Saturday, December 21, 2019
1:30 PM to 3:00 PM EST
Calvin Christian Reformed Church
Saturday, December 21, 2019
3:00 PM EST
Calvin Christian Reformed Church
700 Ethel Street SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49506
At the family's request memorial contributions are to be made to those listed below. Please forward payment directly to the memorial of your choice.
Global Gifts c/o Calvin CRC
700 Ethel Ave SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49506
Below is the contact information for a florist recommended by the funeral home.
Life Story / Obituary
Al Bratt never sought the spotlight. He was dignified with an intellectual curiosity mixed well with dry humor and insight. He guided his beliefs with reason and never believed something simply because he was told to. Al lived by the words on a plaque in his bathroom, “Dear Lord, please help me keep my big mouth shut until I know what I’m talking about.” A steadfast husband, father, grandfather, and friend, not everyone understood his quiet ways packaged in his tall frame. His family and friends did and would have had him no other way. A well-delivered Al Bratt one-liner was one of life’s great pleasures, as were his quiet insights. Sometimes all he needed to do was raise an eyebrow.
The obvious gloom of the Great Depression was in many ways a natural fit for the Dutch Reformed, who took naturally to persevering in the face of adversity and the daily task of putting one foot in front of the other to build a better future. This hope and perseverance continued in the Bozeman, Montana home of Albert and Anna (Visser) Bratt as they welcomed their son Al into their family on April 2, 1933.
Born in the shadows of an infant brother’s and young sister’s respective deaths in the years prior to his birth, Al grew up an only child of a minister in the Christian Reformed Church,. He remembers his father as a reserved man but who would cry each month when the installment payment arrived in the mail for the funeral plot for the little six year old girl his parents had buried in North Dakota. The parents who survived this grief were older, sadder. Al spent his earliest years in the small town of Manhattan, Montana where he enjoyed all the typical small-town pleasures of his era - rabbit hunting, swimming in drainage ditches, watching heat lightning. Al also listened to radio broadcasts at night in bed with the covers pulled over his head and looked on a map to locate the stations. There was a world out there he wanted to explore.
Under the microscope of “minister’s son,” Al’s father felt he had to be strict as a good example to his congregation. One time Al and his mother, who softened the sometimes harsh ways of his world, were found out after sneaking to see a movie, probably “Lassie Come Home” or something similarly worldly. His family had little money, but his father found enough for a YMCA membership to channel young Al in more wholesome directions. His father’s calling required the family to relocate often, which resulted in both good and bad experiences for “the new kid.” Bad experiences involved an inexplicable ritual called “Initiation”, which involved a welcoming committee of one boy sent to punch the new kid after school. Over the years, the family lived in Edmonton, Alberta, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Hollandale, Minnesota, and eventually, Doon, Iowa. The move from Hollandale to Doon was a hard one. His high school in Minnesota had a great choir, a thriving school newspaper that he joined, and a football team that was interested in him due to his height. Doon was a distant second and involved unheated school busses rattling down dirt roads in the Iowa winter to a spartan school with a mimeographed school newsletter that focused on who was wearing whose class ring that week. Yet there he met a lifelong friend and enjoyed reunions with his close knit high school class.
Like many of his generation Al grew up in the shadow of the war and was fascinated by the stories of the returning servicemen. He wanted to fly and considered enlisting in the Air Force. His poor eyesight and height would have kept him from being a pilot, but he was always fascinated with airplanes and military history and over the years he built an extensive collection that would rival most libraries.
After graduating from high school, Al attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fate dealt a painful blow when his mother died while he was in his freshman year. She was a kind and gentle woman and they were close. To help support himself during these college years, Al worked as an orderly at Butterworth Hospital.
Through a friend who also worked at Butterworth, Al was set up on a blind date with Marilyn DeGraaf. Following their first date, to a movie at the Majestic Theater, it didn’t take long for the pair to become a couple setting their eyes on a future together. They married on September 7, 1955, in a ceremony at Creston Christian Reformed Church. Al was absorbed into Marilyn’s tight knit family of six siblings. The newlyweds honeymooned to Colorado before settling into their first home in Lansing, where Al earned his master’s degree at Michigan State University.
While in Lansing, Al and Marilyn welcomed their first child, daughter Deb. As he and Marilyn settled into family life, they made several good friends. They survived on a shoestring budget, living on powdered milk, ground hamburger, no telephone, and Al hitchhiking home to save gas money. Marilyn worked to support him until the day before Deb was born.
Al and Marilyn returned to Grand Rapids where Al started teaching at Calvin College in the Biology Department, and where their family grew to include another daughter, Linda. Calvin made it clear that an Ivy League Ph.D. was required and the family moved to Ithaca, New York where Al earned his Ph.D. at Cornell. While Al enjoyed the intellectual challenge of his degree work, he especially enjoyed the diverse group new friends they made, their good conversations, and the different points of view each brought with them. This bigger view of the world stayed with him for the rest of his life. A naturally curious intellectual, Al was always open to hearing people’s ideas and learning more about what lead to their perspectives. Al and Marilyn loved exploring upstate New York on the weekends with their young girls, as well as their close circle of friends, university life and culture, and the glimpse of the big world it offered. Just before Al finished his degree at Cornell, he and Marilyn welcomed daughter Pam into their family.
The move away from his life in Ithaca was difficult, but family was in Grand Rapids. With his doctorate degree in hand, Al and Marilyn came home to his position in the Biology Department at Calvin College, where he taught for 39 years. Passionate about insects and later marine biology, Al really enjoyed teaching students who were eager to learn. He had a strong empathy for shy, quiet students with curiosity and loved to encourage them and hear what they did after leaving Calvin. Some of his students later came to join the biology department faculty. He had little patience for the dogma of some of his early years, when his employer tried to tell the professors that children of the covenant did not vote for JFK. “This child of the covenant is going to,” he answered. He was called in by the administration for being seen buying a missing newspaper from the corner drug store on a Sunday. He tried to raise his kids with a different approach. We found out years later after talking to the family of another biology professor that he and Al would sometimes sneak off on a Friday afternoon to see the movies their wives had no interest in seeing. He taught his family helpful facts like, “Spiders are our friends. They eat other bugs.” If he said he was bringing home a great surprise, it might be a praying mantis. He had a pet tarantula named Gladys he kept in his lab. Under her cage is where he kept spare keys. No one ever seemed to rummage around under there.
Not long after he settled into his tenure at Calvin, he and Marilyn completed their family when their son Dirk was born. The family made their home on Giddings Street for many years. Al was a quiet father. Not one for chit chat, he was content to observe. While he was not the type to initiate a game or activity, he encouraged and engaged in his kids’ interests, especially music and science. His dry sense of humor occasionally snuck in his serious delivery and it was easy for his kids to believe everything he said. No, he did not have a pet wolf named Fang when he was a boy, we learned later, but his children mostly believed it and kind of missed Fang later when they found out.
Al was a voracious reader and seemed to always have a book, magazine, or newspaper in his hand. Every evening was spent preparing his lectures for the next day – often while sitting on the floor at the base of the living room steps on the heat register. A natural night owl, Al often used the quiet late-night hours to strategize his latest project. He found great pleasure in conquering home projects and did almost everything himself, whether it be necessary repairs, home improvements, or maintenance. He painted one side of his house each summer, even stripping it down to bare wood once it got too much buildup. A tall man on an even taller ladder always seemed to draw neighborhood interest. Resourceful, stubborn, and a bit frugal, Al took his lunch each day in a sugar bag that he used until it had holes and had to be replaced. Al also loved gardening, and his love of cooking grew to where he became the primary cook in the house. Many fall Saturdays were spent raking leaves while simultaneously working on a pot of homemade soup. Prairie Home Companion was usually on the radio when he came inside. It reminded him of how he grew up.
Every summer, the family went on a two-week vacation, typically camping in their fold-out tent trailer, pulled by a station wagon that usually broke in a small town in the middle of nowhere on a weekend. The trips were planned around the American Institute of Biological Sciences conferences. When the kids were young, the family visited every one of the 48 US contiguous states, as well as much of Canada, and a bit of Mexico. He liked to drive and drove with his arm out the window until it was tanned a dark brown. It was a good time to ask him questions, and he patiently answered the ones he could, which was most of them. If he didn’t know the answer, he would freely say so but would give you ideas where to look for the answer. The family enjoyed several pets over the years, mostly dogs. Al loved the pets, and they loved him. Every dinner they would sit at his feet where treats would often disappear under the table and into a waiting snout. If any of them had been big enough they certainly would have pulled him from a burning house before anyone else. For a long time, Al enjoyed running. In later years, he started swimming. He loved to go target shooting later in life with his son Dirk and got very good.
Al and Marilyn had a busy social life. Marilyn set the schedule. An unashamed introvert, he went along for the ride and usually had a good time. Many of their friends were from Calvin, and also from their longtime church, Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. Though he didn’t seek it out, he served when asked as elder and deacon at church, department chair at Calvin, on the school board, and with many other organizations as well. For several January Interim classes, Al enjoyed taking a group of his students to Jamaica for 10 days at the end of the month where they would snorkel and study his favorite subject; marine biology. Despite his mandatory instructions not to, some students always snuck out at night to carouse, not realizing how predictable this was every trip. “An early morning in the boat being heaved by the waves will be their reward,” he said with a smile. He always swam farther, faster, and deeper than any of the students to keep an eye on them. “Remember,” he told them, “you are not on the top of the food chain out there.” He was fascinated with sharks, shark bites, shark attacks. His kids would get clippings sent to then at camp if any were in the news while they were away.
His prized time was time spent with family. As head cook it was a lot of work but he cherished the Sunday and holiday dinners with family shared in their home. A good photographer, he took a lot of pictures when the kids were young. On Sunday night, the family often gathered round to watch slide shows of trips and family events.
Al stayed busy with Marilyn and their friends during his retirement years. Whether traveling to over 50 countries, taking classes at Calvin, wintering in Hobe Sound, Florida, or enjoying their membership at Meijer Gardens, Al stayed full of curiosity and wonder. Wednesday nights he watched nature shows on TV. As his children grew into adulthood and began families of their own, he delighted in becoming a grandfather. He loved holding his grandchildren when they were babies and teasing them when they were older. His love and commitment to his family were evident in so many quiet ways. They were truly his heart’s delight. Research Al started with another student at Cornell turned into a paper they wrote in the last few years of his life and which was recently accepted by the Smithsonian. Neither Al nor his friend and co-author lived to see its upcoming publication at the end of this year. Al did some of the intricate illustrations for it by hand.
The world feels less certain in the absence of Al’s calm, steadfast presence. It was hard to watch his years long struggle with the cancer that was diagnosed with and the other conditions that were missed. His role changed from the person who took care of everyone to the person being taken care of and he hated that. He hated being too tired to do anything, being too tired to think. But, with each pot of homemade soup we make, class we enroll in, new idea we explore, and adventure we take, we celebrate him.
Al Bratt, age 86 of Grand Rapids, went home to be with his Lord and Savior on December 11, 2019. He is survived by his wife, Marilyn; their children Debra (Bruce) Tiejema, Linda (Bill) Veldboom, Pamela (Karl Kinkema) Bratt, and Dirk (Cindy) Bratt; grandchildren Amy Tiejema, Lisa (Dale) Schipper, Andrea Tiejema, Lauren Veldboom and Lien Veldboom, Remi Kinkema, Alec Bratt; great-grandchildren Emilia and Luke Schipper; and his brother-in-law John (Aleida) DeGraaf. Al was preceded in death by his brother John and sister Albertha as well as his parents, Albert and Anna Bratt. The service to remember and celebrate his life will be held on Saturday, December 21 at 3 PM at Calvin Christian Reformed Church where friends are invited to visit with his family beginning at 1:30 PM, and for a time immediately following the service. His family encourages that in lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to Global Gifts, c/o Calvin CRC. To read more about Al’s life, to share a memory or photo, or to sign his guestbook, visit www.heritagelifestory.com