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Remembering Vern Ehlers

Aug 17, 2017

Former Congressman Vern Ehlers died the way he lived Tuesday night, with quiet dignity. If you are relatively new to Michigan or not from the Grand Rapids area, you may not have known of him, which is too bad. He was one of the most underappreciated members of Congress.

He was full of integrity, and as little a self-promoter as anyone elected to national office can be. He was also something else very rare in Congress – a research scientist with a PhD in physics. I first met him 15 years ago in Detroit, when the Fisher Theater was showing Copenhagen, a play about science, morality, and the decision to build the atom bomb.

That was in an era when we were worried that Saddam Hussein might be stockpiling chemical and biological weapons. Ehlers, who had built up the physics department at Calvin College before entering politics, was more worried we weren’t spending enough on science education, and were becoming a nation of scientific illiterates.

The play Copenhagen is about the moral dilemma when scientists are asked by governments to build weapons of mass destruction. Think of the nightmare world we might have had if Nazi Germany had built the A-bomb.

I asked Ehlers what would happen if any government, including ours, were to ask its scientists to build a new horrifying weapon that had no justification whatsoever.

Might they refuse? He thought for a few moments, and told me no. “Some might decline,” but in the end, he said, the weapon, no matter how terrible, would be built.

He told me that what bothered him more than laymen who don’t understand science was scientists who refuse to take part in public life. That’s why he first got involved. Not over the issue of nuclear proliferation, but over local waste management in Grand Rapids.

He ran for the Kent county commission so that he could do something about it. From there it was, almost by accident, on to the state legislature, and then to Congress in a special election in 1993, after Paul Henry tragically died of brain cancer.

Ehlers took over what was basically the seat former President Gerald Ford had held for a quarter-century. He could easily have stayed for life, but seven years ago, when he turned 76, he decided he’d had enough. He wanted to spend more time with his wife Johanna, their children and grandchildren. I understood, but was curiously sad. I could fill this essay with the names of members of Congress who should retire but don’t; he was one who left too soon.

He was a firm conservative on moral and most spending issues. But he was entirely rational. Every Republican member of Congress voted to support President George W. Bush’s plan for a new missile defense shield – except Ehlers. I asked him why.

He told me that as a physicist, he knew it wouldn’t work.

Every member of Michigan’s Congressional delegation, Republicans and Democrats, voted against higher fuel economy standards. Except Ehlers. He cared about the environment and knew they needed to be higher.

“Conservatives ought to remember their legacy of conservation, and that to be conservative means to conserve what is good,” he told me.

That’s why I was sad when he left. I wish there were more like him today.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.