John Dersch reflects on the life of his friend and colleague, Ron Boelema

Ron’s original career path, engineering, began at GRJC in 1958 with fellow student Dave Steinfort. He had the legendary instructors Theodora Quick and Alma Seegmiller for his “pre-calculus” work, then took Seegmiller, James Shew or Dick Chesnutt for Calc 1 and 2; in those days first-year Calculus was taught at the sophomore level.

The math bug must have bitten Ron pretty hard, because when he left Western Michigan University in 1962, he began his mathematics teaching career at Jackson Park Intermediate School in Rogers Heights (now a part of Wyoming).

Several years in the classroom and a graduate degree later, he accepted a position teaching math at South High School, Gerald R. Ford’s alma mater. There he met fellow math teacher Roger Papke; Ron was over six feet tall, Roger was more than a foot shorter, so they were known as “Mutt and Jeff” (youngsters can Google it). Many years later Roger was an adjunct at GRCC.

Ron’s career at South was short-lived, as it closed in 1968. He needed another job, heard that GRJC was hiring a math instructor, and headed to campus, which then consisted of the Main Building, East Building (currently the Music Building), and West Building (now Kendall College) for more information.

He spoke directly with the dean of the College, Francis McCarthy. McCarthy said, “Yes, it’s a math position, but what we’re really looking for is someone who knows about computers and computer programming. We have a new course, Ma 120 Fortran Programming, but the instructor who created it (Tom Worthington) doesn’t want to teach it.”

Ron, who knew nothing about computers, said “Sure, I can do that!” and he was hired a few days later. Thus began his 25-year career at GRJC/CC.

Ron taught Ma 120, later Ma 121, until he retired. He also taught Ma 125 Basic Programming (later Co 125) starting in 1980, and Co 225 Advanced Basic Programming in 1983, and probably created both of these courses. And, of course, he also taught a lot of math, including MA 003 (now 097), 104 (098), 107, 108 and 110.

The college was a different place back then. Ron was one of only seven full-time math faculty, and there were, at most, a couple of math adjunct who only taught night classes.

Several of the math faculty had taught, and maybe even still taught, physics; most physics faculty also taught some math. Most faculty offices were in the Main Building, meaning different disciplines were very close together and interdisciplinary camaraderie was a natural by-product.

Dick Bezile, hired in 1968 to teach Psychology, had an office near Ron’s. They became good friends, liked basketball, and formed a faculty basketball team that competed against the student intramural teams. Math instructor Bob Engelman was a team member.

Ron was outgoing, loved a good time, loved his students, and was a popular instructor. He was also very kind. He taught tremendous amounts of overload and made a lot of money (for a math instructor), which he put to good use in various ways, some of which impacted students directly. This includes the Ronald J. Boelema Mathematics Scholarship, which has benefitted dozens of students over the past 25+ years. He was also known to assist students financially using less formal avenues.

I met Ron Jan. 8, 1987, at the opening day of JC’s winter semester. In December I had resigned from my community college teaching position in Springfield, Ill. As my first full-timer semester at GRJC began, Mary and our son Josh would still be living in Springfield, and I would be staying with my parents in the GR area during the week, driving back to Springfield on weekends.

Ron knew this, and he somehow found out that there would be four weeks between my last Springfield paycheck and my first JC paycheck. He stopped me Friday, Jan. 9 as I was leaving to go home, and asked “You all right? Do you need any money? Just let me know.”

That was Ron. You will be missed, my friend, by many faculty and many, many students.

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