The personal side of a public man

Memorial service for Hal Dengerink shows family feeling

By Paul Suarez, Columbian web producer

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When H.A. “Hal” Dengerink’s daughter Erin Dengerink bought a home near the Washington State University Vancouver campus, he couldn’t wait to help fix it up.

During a rainy spring day Dengerink — with the help of a few of his grandsons — was working on replacing the front deck. As he worked in the mud, two WSUV students passed by, said Lynn Valenter, interim WSUV chancellor.

One said to the other, “See that old man working in the rain? That’s why I’m going to school,” Valenter said.

Dengerink’s family said he was a man who had one foot in the academic world of words and another in the world of physical work.

That was one of many stories the nearly 200 people who packed into a WSUV lecture hall Saturday heard during the only public memorial service held for Dengerink, founding chancellor of WSU Vancouver.

It wasn’t the first time that Dengerink, who died on Sept. 14 after a 2-year battle with brain cancer, was honored by the community this year. This time though, people heard less about Dengerink’s many accomplishments in his 42-year career at WSU and more about his life outside of work.

As people entered the lecture hall where the service was held, a slideshow showed Dengerink at grandchildren’s birthdays, family vacations, posing on a four-wheeler and, of course, working at his second home at WSUV.

Dengerink’s oldest grandson, Peter Collier, started the service after the opening prayer.

He said his grandfather always pushed people to do their best.

When Peter’s family bought a home in Wenatchee, Dengerink decided he wanted to build a rock wall on the property. Dengerink also decided that he would have Peter build a set of stairs in the middle of the wall.

Peter accepted the challenge.

“As I went on, he critiqued every one of my steps,” Peter said.

When it came time to finish the last stair, Peter was ready to be done, he said. He grabbed the last brick, which was cracked, and put it in place. Dengerink smiled at his grandson and asked if that was how he wanted to finish his project, Peter said.

Peter said he decided not to use that brick as his capstone piece.

He also shared the story of one of the first times he visited WSUV.

Dengerink was showing his family around a lecture hall — the same one where his memorial service would eventually be held. As Dengerink explained the features of the room, Peter, who was 3 at the time, decided to pull the fire alarm. It prompted the first fire drill on the campus, he said.

Dengerink was a banjo player, bread baker, fly fisher, carpenter and always a teacher, his daughter Kris Travis said during the service.

“May father was a giant, my anchor and my hero,” she said.

He taught her to finish what she started and to look past people’s credentials and titles and into who they are, she said.

WSUV was a big part of his life — the family calls it “grandpa’s campus” — but before he built the school, he built a strong foundation for his family, she said.

“I always had a love/hate relationship with this campus, because my father was often here when I wanted him to be somewhere else,” she said.

Her thought process changed a bit after her father was diagnosed with cancer, she said.

People from WSUV did what they could to help the family, she said. That’s when she decided that WSUV faculty and staff were another part of his family.

Valenter, the interim WSUV chancellor and vice chancellor of finance and operations, shared some of the staff’s memories of Dengerink.

He was interested in how people were doing and what they were working on, she said.

One employee recalls cleaning the administration building late at night and running into a pajama-wearing Dengerink, Valenter said. Apparently, he needed to get something from the school and stopped by. An employee from the IT department remembered sharing occasional conversations with Dengerink. The two would always end with Dengerink telling the IT person: “Keep my stuff running,” Valenter said.

“We’ll keep your stuff running, Hal,” she said.

Paul Suarez: 360-735-4522 or paul.suarez@columbian.com.