The Voice: Spring 2003

The Voice

Who was Harry Kuhl?

Many faculty children in the 70s and 80s found the Kuhl farm a wonderful place to play.  And they all had a good time helping Mr. Kuhl.

Harry Kuhl had many connections to Dordt College, but in a community where the majority of people belonged to either a Reformed Church in America congregation or a Christian Reformed one, his loyalties were sometimes divided. Harry attended a “Reformed” congregation and Dordt College is closely associated with the Christian Reformed Church. In the end he supported both in his will. Although his estate went to his church and its local college, Northwestern in Orange City, he stipulated that Dordt College be able to buy his property at what was a bargain price.

“He had always led us to believe that we would get the land someday, but he didn’t tell us exactly how,” says Bernie De Wit, the former vice president for business affairs who dealt with Kuhl for years.

This recent purchase of the Kuhl farm was not the first time Dordt and Kuhl had done business. Although the founders of Dordt College purchased the original property from a small mink farm on the corner of Seventh Street and Fourth Avenue, Kuhl’s property lay directly to the east of the land upon which the first buildings were built.
Mr. Kuhl on his tractor.

“Harry used to farm right around the classroom building,” says De Wit. In fact, he was known to wave to students sitting in class as he went by on his tractor.

As enrollment climbed and Dordt College needed to add facilities, the college went to Kuhl to purchase more land. He sold ten-acre plots to the college twice, says Arlan Nederhoff, current vice president for business affairs. Most of the college’s buildings from the science building east were built on former Kuhl property.

“We owe the Kuhls a debt of gratitude for providing much of the ground in the center of campus,” Nederhoff says. Each sale was made very agreeably and at reasonable prices, with low interest rates and flexible payment schedules.

“We visited him every year as we delivered these payments,” says De Wit.     

“We wanted to make sure he knew we were interested in buying his property someday,” adds former president, Dr. John Hulst, who also came to know Kuhl well. “Dordt was landlocked. We knew that, and he knew that.” Over the years a relationship developed, and Kuhl came to appreciate the fact that Hulst and De Wit shared his view of the land as more than just something to sell or build on. The Kuhl farm had been in the family for over a century, but the Kuhls didn’t have any children. And although he did not stipulate how Dordt College should use the land, Kuhl did make it clear that he appreciated the fact that Dordt saw it from a stewardship and ecological point of view and would not allow it to be turned into lots for housing, says Hulst.

An avid basketball fan, Kuhl also strengthened his ties to Dordt College by attending basketball games. For years, he pushed his disabled wife in her wheelchair to the same spot in the corner of the gymnasium, and they sat and enjoyed the weekly games.

De Wit’s and Hulst’s visits and basketball games were not Kuhl’s only Dordt College connection. During the seventies and eighties the most regular contacts were with the children of faculty families who lived nearby.

“The kids would jump on their bikes and race to Mr. Kuhl’s as fast as they could after school so they wouldn’t miss helping out with chores,” says Susan Van Dyk, who lived next door to the Kuhls for years and served as executor for the estate. Her husband, John, has taught at Dordt College since 1966. The barn, the meadow, and the waterway that flows through the property provided hours of entertainment for children from a half dozen Dordt faculty families. In fact, it was the children who initiated a big surprise party in the barn for Harry Kuhl’s sixtieth birthday in the late seventies.

“The Kuhls became part of the bigger Dordt family,” says Hulst. In the early nineties, Dordt College put together a proposal for establishing a “life estate” for the Kuhls that would preserve their century farm and the grove/waterway area, give them possession of the house and buildings as long as they lived, pay them an annual income, and, upon their death, pay cash gifts to any organizations they wished. Kuhl, being pressed by several organizations at the time, decided he did not want to talk about what would happen to his property any more.

“You’ll find out in my will,” he told several people. Yet he always assured us he thought we’d be happy with his decision, says De Wit.

Hulst, who continued to visit him occasionally even after leaving the presidency, says he is convinced that part of the reason Kuhl made the provision he did in his will was because he felt Dordt College would value the land as he did, as a gift of God to steward and care for. He knew some people wanted to buy his land for housing development. But he saw proposals for different use of the land from people in the Dordt College biology department. And he read a senior biology project proposal done by Wendy Van Dyk, daughter of Susan and John, when she was a student, that listed the hundreds of different birds, insects, and plants that had lived or were living on the farm and described how the property could be integrated into the Dordt College campus and curriculum.

Dr. Carl Zylstra, current president, says that although Kuhl specifically did not want to stipulate how Dordt College should use the land, in one of his last visits with Zylstra, Kuhl talked again about not wanting his land to turn into a housing development.

“It was an important place for him, and the farm was in his family for over 100 years. We need to respect that,” he says.