Tuesday is evoking fond memories for many lawmakers and leaders from West Michigan.

“Vern was a great friend. You know, Vern and I a lot of things in common,” said former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Holland.

Hoekstra and Ehlers served in adjoining Congressional districts for almost identical periods of time.

“We worked close together. He’s a mentor. He had government experience, I had business experience,” Hoesktra recalled.

Pete Hoekstra
A March 8, 2016 AP file photo of former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra in Lansing.

The two shared their experiences in Washington and on their weekly treks to and from West Michigan in airports.

Hoekstra says everyone recognized the intellect of the nuclear physicist turned Congressman. Though Ehlers never flaunted it, his colleagues would occasionally bring it up.

“We always joked that you know, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be a Congressman, but we do have one in case we need one,” Hoekstra said.

Hoekstra, who left Congress in 2011, said he and Ehlers might be lonely if they returned to Washington today, given the current lack of cooperation.

“Vern was always focused on, you know, let’s get something done. He’d be very frustrated. And I think the other thing that you could say about Vern is that Vern was smart. We all knew that. But what really differentiated Vern was he was kind. He was a kind man. He never had a harsh word to say about anybody and I think he’d be very upset and disappointed about what the climate appears to be in Washington today,” Hoekstra said.

Kent County commissioners Thursday also shared their memories of Ehlers, who served on the board for four terms.

Kent County Board Chair Jim Saalfeld said Ehlers endorsed him during his first run for the commission.

“I always believed that Vern represented the county, and ultimately our 3rd Congressional District, with those attributes that have historically defined West Michigan: integrity, thoughtfulness and duty,” he stated in a Thursday news release.

Vern Ehlers
A portrait of Vern Ehlers graces the wall at the Kent County Administration Building in Grand Rapids. (Aug. 17, 2017)

Ehlers helped bring the Waste-To-Energy plant to Kent County and Grand Rapids, according to Commissioner Ted Vonk.

Interim Kent County Administrator Wayman Britt said Ehlers brought people together in a bipartisan, apolitical manner.

“He never forgot where he started and served the people of the 3rd Congressional District with distinction. Distinguished leadership like his is rare and valuable; my sympathies and prayers go out to all who knew and loved him,” Britt stated.

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.