Meghan Finnerty | November 24, 2020
In Memoriam: Former President John Van de Wetering
SUNY Brockport’s fourth president, John E. Van de Wetering, passed away on November 2.
John Van de Wetering was battling Alzheimer’s. But in October, doctors discovered esophageal cancer that would take his life at the age of 93.
“Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease,” said his son Josh Van de Wetering. “I miss him terribly, but I’ve missed him for years.”
The doctors had provided the diagnosis about five years ago, but the last few years were the hardest. He was forgetting more and more. However, throughout his battle, Van de Wetering remained living with the love of his life, Maxine Van de Wetering. The couple would have hit their 60th wedding anniversary in the spring.
Josh called his dad “my go-to guy.” Van de Wetering was intelligent, proper, polite, and always buttoned up. “I used to tease him about dressing up all the time,” said Josh, who frequently asked for his father’s insight about business, issues of higher education, community activities, and organizations.
“He understood well how society was put together and how to get things done,” Josh explained.
Van de Wetering had a career that stretched across multiple positions and multiple places of higher education. But SUNY Brockport would become his favorite home — among the community, music, and art scenes.
Van de Wetering served as president at Brockport for 16 years, from 1981 to 1997.
When he arrived, the college was stressed by a significant drop in enrollment. But by the mid-1990s, he had positioned the campus for a re-birth, according to current Brockport President Heidi Macpherson. Van de Wetering managed the campus through significant downsizing and brought new enrollment management techniques.
“There’s nothing like a good budget crisis for my father,” Josh said. “He would go to bed reading zero-based budgeting. He just soaked it up.” The only times he remembers work getting to his father were when he had to lay off employees.
While at Brockport, Van de Wetering emphasized “the needs of a diverse student population, including ethnic programs and programs for adult and part-time students,” according to the Rochester Business Journal. That work included opening Brockport’s downtown MetroCenter (now Brockport Downtown) in 1991. The space is now located within the Rochester Educational Opportunity Center, 161 Chestnut Street in Rochester.
“John worked tenaciously to increase diversity, attract international students, and create programs for learners from all walks of life. That mission is his legacy — and one we strive to build on each and every day,” said SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras.
Van de Wetering believed in the power of education and that it was about more than preparing someone for the workforce. Instead, he believed that education is the singular way society can move forward. Everyone needed to be educated, and Brockport Downtown was a product of that mindset.
In 1996, Van de Wetering said, “Critics say that we educate more than are needed by the labor force and more than can truly profit from the system … Society, so goes the argument, cannot afford to educate the masses. That, I think, is sheer nonsense, designed to justify disinvestment.”
According to the Democrat and Chronicle, “he often clashed with the SUNY Board of Trustees on issues of autonomy and funding. Van de Wetering criticized New York state for reducing aid to individual campuses while also attempting to dictate aspects of their operations.”
Van de Wetering retired in 1997. The Rochester Business Journal quoted his convocation speech saying, “My years at SUNY Brockport have been full and fulfilling, and have passed by at a gallop.”
Van de Wetering was devoted to the community. He was a member of many non-profit boards across Rochester, including WXXI Public Broadcasting Council, George Eastman House, the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, the NYS Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Corp, and Park Ridge Health System Inc.’s long-term care programs.
About Van de Wetering’s Life
Van de Wetering was born on January 20, 1927, in Bellingham, WA. He was the second of three children: Bob, John (nicknamed “Jack”), and Lee. He spent his childhood playing, exploring, studying, and at the boat docks by the rivers, according to his memorial website.
After high school, Van de Wetering moved to Seattle, WA, to study history at the University of Washington. While he was pursuing a PhD in Colonial American History, the United States Army drafted him during the Suez Crisis. He became the company clerk in a construction battalion located north of the Arctic Circle.
“John flourished in the Army, was proud of his service, and was shaped by the experience,” according to his obituary. After his service, he returned to finish his PhD and begin his teaching and administrative career. He worked at University of Idaho, University of Washington (where he met his wife), University of Montana, and Eastern Montana College.
In 1981, his only son (Josh) graduated high school and headed out of their Montana family home, but so did he. Van de Wetering moved so he could take the position of Brockport president. Maxine stayed in Missoula teaching at University of Montana until her 1994 retirement. She later joined her husband in Brockport, and the pair never looked back, despite Josh’s attempts to lure them back west.
After Van de Wetering’s ’97 Brockport retirement, he found a new job at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which moved him and Maxine to Washington, DC, in their 70s. Eventually, they returned to New York to enjoy a true retirement, building a home on Keuka Lake. There, they filled their time swimming, on the boat, reading, writing, and traveling to see their grandchildren.
Before Van de Wetering passed, the couple moved into cottages at St. John’s Brickstone Retirement community, where they continued to build community and friendships.
Van de Wetering is survived by his brother Lee, Maxine, Josh, and his two grandchildren, Mayah and Noah.