Harper’s Unsung Heroes

September 2023

Written by Gale Fischer

Called to Serve

“The meaning of life is to help others find meaning in their lives”

—- Viktor E. Frankl

Many occupations provide daily opportunities to serve others. Police officers, firefighters, and nurses are just a few examples of individuals who spend every day making a difference in the lives of fellow men. Teachers fall into this category as well but one can serve others in almost any career. This month’s Harper Unsung Hero Ewald Heersema has spent his adult life trying to help those around him while working in careers not often thought of as being a part of the service industry. Ewald’s journey that has led him to Harper Creek Schools is perhaps one of the most unique among our staff. 

Ewald’s story begins more than sixty years on the other side of the pond. He was born in the Netherlands in 1960, growing up with experiences both similar and different to those growing up here in Battle Creek at the same time. Ewald reflected on his years of schooling as a young Dutch boy. “The format of public education in my home country included six years of primary schooling followed by four years of high school.” The structure of high school was different from here in the States. “At the time that I was growing up, each student could either go to high school for four, five, or six years. After four years students would graduate with a high school diploma. Going an extra year after receiving a diploma, individuals could further their education in middle technician school (MTS). After the first year of high school, each student would be tracked to either of the paths. From MTS the next step was going to a university.” 

In Ewald’s native land football, also known as soccer here, was the most popular participation sport among children as well as the most watched sport for children and adults. Due to issues with his lungs as a child, Ewald did not participate in football and was unable to be active like many of his peers. Like many in his country, he enjoyed watching football.  Ewald summarizes other details about growing up in the Netherlands. “I grew up in Harderwijk which is in the middle of the country. The Netherlands is small and densely populated. We had four seasons and the weather was similar to Seattle. Water management has always been important because much of the country is below sea level. The Netherlands is known for windmills but most people don’t know that the function of the windmills is to pump water out of the living areas.” 

Diet was somewhat different for Ewald as a child than what he is accustomed to now. “There were no fast food restaurants in my homeland growing up although they are common now. Our meals were primarily vegetables and potatoes with no meat. There just wasn’t meat available although we did eat a lot of fish. Fishing was a big industry.”

Ewald was raised in a family that is typical of the size of families here in the United States. “I am the oldest of three. We were all born at home which is common practice in the Netherlands. Like many youths in his homeland and our community, Ewald worked as a teenager. “ My father was in the steel industry. I had worked there during the summers as a teenager and fell in love with the smell of steel.” 

As a young student, Ewald’s skill set aligned with becoming a mechanical engineer. He continued after high school in middle technician school with a plan on furthering his education from there but was done with school after a year of MTS. Ewald was a hands-on guy and continuing with education just didn’t feel right. Ewald talks about the interests he pursued as a young adult. “I had always had an interest in photography so I went to work at a photo shop. I worked there for nine months and decided to pursue another career path with Dutch Passenger Railroads.” Ewald had aspirations of becoming a train engineer. “Part of the hiring process to become a train engineer was an evaluation with a psychologist." Jumping in front of trains had become a common form of suicide in the Netherlands and the psychological evaluation was a way to ensure that train drivers could deal with this type of situation if it were to happen to them. Ewald did not pass the evaluation and took a job selling tickets. Ewald worked selling tickets for a year and a half, eventually moving to the States. 

Ewald’s future wife, Peggy, a Coldwater native, spent six months in the Netherlands in 1979 for a Work Experience Abroad opportunity after graduating from MSU with a degree in veterinary medicine. Ewald recalls this period of transition in his life. “When Peggy came to the Netherlands she stayed with a family who attended the same church that I attended. After meeting at church we began dating. When Peggy finished her work experience in December of 1979, in doing research for cattle feed, she went back to the states. We continued dating and stayed in contact. I came to Coldwater to visit in April of 1980. I was here for a month. Before I returned to the Netherlands we were engaged.” 

Marriage is always a major life transition but Ewald would face perhaps a bigger transition in moving from the country he had spent all of his life in and taking up residence in a foreign nation. “Peggy came over to the Netherlands for our wedding. Because I had decided to come live in the States, Peggy's parents thought that it would be easier for my family to have the wedding in the Netherlands. The support that Peggy’s parents provided for me after I had just met them has become a common theme and something that I am always grateful for. Peggy and I were married July 4, 1980.”

Ewald and Peggy would have to stay in the Netherlands for a short period after being married before making the permanent move to Michigan. “After marrying Peggy, and becoming a spouse of an American citizen, I could apply for citizenship. We stayed in the Netherlands for three months until my citizenship was approved and then we moved to Coldwater.”  Peggy and Ewald enjoyed a few years as a married couple before starting a family. “Peggy and I have been blessed with two boys. Joshua was born in 1984 and Jared was born in 1988. We moved to East Leroy in 1987. They went through Harper Creek Schools and graduated from there. Both still live in the area.” 

After moving to Michigan, Ewald and Peggy quickly transitioned to their new lives as a young married couple. “Peggy began working for a veterinarian in the area. I found a job immediately at Voltek, a company in Coldwater. Voltek is a foam manufacturer. I started out loading trucks for Voltek. I loaded trucks for a month and then was moved to one of the production areas. Eventually, I moved up to being a technical sales manager, working in sales for four years. I worked for Voltek for eleven years before moving on to another company in 1991.” 

After leaving Voltek in 1991, Ewald continued working in sales with another company. “I began working for Zotefoams out of the UK. They had a sales office in New Jersey. I worked out of my house doing sales for Zotefoams. I traveled all over the states working with existing customers and finding new customers. I worked there until 2017 and then retired.” 

After retiring from Zotefoams Ewald continued working in the sales industry but on a much reduced work schedule. “I started my own consulting company after retiring. It is called Foam Consultants. I spend about six hours a week doing this.”

With his consulting company requiring minimal hours of work each week, Ewald has found other ways to keep himself busy. Ewald reflected on how his desire to give back fits into his past, present, and future. “Peggy and I both have always been focused on service. I became an ordained pastor in 1985. I am a pastor at the New Apostolic Church in Portage.” Being involved with the New Apostolic Church has helped Ewald keep a connection with his homeland and his childhood with this being the denomination that he and his family attended growing up. Ewald has continued to serve his community in other ways. “Peggy and I also run a food pantry out of our church. We have been doing this for a few years.”

Without a full-time job to occupy his time, Ewald recently found an opportunity to fill a void with Harper Creek. “Last January I began to feel that I had too much time on my hands. I had seen that Harper Creek needed bus drivers. My boys had attended school at Harper Creek from kindergarten on through graduation which gave me a connection to the district. I thought that this was a good way to give back to my community. I thought it might be fun.”  Ewald has found that his time spent as a bus driver has been a great source of fulfillment. “The interaction with students is interesting. I am grateful that I can pick them up and drop them off at home safely. I feel blessed to invest in our youth. Providing a secure way to get to and from school is a way I can be a part of this.”  Ewald chuckled as he spoke about how his desire to work as a train engineer has panned out to some degree with this recent opportunity to transport a busload of school kids to and from their destination daily.

The time that was dedicated to being a pastor, running a food pantry, and driving a school bus illustrates an obvious link to serving others but Ewald has felt this calling throughout his adult life. “I have always wanted to help and serve people. This was my philosophy when in sales with my drive to add this element to my customers through the support that I have been able to provide and I have carried this philosophy to Harper Creek as a bus driver”

 

Ewald’s journey that led him to Battle Creek and now to our school district is unique among our Harper Creek family, but his take on life and how he lives by this philosophy is very much a common theme among our giving staff. This commitment to make a difference one student and one interaction at a time is seen from teachers, bus drivers, and all roles played out by our co-workers. 

 

Gale Fischer has spent most of his career as a special education teacher for Wattles Park Elementary dating back to 2001. He is an avid runner and began writing the stories of local runners twelve years ago. Many of these stories have appeared in the Battle Creek Shopper and the Battle Creek Scene Magazine. Recently he started capturing the stories of Harper Creek staff members. His column, Harper Unsung Heroes, features a different staff member each month . He believes that everyone has a story that can inspire others.

Harper's Unsung Hero - Ewald Heersema

Ewald was born and raised on the other side of the pond. His life experiences eventually led him to our bus garage. As a young adult he fell  in love with a Michigan girl and followed her across the Atlantic Ocean. His story that has led him to driving our students to school and back home each day in his retirement, is one I’m sure you’ll find interesting.

Harper Creek Middle School Teacher Grant Recipient

HCMS STEM teacher received the Guido A. and Elizabeth Binda Foundation, coordinated by the Calhoun Intermediate School District.

Harper's Unsung Hero - Justin King

Justin was born and raised in Small Town Michigan. He and his siblings enjoyed spending much of their free time exploring outdoors. Athletics was a big part of his high school experience and the support his teams received from the community added to the excitement. He knew early on that he wanted to spend his life helping others. His career in public safety eventually led him to Harper Creek.