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Publish date: Nov 17, 2011

This article appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Champion magazine.

Retiring rivals

Hope and Calvin presidents Jim Bultman and Gaylen Byker remained true to alma maters

By Gary Brown

Perhaps it’s fitting that Hope and Calvin presidents Jim Bultman and Gaylen Byker are retiring in the same year. They both were student-athletes at the schools over which they would eventually preside. They’ve both been presidents at their institutions for about 15 years. They both married graduates from their alma maters. They’re both tried-and-true Division III guys.

Gaylen Byker (left) and Jim Bultman have deep ties to rival institutions as employees and alums.

And they’re both proud to call each other friends.

That might not come naturally for leaders of two schools separated by 30 miles, a few religious nuances and only 95 points over 179 games in men’s basketball. But for Bultman and Byker, they prefer that their schools’ storied rivalry be described as “heated,” not “hated.”

“To be sure, it is an intense rivalry but a respectful one,” said Bultman, who chairs the Division III Presidents Council through the 2012 Convention. “I never go into a Hope-Calvin game in any sport thinking that there’s going to be trouble. Do I worry about it with some other teams? Yes, but not with these two.”

Both men announced their retirements last spring. Bultman has been at Hope since 1999; Byker at Calvin since 1995. They’ll leave Division III with big shoes to fill, since both are quick to emphasize the value that participation in sports brings to the college experience. 

“I see athletics as an integral part of a comprehensive education,” Byker said. “Fitting those pieces together makes not only for an enhanced experience for the athlete but it keeps the academic activities and program as the primary function of being a student.”

The two presidents feel that way presently based on their pasts.

Jim Bultman bio

Position: President of Hope since 1999; chair of the Division III Presidents Council.

Previous positions: Head baseball coach at Hope from 1971 to 1985; assistant football coach from 1970 to 1984; president of Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, from 1985 to 1999. Bultman joined the Hope faculty in 1968, chaired the department of education from 1976 to 1982 and was dean of the social sciences from 1982 until 1985.

Education: Graduated from Hope in 1963 with a major in chemistry. He holds a master’s degree and doctorate in educational leadership from Western Michigan.

Family: Married to Martie (a special education teacher and 1963 Hope graduate) and father to two children and grandfather of five.

What you didn’t know: Bultman is not a fan of “gimmickry” in the rivalry with Calvin. “That’s because early in my time at Hope I agreed with Peter Mitchell, then president at Albion, that if we won in football, he would wear a Dutch Boy costume, and if they won, I would wear the band uniform with the plume hat (Albion’s nickname is the Britons). All I could think of that whole week was how comical Peter was going to look in that Dutch Boy costume. But it was only about halftime when I realized that I’d be wearing the band uniform.”

Bultman actually wanted to have his integrated athletics experience at Calvin but chose Hope because of its football program (Calvin is bereft of one, which Bultman quipped he would change if he were there). Now he and his wife, Martie, have been physically present on the Hope campus for at least parts of the past seven decades.

Byker, meanwhile, enrolled at Calvin but left after six weeks to follow his father’s footsteps in the military. Byker was commissioned at age 19 and served in Vietnam. He came back to Calvin (as his father had done after his service stint) in January of 1970, just months before the shootings at Kent State further divided the country. 

Byker hit the books and the mats, joining the wrestling team even though he hadn’t grappled in high school. He would eventually captain the Calvin squad.

Bultman was a captain, too, both in football and baseball. “People always asked me which I liked better, and I’d say, ‘In the fall I like football better, and in the spring I like baseball better,’ ” he said.

Leadership was in their futures, too.

Bultman earned his presidential stripes at NAIA Northwestern College in Iowa, where he served from 1985 to 1999. Northwestern, like Hope, is one of three colleges with ties to the Reformed Church in America.

Calvin is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, which split from the Reformed Church in America in the 1850s (though the two denominations retain similar beliefs and theology). That only adds to the intrigue of the Hope-Calvin rivalry.

Even Bultman had to reconcile his religious affiliation when he went to Hope as a student. He grew up in the Christian Reformed Church and remained as a member through his student days and into his teaching and coaching career at Hope. That is, until one fateful Saturday when Calvin’s Knights swept a Bultman-coached Flying Dutchmen team in a twin bill.

Gaylen Byker bio

Position: President of Calvin since 1995.

Previous positions: Vice president for development and hedging with the Offshore Energy Development Corporation in Houston; manager of commodity-indexed swaps and financing for Chase (Manhattan) Investment Bank in New York; also practiced law. 

Education: Graduated from Calvin in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree with concentrations in philosophy, English, political science and speech, and a minor in Russian language. Byker earned a law degree and a master’s in world politics at Michigan and a Ph.D. in international relations at Pennsylvania.

Family: Married to Susan (a teacher and 1971 Calvin graduate) and father to two daughters. 

What you didn’t know: Byker initially enrolled at Calvin in the fall of 1966 but withdrew after six weeks, knowing that he most likely would be drafted into the Army. In spring 1967, he entered the Army, earned a commission at the age of 19 and served as an artillery officer in Washington state and Vietnam, where he supervised 90 enlisted men in combat situations and was repeatedly decorated. He was discharged with the rank of captain and returned to study at Calvin in January 1970.

“I went to church the next morning and the collection happened to be for Calvin College,” Bultman said. “And on the way home I said to Martie, ‘This is too much. Maybe it’s a good time to switch to the Reformed Church in America.’ ”

Byker also prepped for his presidency outside his home base. After graduating from Calvin, he went on to earn law and master’s degrees at Michigan and a Ph.D. in international relations at Pennsylvania. He taught and did research at the American University in Beirut before returning to the U.S. as an investment banker in New York. Byker then helped build a successful natural gas company in Houston before being lured back to the Grand Rapids campus in 1995.

“When the search committee called me, I started thinking about what it meant to take these skills and experiences and apply them to higher education,” Byker said. “As it turns out, you’re going to use all of those things every day. There’s a legal and a financial and an academic component to almost everything we do.”

What both men always have considered as their No. 1 goal, though, is to provide the best possible experience for their students. That means this year will be no different from the rest, even though it will be their last at their respective helms.

“I’m not big on celebrations,” Byker said. “Obviously, the better job you do in your last year, the better you leave your successor to take the college to the next level.”

Bultman said, “I suppose people might think we could coast through this last year, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case. Rather, we know that the students at our institutions have one time to go through college, and we need to make it the best for them that it can be – that’s our motivation every year.”