News - Calling: Humble Beginning, Grand Design

Calling: Humble Beginning, Grand Design

By Carla Morris


Grand Valley State University serves more than 25,000 students at multiple locations including its 1300-acre campus just outside of Grand Rapids. Here is the story of the humble prayer from a college student 400 miles away that influenced the birth of GVSU.

Zelda Hannum Sr Picture“Come to my office!” called Dr. Quall from the back steps of Hogue Hall. Senior Zelda Hannum looked up from Scott field as she headed to her Thursday gym class that December morning.

“I will after class!” she called back.

When they connected later, Quall told Zelda that he had recommended her for a teaching position in Coopersville, Michigan. The two-year contract began in just a few weeks on January 1, 1951.

“I was to meet Superintendent Al Robinson that Saturday in Chicago to sign the contract,” Zelda recalled years later.

With Regrets

The opportunity seemed tailored for Zelda. The split position called for an instructor in physical education who could also serve as a guidance counselor.

Zelda Hannum-Speed Ball Champs

Zelda (pictured as a GC sophomore above, front row, far left) double-majored in physical education and counseling. The prospect was a treasure, but she could not see past looming obstacles:

  • She was still student teaching and did not yet have a teaching certificate.
  • She had promised to fill in for a teacher on campus who would soon take maternity leave.
  • She had no money for travel.

“I sent a letter with my regrets,” she said.

Mysterious Burden

January came and went . . . then February and March. With graduation on the horizon, Zelda pursued a position teaching physical education to the girls of military families in Japan.

“All the papers were in order,” she recalled. “All the envelope needed was extra postage, which required a trip to the downtown post office.”

Still, she felt unsettled. The distress drove her to prayer. She knelt at her bedside one Wednesday night and confessed, “Lord, I just don’t understand the meaning of this heavy burden."

Then she experienced what she later called “the shock of my life.” A voice startled her with these words, “I want you in Coopersville, Michigan.”

Zelda was clearly alone.

“I don’t know if the voice could have been audible to anyone else,” she later reflected, “but it was real to me.”

Same Offer, Second Chance

Two days later, Superintendent Robinson called Zelda and repeated the district’s offer. “I have a contract in my hand with your name on it, signed by the Board of Education,” he said. “All it needs is your signature . . . I’ll be in Dr. Quall’s office at 9:00 a.m. Monday morning. You are my first appointment.”

“There was no way that I was not going to sign that contract,” said Zelda. “I read the contract, and, as I expected, it would be a challenge."

A line at the very bottom referred to plans for expanding the Coopersville offerings to include a junior college. I signed the paper and handed it back to Mr. Robinson, who promptly asked, “Did you read the bottom line?”

“Yes sir, I did,” I replied. “I don’t know how to do it, but there will be a way.”

In addition to assuming a full load of teaching, counseling duties and extra-curricular responsibilities, the new graduate was tasked with developing plans for a junior college.

Challenge Upon Challenge

“When I arrived in Coopersville in late August, I learned that the Board expected a progress report each month,” she recalled, “with a final plan due on the anniversary date of the contract.”

As Zelda assessed resources, the challenges seemed to multiply. Housing developments had claimed every plot of open land in the area. A post-war population boom left every school building overcrowded. Other buildings were also pressed into service as classrooms—churches, the American Legion, private homes that bordered the school grounds, and even the superintendent’s basement.

Continual annexations drew 36 school districts under the Coopersville umbrella. To accommodate, Coopersville maintained a fleet of 50 buses—an important resource, Zelda would later discover.

As each month slipped into the next, four persisting questions filled Zelda’s prayers:

  • Where do I get money?
  • Where do I get land?
  • Where do I get classrooms and buildings with facilities?
  • Where do I get a staff? (“There wasn’t a PhD in town.”)

Her monthly reports to the Board boiled down to four words: “I’m working on it.”

God's Provides

On the Friday before she would deliver her final report, Zelda prayed at her kitchen table. This time, the answers to her questions came all at once in a flood.

“[God] reminded me that Grand Rapids had a junior college just 15 miles to the East; Muskeqan had a junior college about 16 miles to the West. To add a junior college in Coopersville would put a junior college every 15 miles.”

But, what if the planned college were not a junior college, but a four-year college—a commuter four-year college that accommodated all these students? In that prayerful moment, the fog cleared and she received the plan:

  1. Instruct your board to send a committee to the state capitol at Lansing and ask for a permit to start a four-year college, a commuter college with no dormitories.
  2. Ask for land, staff, buildings and financing.
  3. Tell them that you want the college on the Allendale portion of your school district on State Route 45.
  4. Explain that you want to start with the freshman class and add a class each year until there is a graduating class the fourth year.
  5. Tell the Coopersville Board that you need the committee yesterday.

By Zelda’s later written account (undated), the state granted all of the Board’s requests.


In Retrospect

Zelda concluded her tale with this observation: “Now there are Grand Valley Campuses in Grand Rapids, Holland, Muskegan, and Saginaw. Three years ago Grand Valley State University had the highest enrollment of any state university in the State of Michigan. There are now acres and acres of housing accommodations on campus.”

Zelda’s husband Earl graduated from Grand Valley, as did her granddaughter Samantha. Three of her children took advanced classes there as well.

“I live about three miles from Allendale,” she reflected, “and often as I cross the campus, I shed a tear or two of gratitude for God’s blessings.”

Zelda Hannum Spoors passed away in December 2013 at age 84. She was the first woman to graduate from Greenville College with a degree in physical education. She went on to earn two masters degrees and a substance abuse certificate from Western Michigan University. A former student of Zelda’s recalled her as a “no nonsense teacher whose smile and personality came through.” Perhaps it was this quality that prompted Dr. Quall to recommend Zelda for the job in the first place.  

Tagline Inspired-sm

Photo of GVSU Lake Michigan Hall by Demhem.

This story was published on September 15, 2016

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