When there’s time – and usually there’s not – Dan Takens will pilot his car the 10 or 11 miles from his office at Byron Center Public Schools to one of his favorite lunchtime eateries in Eastown.
It’s there, often surrounded by others enjoying the simple but filling fare offered at Yesterdog, that he’ll take a bite and gaze into space and for just a moment wonder this:
“How in the heck did I ever become the superintendent of Byron Center Public Schools?”
To the south, in the heart of the Thornapple Kellogg school district, Tom Enslen is mulling the good time he had recently in reuniting with buddies from high school. They’d whooped it up with an ice-fishing outing, remembering times of nearly 30 years ago. And he is gently haunted by this: “That there wasn’t a single person there who thought that one day, I’d become a school superintendent.”
Clear across Kent County, in the city of Sparta, Gordie Nickels can recount that more than once, he met a good friend for lemonade on his front porch and discussed his career track. “I never said ‘never,'” he reminisces, “but being a superintendent was not something I thought about.”
In Kentwood, which served as an educational boot camp for all three men, Mike Zoerhoff serves as superintendent. And while he’s filled with less wonder about the how or the why, he maintains this: “I went into it for the teaching.”
Four men, as different as the seasons. Four separate tracks, through the ranks and rewards and rankles of education. And today, all four, serving as superintendents within the Kent Intermediate School District.
That’s my take-away as I sit with all four at the Big Boy restaurant on the edge of downtown Grand Rapids – a quartet of educators who are connected in amazing ways that both engage and transcend the schoolday.
If you’re hoping to read on and discover the textbook version of how one ascends to the status of the top leader in a school district, though, you might as well check out a copy of “The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore.”
Because chatting up this foursome is to learn that, at least in their cases, there is no magic formula, except perhaps, for clinging to something like this as a mantra: It’s all about the kids.
That’s been a common denominator for Takens, 48, Enslen, 52, Nickels, 54, and Zoerhoff, 48. But their paths have been incongruous and diverse as the districts they serve.
Zoerhoff is less than two years into the job at Kentwood, where he serves some 8,500 students, nearly three times the number Nickels governs at Sparta (2,700), and easily more than double that of TK (3,100) and BC (3,800).
At one point, Zoerhoff wondered if he might not end up a professional golfer. He captained the team while attending Western Michigan University, where he earned a degree in English in 1988.
He’d cut his teeth on the links at the Elks Country Club on Grand Rapids’ upper West Side. But the further he pursued education – a masters in educational leadership at Grand Valley State University, and currently enrolled in a doctorate program at WMU – he traded in his dreams of playing the tour, to touring classrooms.
After earning his undergraduate degree, he signed on to teach and coach basketball and tennis at Kentwood’s Crestwood Middle School, then transferred a half-dozen years later to the freshman campus, where he continued to teach but switched to coaching boys and girls varsity golf.
In 1997, he was named assistant principal and athletic director at Valleywood Middle, and assumed principalship in 2000. In 2007, he was promoted to assistant superintendent for human resources, and in 2013, landed the district’s top job, capping a career that began 20-plus years ago and continues today in Kentwood.
Of all four men – friends their entire careers, who meet whenever possible to share everything from laughs to loss – Zoerhoff is arguably best able to chart the reasons he gravitated to superintendency.
Though he says “I’m most proud of the fact that I’m an educator,” he makes no apologies for moving from the classroom to the board room, maintaining that “As superintendent, I can affect more and more spokes of the wheel.
“Everyone at this table,” he continues, motioning to his comrades, “has worked as hard as they can on behalf of kids, and so you naturally move up into leadership roles.”
For Zoerhoff, his job is to lead, “But I still look at myself as a teacher. It wasn’t just teaching, either, but affecting kids. And my role just got bigger. And in each role we’re called to do, we’re called to affect more kids.”
Nickels echoes like sentiments. “For me, it was always ‘I’m a teacher at heart.’ When people say, ‘What do you do?’ I answer ‘I’m in education.'” But when they press with “Oh, where do you teach?” that’s when Nickels has to help a person understand that it’s not about “where” but “how many.”
As a superintendent, he says, he can embrace a larger audience, andwhile it might not focus on math or science, any give-and-take between parties large and small should impart a learning experience.
Nickels began teaching at Southwood Elementary in Kentwood in 1983, after earning degrees at Grand Rapids Junior College and WMU. Besides instructing first through fourth grades, he immersed himself in students’ lives as a chess club advisor, organizer of a fun run, and supervisor of the intramural program.
In 1990, armed with a master’s from WMU, he served as fifth-grade teacher at Kentwood’s Challenger Elementary. After a short spell at the high school, he assumed principalship at Caledonia Elementary, and later, Emmons Lake Elementary in the same district.
In 2009, he transferred to Byron Center, serving as assistant superintendent and working alongside Takens before rising to the superintendency of Sparta during the summer of 2013.
Nickels is proud to “align myself with teachers,” though he’s quick to add that he first counts himself as “husband and dad.”
Like all three other men, he considers himself blessed to have been in the company of great coaches, co-teachers, and mentors who took the time to show him the elements of leadership. Through them, he’s developed a mantra of his own: “Educational excellence, every child, every day.”
He hastens to point out how that doesn’t mean teaching to the norm. “It’s different for every child,” he says, “and important for us to recognize, so that each kid reaches their full potential.”
Nickels follows in some big footsteps, and he’s comfortable still being referred to by old-timers as “Robert Nickels’ son,” a reference to his late father, who loomed large in the Byron Center district, where he taught and coached and served as principal and eventually had the intermediate school named after him.
Nickels found meaningful lessons in his father, who died in 1986 at the age of 56: “I figure it was his love of people that drew folks to him,” he says, noting that he often hears comments like ‘If it weren’t for your dad, my son wouldn’t have done this or my daughter would have never done that…’ “He was my hero. Always has been, always will be.”
Across the table, Enslen’s eyes are gathering tears. He’s remembering the day his own father passed away, describing it as “one of the most difficult times in my life.”
His gentle comment generates an entirely different conversation, and all four men begin to share how their connections – and those of their wives and families and extended string of friends and co-workers – has worked a special magic on them all.
Zoerhoff and Takens attended and played basketball together at Grand Rapids Christian High. Enslen and Takens ride motorcycles together. The Enslen and Nickels families celebrate Christmas together.
At varying points in their careers, all four men taught and coached in the Kentwood system.
Nickels’ youngest daughter has been friends with Takens’ daughter since kindergarten. At one point, Takens taught and coached Zoerhoff’s brother.
It was Takens who hired Nickels as assistant superintendent in BC. Takens was once boss to Enslen and Zoerhoff. At another point, Zoerhoff was boss over Enslen and Takens.
Each has a nickname: Takens is “Takes.” Nickels is “Spartacus,” given his new role in Sparta. Enslen is “Big E,” a throwback to his days as a basketball standout. And whether Zoerhoff likes it or not, he’s can’t shake “Zippy,” which derives from Zippy the Chimp, who starred on the Ed Sullivan show in 1961, a nickname given him long ago by a middle school coach.
Nicknames or not, as Takens remembers it, allthe time they were working in classrooms or on courts, “We never discussed or expressed interest in being superintendents.”
Enslen perhaps most of all, who nods and agrees that “I went out of my way to say I was never going to be in administration.” In fact, when someone actually predicted long ago that he might be, Enslen remembers answering “That will never happen.”
But it did, when in 2012 he was appointed superintendent for Thornapple Kellogg Schools. He credits the trio around the table, remarking that “I wouldn’t have done it had these three guys not gone before me as administrators. They helped me see it could be done…and it changed my perception
“Bottom line?” asks Enslen. “I’m attracted to the kind of people who are attracted to this kind of business. It’s not what brought me in, but it’s what’s prompted me to stay. “I said I’d never be a super. But the calling won out. And all along, Dan as been my biggest cheerleader.”
“Big” is an apt way to describe Takens, not only for his size, but for the dramatic impact he’s had on area education, and the big obstacles he’s overcome in a life filled with challenges.
In fact, if it weren’t for long-time teacher and basketball coach Ken Zandee at Christian High, Takens’ life might have taken an awful turn.
Takens and his two siblings were raised largely by their mother, who did the best she could to fill in for a husband who was an alcoholic and spent more than one night sleeping at the Salvation Army. “My dad was in the Dutch underground,” Takens says softly. “He saw things…”
There often wasn’t enough food in the home, and Takens remembers eating as fast as he could in an effort to get filled. Zandee became a mentor as Takens entered high school, a gifted athlete who went on to compete in basketball and track at Calvin College.
It was Zandee who helped him grasp that life was about more than this earth held, and Takens is not shy about saying that “My faith is everything that I am, and Ken Zandee was Jesus in the flesh for me.”
Takens would need that faith to lean on years later, when in July of 2007, he and his wife lost daughter Hannah in a traffic accident. She was just 15. He sometimes takes his lunch in her memorial garden right outside his office.
Takens, who has only known employment in Kentwood and BC, is probably the most unlikely to have become superintendent, if you factor in his rough start.
But his friends agree that he best embodies everything a leader needs to be – strong yet compassionate, firm but flexible, both a tender heart and a rock to lean on.
If he’s got those gifts, though, Takens is the first to admit they weren’t earned. He can still see himself as a kid, standing in the middle of Alger Park not far from his home, and gazing up to Kingdom Come, feeling lost and alone: “Lord,” he prayed, “if you can bring me through this…”
The rest was implied, that he would use his life to serve others. And like his three friends, it’s become his destiny.
To a person, they rely heavily on their wives to get them through tough days. And they can’t say enough about their support staff, their principals, teachers, and especially the students.
They would do anything to avoid even one more catastrophe or death that might affect their district. Each knows what it’s like to be awakened in the dead of night by a sheriff’s deputy, another funeral to help arrange, and counselors to summon.
They’re also the first to say they don’t have all the answers. But they trust in public education, and publicly fight for it. There’s this, too, though it’s not a complaint: That it can belonely at the top of the heap, especially when there’s heat to take. None have plans to quit soon. Still, they sometimes wonder what it would be like.
As different as they may be, as various their interests and staffs and the populations they serve, they’ll always agree on one element, and though they rely on different words to express it, five words usually suffice:
“It’s all about the kids.”