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Altena spends a lifetime at Dordt

By Sally Jongsma

Dr. Syne Altena may be the only Dordt College faculty member who was born and raised in Sioux Center. He is one of the longest serving, too. Joining the faculty in 1967, he completed thirty-nine years as teacher and coach this spring.

Altena went to Dordt when it was a two-year institution, going on to earn a physical education major at Westmar College in LeMars, Iowa, twenty miles south of Sioux Center. None of the Reformed colleges closely related to the Christian Reformed Church in which he’d grown up offered a physical education major at that time, so he had his pick of jobs in Christian schools when he graduated. After teaching high school PE for five years and completing a master’s degree at Michigan State, he was drawn back to Dordt by his childhood pastor and then president, Rev. B.J. Haan, to help staff the new physical education major.

Altena taught primarily women’s PE courses in the nearly ten years before Title Nine required classes to become co-ed.

“There really wasn’t much difference in curriculum of the men’s and women’s classes,” says Altena, who favors co-ed classes. “Although there was a slightly different atmosphere in an all-women’s class, I think having co-ed classes gives men and women more respect for each other," he adds.

Over the course of his thirty-nine years, Altena has taught most of the courses in the department at one time or another, although he consistently taught methods and assessment courses. The exceptions are the “hard science” offerings like kinesiology and anatomy. He figures he has coached eighty-six teams at Dordt: eleven baseball, two cross-country, twenty-five junior varsity basketball, twenty-four men’s track, and twenty-four women’s track teams.

“I don’t remember the records so much as the experiences connected with coaching,” he says. Traveling with students to games and meets puts faculty and students in a different kind of environment and relationship. “Coach” becomes both a description and a term of respectful familiarity as students address their instructor.

In addition to traveling to games and meets, Altena took his teams on numerous spring break trips that combined competitions with service projects. Recalling spring break trips to Florida, Texas, and even Washington state also brings back memories of painting, cleaning, arguing over where to stop to eat, and much more.

“Sport isn’t just about winning,” Altena says, although he admits it’s important and exhilarating. “It’s about enjoying what you’re doing and doing it well.”

Altena says that teaching and coaching has changed in many ways since he began thirty-nine years ago. It has become much more scientific, more technical. Weights have replaced push-ups and sit-ups. Training strategies are more refined and training programs more disciplined. The same is true for teaching physical education.

Some people, today, are advocating heart rate monitors for every student at all levels of physical education. “Fitness has become more individually-focused today,” he says. Individual monitors are available that allow instructors to ensure that each student has his or her heart rate “in the training zone” for a specified period of time each class period. Such devices offer a safety net in a time when there is more variation in students’ physical fitness, due partly to the growing problem of obesity in our culture.

Looking back Altena notes the positive effect the college Recreation Center had on athletics, especially track, which has been his favorite sport to coach.

“Track athletes are so self-motivated, and they are often humble,” he says. “They have great respect for their opponents and often make friends with their top rivals.” He’s felt blessed to have been able to coach such athletes for thirty-nine years.