Dordt College News

Distinguished alumni

August 12, 2009

An organ is ‘too big to play carefully’

Distinguished alumnus Chris Teeuwsen


Dr. Christiaan Teeuwsen’s love for the organ developed while he was growing up in a Dutch-Canadian immigrant community with a history of valuing passionate and at times dramatic organ playing. Already a church organist when he came to Dordt, his organ skills grew under the tutelage of Dr. Joan Ringerwole. He even had an opportunity to visit some of the historic organs of Europe in the Netherlands and Germany as a student. For the most part, though, his priority as an undergraduate was playing soccer rather than playing organ.

Today, Teeuwsen has played and has been recorded playing some of those same historic organs in Europe. And as an organ instructor, he finds himself repeating some of the things his teachers said to him in earlier years.

Chris TeeuwsenHe recalls Dr. Ringerwole’s concern that soccer would hurt his hands or feet and jeopardize his organ playing—and that it took too much time from his practicing. During his junior year his music professors told him he should consider spending more time practicing if he wished to continue as an organ major. By his senior year he did, committed at that point to getting into a master’s program at the University of Iowa.

Returning to campus this September as one of three Distinguished Alumni, Teeuwsen says he still feels the same sense of being “at home” that he felt as he waved goodbye to his parents in the fall of 1976, when they delivered him and two of his St. Catharines, Ontario, buddies to college. Even though he’d never visited Dordt before he arrived as a freshman, he had felt immediately that it would be good for him. And it was.

Teeuwsen still tries to practice two to three hours a day, when he can squeeze it between his lessons and choir directing and teaching. His advice to budding organists?

“It must be about the music, not yourself,” he says. “Be daring and willing to blow it, don’t worry about how you look and sound, and make sure there are some little surprises. The organ is too big an instrument to just play carefully.”

Today Teeuwsen teaches at Redeemer University College, an hour from where he grew up, and he is organist and director of music at McNab Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, Ontario. He has recorded four organ CDs (see box) and performs regularly in North America and beyond. For the past several summers, he’s been actively involved with Lutheran Summer Music Academy and Festival, a four-week residential training and performance program. Each summer, more than 150 band, orchestra, choir, and keyboard students from the U.S. and abroad gather at Luther or St. Olaf or Gustavus Adolphus College. Teeuwsen teaches twenty or so organ students each summer.

“There is growing interest in the organ again,” he says, noting that after twenty years of having organs built primarily in concert halls instead of churches, the pendulum is swinging back. Some churches that have never had organs are building them, while others are updating old but valuable ones. He believes that the pendulum swing is not happening in as many Reformed churches yet as in Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist churches—just as it took them longer to embrace “praise and worship” twenty years ago.

“Some children have never heard the instrument before and are fascinated,” he says. When he plays in church, kids regularly come up to the organ after the services.

“Three-year-olds come to the organ and their parents at first tell them not to touch, but I invite them to play. I even pass out CDs to them from the boxes of complimentary ones I get. I had one child come up a couple of months after I gave him a CD and ask if I’d play ‘track four’.”

Teeuwsen admits that it took meeting Dutch organist Klaas Bolt of the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam to push his love for the organ to the level of passion. Following a visit from Bolt to the University of Iowa during his master’s program years, Teeuwsen’s instructor, Delores Bruch, attached two pieces from his master’s recital to a recording she was sending Bolt. Bolt, known for his hymn playing and improvisations, wrote Bruch back, suggesting that Teeuwsen might like to study with him in Amsterdam.

“That was when I really began to work hard,” Teeuwsen says. He even felt exonerated when Bruch told him at one point that his soccer playing may have contributed to his agility on the pedals. He graduated from the Conservatory with the Solo Diploma in Organ. While there, he also served as the assistant organist to Bolt at the Grote of Sint Bavokerk, one of the Netherlands’ great historic churches.

After several summers devoted to teaching and inspiring budding organists, Teeuwsen plans to spend time recording at the keyboards of historic Dutch organs again next summer.

“It feels a bit like going back to the eighteenth century at times,” he says of his time at the console in Aa Kerk or St. Bavo—except that there are electric blowers instead of four buddies working the bellows.” He typically will spend four days and nights practicing and then a couple of nights recording—nights because the churches aretset in the middle of the town square, and noises from vehicles and sirens intrude on the recording.

“I hardly noticed that I needed sleep,” he recalls of one such week. “I’d break for coffee and sleep a little when I really needed it, but mostly I just practiced for hours and hours each day.” After the recording session comes exhaustion.

“It’s an amazing experience to play on an organ that Bach could have played,” says Teeuwsen, admitting that for a North American organist it can be tough to come home, knowing there are no such instruments here.

Teeuwsen's recordings

Schnitger Orgel in der Aa Kerk
Solo Organ CD Recording for V.O.F. Magadis Music Group, and Sosta Recordings (The Netherlands). Repertoire of the North German period. Groningen, the Netherlands. 1992.
Bach meets Buxtehude
Solo Organ CD for SELAMAS, (The Netherlands). Works of Buxtehude and youthful works of J.S. Bach, recorded in Zutphen, the Netherlands. August 2001.
The Organ Works of Georg Böhm
Recording for NAXOS April 2002—REF 8.555.857 at the Bovenkerk in Kampen, the Netherlands.
Baroque Dances
This recording highlights a selection of dance music from 1550-1750 written for keyboard and recorded on the Reil Organ in the Bovenkerk in Kampen, the Netherlands.
For more information about Teeuwsen’s organ recordings go to

Kevin De Vries walks his talk

Distinguished alumnus Kevin De Vries

Social Sciences

Kevin De Vries (’86) often tries to hire employees who have had a private college education.

“They’re usually more well-rounded,” he says. He thinks Dordt does a good job of providing that kind of education and points to two of his employees as examples.   

Kevin De Vries“They’re outstanding people.”

De Vries, too, demonstrates the benefits of such an education. A psychology major, he is a businessman and lists two communication professors as the most influential people in his life during his college years.

Today, De Vries is president of Exxel Pacific, one of the largest private construction companies in Washington state. Northwest Business Monthly has recognized Exxel Pacific as one of the most successful and best-run companies in western Washington. The company employs nearly 120 people and mostly builds large mixed-use facilities such as offices, hotels, living facilities, garages, and retail space. Working as a group of skilled professionals committed to high standards in their building practices makes daily work exciting and motivates them to continue to do well, says De Vries.

Exxel Pacific builds structures along the west coast, from San Diego to Las Vegas to Seattle. Most of its work comes from privately negotiated contracts that come  because of past work, says De Vries.

“If you live by principles of integrity and honesty and treat people fairly, they tell others,” he says. For him, being a Christian businessman doesn’t mean putting fish symbols on his company logo but “walking his talk.”

Acting with integrity doesn’t only mean doing good work and treating customers fairly, it also means treating employees well.

“I try to create a company culture with the type of people that Dordt is good at producing—high integrity, committed, responsible, caring,” he says. He believes that to do that he needs to lead by example, just as his professors did for him. He particularly points to communication professors Drs. Daryl Vander Kooi and Charles Veenstra, who modeled care for their students.

People respond to a healthy culture by being better employees, and they return that action to others around them, he believes, noting that even from a purely economic point of view, investing in employees pays. He tries to be flexible and compassionate with his employees’ needs in good and difficult times.

De Vries’s business, communication, and psychology courses, as well as the range of other courses he took, gave him skills he uses every day in his work at Exxel Pacific, although when he left Dordt he thought he would go into a career in human resources in industry. An opportunity to go to Lynden for a couple of months turned into a permanent move, and a temporary job in construction turned into a partnership in which he now serves as president and CEO. His education also has prepared him for his work as an elder in his church and as a board member for a local Christian health care center.

In talking to students, De Vries encouraged them to “dream high,” to consider entrepreneurial opportunities, and to never think they need to take a backseat because they haven’t graduated from a big university.

“Dordt College has so much to offer young people,” he says, adding, “When you look back after being out for a time, you realize even more how much your education shaped you. And the people you meet will change your life.”

He’s appreciative of many other college experiences that shaped him in less tangible ways: North Hall with its residents from New Mexico, Ontario, Alberta, California, Iowa, and more; the maintenance women who cleaned the bathrooms and didn’t mind serving the young men who weren’t always so appreciative; a healthy environment in which to begin making adult choices.

“Dordt offers an environment that encourages students to think about how they should live their lives as Christians,” he says.  He makes no apologies for encouraging students in his church or those he meets to consider studying at Dordt College.

Blankespoor never tires of learning

Distinguished Alumnus Ron Blankespoor

Natural Sciences

It took only one high school course to convince Ron Blankespoor (’68) that he loved chemistry. In fact during the year between high school and college when—as was the expectation—he worked on the family farm, he bought a “programmed learning” chemistry textbook and worked his way through it.

“I figured I might as well keep on learning during that year,” he said. Blankespoor recalls that his parents expected him and all of his siblings to do well in their studies, but not that science was any more important than any other subject.  Yet Blankespoor and his brothers Gilbert and Harvey all became college science professors. The lone chemist in the family, he sometimes envies the fact that it was easier for them to talk with others about the biology research they were doing than it was for him to talk about organic chemistry. But it never dampened his enthusiasm for the teaching and research he’s done for almost four decades.Ron Blankespoor

Blankespoor’s lifetime of learning, teaching, and researching began in a few rooms in a small building (the original one-building Dordt campus) in Sioux Center, between the edge of town and a corn field. There he gained a rigorous and strong foundation upon which to build a career as a research scientist and teacher.

“I wandered into a classroom in which students were assembling and told them that this used to be a chemistry lab,” he says of his weekend return to campus. They looked a bit skeptical as they smiled. Now labs are in another building and significantly enhanced from those days. But the converted classroom still holds good memories.

Blankespoor is quick to credit his mentor, Dr. Russell Maatman, and Dr. Ed  Geels, the other member of the chemistry department, with laying the foundation for his professional life.

“It was unusual for undergraduate students to be involved in research at that time,” he said. But working with Maatman was almost part of being a chemistry major then. Blankespoor started doing research the summer after his freshman year and continued with Maatman until graduation.

Maatman had taught at the University of Mississippi and worked as a chemist in industry before coming to Dordt College. He brought with him grants that enabled him to continue his research on catalysts. He used the funds to pay his students to work with him during the summer. These grants, which began in 1963 and continued until 1981, gave

Blankespoor and others like him invaluable learning and research opportunities.

Blankespoor earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Iowa State University. (It had to be some place relatively close to Dordt, since he’d fallen in love with someone a year behind him, he noted with a smile). He taught at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and Wake Forest University before moving to Calvin College in 1977. He currently holds the Brummel Chair in Organic Chemistry and has been honored both at Calvin and Wake Forest for exemplary teaching.

Thanks to the Brummel Chair appointment, Blankespoor spends half of his time teaching and half researching. He enjoys both. He’s found that good teaching involves knowing your subject matter, being contagiously enthusiastic about what you’re teaching, staying organized, and having clear expectations of students. He’s grateful for the good students he’s been privileged to work with, acknowledging that he rarely gets students in organic chemistry who aren’t required to take the course.

“Students in the sciences need to be motivated,” he said. “Most who do well in their courses study on a regular basis rather than waiting until one or two nights before a test to master the material.”

Blankespoor talks enthusiastically about his research, communicating the sense of satisfaction and joy and sometimes surprise that comes with it. Consciously choosing words that a non-science person would understand, his eyes light up as tells about one discovery made in his lab in which they discovered somewhat by accident a photochemical process that can be used to make an important type of organic compound—a process that, thanks to his published paper, is now being used by a perfume manufacturer in Switzerland and a research group at a university in the United States to make drugs.

As he reflected on his Dordt experience Blankespoor said that it was at Dordt that he first started thinking about how his Christian faith affected him as a budding scientist.

“I came to understand that God not only gave us his inspired Word but also created a universe through which we can know him,” he said. “The Word and the Creation are not opposed to one another, and we don’t need to be afraid of reading his Creation.” That’s an important starting point for Blankespoor today too.

“I feel strongly that the Bible calls us to be caretakers and not exploiters of creation,” he adds, noting his concern about the depletion of many of creation’s non-renewable resources. As a Christian scientist he believes the creation is also telling us how to take care of it and how not to use it.


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