Dordt College News

Douglas and Henrietta Ribbens continue giving to Dordt College

May 9, 2009

Douglas and Henrietta (Miedema) Ribbens were two of Dordt's earliest employees, both with strong ties to education. Douglas, a former principal, came as a professor of education. Henrietta was responsible for student teacher placement for many years.

Between them, they gave seventy-one years to Dordt College, shaping and running the institution as it moved from a junior college with less than a hundred students to a thriving four-year college of more than 1,200 students.

Now they are helping students in another way. For each of the next five years, they will contribute $21,000 to fund six $3,500 scholarships for three junior and three senior elementary education majors.

Dr. Douglas Ribbens served Dordt College for thirty-seven years as a professor, registrar, academic dean, director of the library, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. Henrietta (Miedema) Ribbens was Dordt’s first secretary and served in the academic office with Ribbens for thirty-four years, in the early years doubling as bookkeeper and eventually serving as assistant registrar. They married in 1988, following the death of Douglas’s wife, Ruth. They both retired in 1992.

Education has always been and continues to be important to both of the Ribbens. Douglas was Dordt’s first professor of education, teaching the first classes when the college opened its doors in 1955. Henrietta began working for the college in the spring of 1958 and helped hundreds of elementary education students with teacher placement and teacher certification.
Their titles don’t begin to describe the breadth of the tasks that each of them performed. Douglas describes himself as the “utility infielder.” “I never had the luxury to become an expert in one thing,” he says today. In the early years, he was also director of admissions, housing, and financial aid.

Douglas began his administrative work already before he came to campus in 1955. While principal at the Oostburg, Wisconsin, Christian School, he began working with the Iowa Department of Public Instruction to set up the teacher education program, the program that was the primary reason for Dordt’s founding. Within a year after the college opened, he was Director of Academic Affairs.

“In the early years, and continuing over the following years, a number of new institutional tasks were required, and it always seemed that, as part of my administrative duties, I was called on to carry out those projects,” he says. So began an administrative career that would span his entire professional life.

Douglas was instrumental in laying out the early curriculum and served as the chair of the curriculum committee until his retirement in 1992. He scheduled classes, supervised faculty, wrote North Central accreditation reports, wrote grant applications, was head of the library, wrote computer programs for the Registrar’s Office to manage institutional student information data, and encouraged faculty to work out their Christian vision for the education they offered in their classrooms. And, thinking back to the many hours he spent in meetings, he feels like he must have attended nearly every meeting held on campus during his tenure at Dordt College.

During its junior college years, he was one of the strongest advocates for moving to a four-year institution, and throughout his career, he encouraged institutional academic excellence.

“I considered the registrar aspect of my job to be very important,” he says. “Nearly everything we did had to do with data. Institutional data, collected and maintained by the Office of the Registrar, were key elements in preparing accreditation reports, in providing institutional statistics to various government offices, and in the preparation of and the subsequent accounting for Federal Title III grants.”

Eventually he was assisted by Dr. Abe Bos and Henrietta. But even in the early 1970s when enrollment climbed to over 1200 students, they did the work done by many more people today.

Douglas describes himself as a pragmatist. Dr. John Van Dyk, emeritus professor of philosophy and education, uses the term “practical realist” to describe him. He notes that Douglas pushed the college to put its vision into writing. Although he did not write either the first “Institutional Statement” or the later “Scripturally Oriented Higher Education,” for his entire career at Dordt College he was a member of the committees that studied and prepared those documents. The “Educational Task of Dordt College” was written under his watch and with his encouragement.

Today, Douglas also gives a practical explanation for his push to have faculty spell out what that kingdom vision meant for the classroom. “I had to write the North Central Association report for accreditation. The NCA told us, ‘You tell us what your goals and purposes are, and we’ll come to see whether you have the faculty, the facilities, and the instructional program to do what you say you want to do.’”

“I believed in the faculty and tried to make it possible for them to do their work. I expected a lot from them, but I gave them a lot of leeway as long as they did their work. I assumed a lot of responsibility for the organization and the curriculum, but my job was to make it possible for the faculty to do their work. Administrators and presidents don’t constitute a college; the faculty does,” he says.

In all of this, Douglas Ribbens had the capable assistance of Henrietta Miedema. He speaks enthusiastically and respectfully of her seemingly effortless ability to accomplish an incredible array of tasks. In those early years, this included: register students, type transcripts and grade reports (as well as everything else) by hand, enter grades and average them using only an adding machine, order textbooks and buy and sell them from her office, measure graduates for caps and gowns and prepare diplomas, schedule teacher placement interviews, write payroll checks and keep tuition accounts, compile statistical reports, and more. She never missed a day of work in thirty-four years and admits to taking work home most evenings in order to keep up. “My days were always being interrupted by helping students in one way or another,” she recalls with a smile. “She knew every student and usually who married who,” adds her husband.

“I believed and continue to believe that college is preparation for something,” says Douglas, adding that a broad, liberal arts education that helps students develop a strong world and life view is the best preparation a student leaving college can have. That is why they are funding scholarships.

“Henrietta has been talking about this for some time, and now seemed to be the right time,” says Douglas. But they stipulated that the awards are not to be based simply on high test scores. Teaching is an art that often demands an inborn sense, they believe.

“I had to manage GPAs for many years, but I hate them,” says Douglas, who believes that they do not allow for the biblical principal that people have differing levels of gifts, and that one’s responsibility is to use those gifts to the best of one’s ability. In addition, emphasis on GPA tempts students to sacrifice opportunities for learning to keep up their grade point average. “We believe everyone should do what they’re capable of and that different people function differently,” they say. They hope that the recipients of the Ribbens Elementary Teacher Education Scholarships will be people who will be wonderful teachers, curious and creative people who understand that teaching is an art and a joy.


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