Vern Ehlers believed in the cardinal rule of nature.
When students walked into the Calvin College dark room where Ehlers taught, they often ignored his laundry list of rules for keeping it clean and preventing chemical hazards. So, Ehlers, whose concern for people and the environment informed his commitment to regulations, decided to replace the 70-odd enumerated rules with just one: “Leave it better than you found it.”
From his commitment to his constituents to science, Ehlers left Michigan better than he found it. His is an example of deep concern for all people and their shared environment and bipartisan statesmanship that should inspire like-minded approaches in state and federal politics.
Ehlers, who died last week at age 83, served his Grand Rapids area district from 1993 to 2011. He possessed a deeply Christian understanding of the world that drove him to see it broadly, says Matthew Walhout, a physics professor at Calvin College working on an archival project of Ehlers’ life. He aimed to understand the world’s needs and find effective ways of filling them. And he stood firm in his conviction science could help.
“His faith wasn’t just about the soul being saved, but making the world a better place where everybody could thrive,” Walhout said. “I think he really felt a heavy responsibility along those lines.”
His views had an uncommon cohesion. When he talked about being pro-life, he meant he protected the un-born, the poor, the hungry, the needy, the prisoner and every little creature in nature, says Rick Treur, Ehlers’ former communication services director, of Congress’ first research physicist.
The nuclear physicist referred to himself as a bridge between policy-making and science because he understood the connection between his work as a scientist and legislator and his roles as researcher, professor, leader and servant.
“He would sometimes say, ‘It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be in Congress, but it does help,’ ” Treur says. Ehlers worked extensively preventing an Asian carp invasion of the Great Lakes and helped implement a statewide 911 calling system. Parents sent him dozens of thank you letters for his implementation of testing that detected metabolic illnesses at childbirth for early, one-time treatment.
After his death, politicians across the aisle offered condolences because in his life, he looked for common ground between parties, worked with both sides and never shied from voting against party bosses if he thought it was the right thing to do.
“People knew he was doing things for the right reasons, not for political gain,” Treur says. “It’s because he was fair, civil, a decent person who wanted the best for everybody.”
Politicians looking for an example of how to return civility and reasoned governing to Washington would be wise to follow Ehler’s example.