Former Michigan congressman Vern Ehlers dies at 83

Melissa Nann Burke, and Jonathan Oosting

Vern Ehlers, who championed the Great Lakes and scientific research and education while representing west Michigan during 17 years in Congress, died Tuesday night in Grand Rapids at age 83.

Ehlers’ death was confirmed by the Zaagman Memorial Chapel in Grand Rapids, which is handling arrangements. No cause of death was immediately available.

Ehlers, a moderate Republican who held the congressional seat once occupied by Gerald Ford, won a special election in late 1993 after Rep. Paul Henry died. He served in Congress until 2011.

Ehlers, who held a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, was known for championing money to clean up Great Lakes pollution, and for promoting scientific research and efforts to improve math and science education.

He had been in declining health over the past year, according to longtime chief of staff Bill McBride, who said his former boss’ death was sad but not unexpected.

“He was one of the finest public servants we’ve seen in the last few decades,” said McBride, who was Ehler’s right-hand man for 16 years and is now director of the state’s Washington, D.C., office under Gov. Rick Snyder.

“He just embodied the right approach to doing things and getting things done. I think that’s missing in the environment we’re in today.”

Ehlers served on science, education, transportation and House administration committees in Congress. A nuclear physicist, he was particularly passionate about science and science education, McBride said.

“He was talking about STEM before STEM was a cool thing to talk about,” McBride said, referencing a growing focus on science, technology, engineering and math education. “Now everybody’s talking about it. He really opened the door on that.”

Ehlers also was passionate about west Michigan, McBride said.

“He loved his district. He loved the people there, and he really enjoyed representing them. I think he embodied the values of west Michigan.”

Other Michigan political figures paid tribute Wednesday to Ehlers, including his successor in Congress, Rep. Justin Amash, a conservative Republican known for his libertarian leanings.

“Vern served our community with honor and did his best to represent everyone,” Amash tweeted. “My condolences to his loved ones. May his memory be eternal.”

In a statement, Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, praised Ehlers as a “common-sense” leader.

“He was so well respected on both sides of the aisle, hard-working, and always a teacher at heart,” Upton said. “He committed his life to the service of others – ensuring our students were well prepared for careers in math and science and raising awareness for protecting our environment and Great Lakes.”

In a statement, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser called Ehlers “an outstanding statesman.”

“Vern Ehlers was an incredible man who served our state with distinction,” Weiser said. “He will be missed.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, tweeted that she was “Saddened by the passing of my former colleague Vern Ehlers. He was respected on both sides of the aisle and represented W MI w/ distinction.”

Also on Twitter, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said, “Vern Ehlers was a gentleman and a statesman. He was 83 and his life of service made a big difference.”

Announcing his retirement in February 2010, Ehlers said he didn’t want to get stale and hoped to give a Republican a better shot at keeping the seat after congressional redistricting.

“It was a very difficult decision,” he said. “But I have some sympathy for the idea that people shouldn’t stay too long in Congress.”

Ehlers was born Feb. 6, 1934, in Pipestone, Minnesota.

Before entering politics, he taught and did research for six years at the University of California at Berkeley and was a physics professor at Calvin College for 16 years.

Ehlers served as a Kent County commissioner, state representative and state senator before his election to Congress.

He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Johanna Meulink; four children, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Services will be at 3 p.m. Thursday at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, 514 Eastern Ave. SE, Grand Rapids. Visitation will be at the church from 7-9 p.m. Tuesday and 4-6 p.m. Wednesday.