Gaylen Byker, left, and Jim Bultman

Perhaps it’s fitting that Hope and Calvin presidents Jim Bultman and Gaylen Byker are retiring at the end of the 2011-12 academic year. They both were student-athletes at the schools over which they eventually would preside. They’ve both been presidents at their institutions for about 15 years. They both married graduates from their alma maters. They’re both tried-and-true Division III guys.

And they’re both proud to call each other friends.

That might not come naturally for leaders of two schools separated by 30 miles, a few religious nuances and only 95 points during 179 men's basketball games. But for Bultman and Byker, they prefer that their schools’ storied rivalry be described as “heated,” not “hated.”

“To be sure, it is an intense rivalry but a respectful one,” said Bultman, who chairs the Division III Presidents Council through the 2012 Convention. “I never go into a Hope-Calvin game in any sport thinking that there’s going to be trouble. Do I worry about it with some other teams? Yes, but not with these two.”

Both men announced their retirements last spring. Bultman has been at Hope since 1999; Byker at Calvin since 1995. They’ll leave Division III with big shoes to fill, since both are quick to emphasize the value that participation in sports brings to the college experience.

“I see athletics as an integral part of a comprehensive education,” Byker said. “Fitting those pieces together makes not only for an enhanced experience for the athlete but it keeps the academic activities and program as the primary function of being a student.”

The two presidents feel that way presently based on their pasts.

Bultman actually wanted to have his integrated athletics experience at Calvin but chose Hope because of its football program (Calvin is bereft of one, which Bultman quipped he would change if he were there). Now he and his wife, Martie, have been physically present on the Hope campus for at least parts of the past seven decades.

Byker, meanwhile, enrolled at Calvin but left after six weeks to follow his father’s footsteps in the military. Byker was commissioned at 19 and served in Vietnam. He came back to Calvin (as his father had done after his service stint) in January 1970, just months before the shootings at Kent State further divided the country.

Byker hit the books and the mats, joining the wrestling team even though he hadn’t grappled in high school. He eventually would captain the Calvin squad.

To be sure, [Hope-Calvin] is an intense rivalry but a respectful one.
-- Hope President Jim Bultman

Bultman was a captain, too, both in football and baseball. “People always asked me which I liked better, and I’d say, ‘In the fall I like football better, and in the spring I like baseball better,’ ” he said.

Leadership was in their futures, too.

Bultman earned his presidential stripes at NAIA Northwestern College in Iowa, where he served from 1985 to 1999. Northwestern, like Hope, is one of three colleges with ties to the Reformed Church in America.

Calvin is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, which split from the Reformed Church in America in the 1850s (though the two denominations retain similar beliefs and theology). That only adds to the intrigue of the Hope-Calvin rivalry.

Even Bultman had to reconcile his religious affiliation when he went to Hope as a student. He grew up in the Christian Reformed Church and remained as a member through his student days and into his teaching and coaching career at Hope. That is, until one fateful Saturday when Calvin’s Knights swept a Bultman-coached Flying Dutchmen team in a twin bill.

“I went to church the next morning and the collection happened to be for Calvin College,” Bultman said. “And on the way home I said to Martie, ‘This is too much. Maybe it’s a good time to switch to the Reformed Church in America.’ ”

Byker also prepped for his presidency outside his home base. After graduating from Calvin, he went on to earn law and master’s degrees at Michigan and a Ph.D. in international relations at Pennsylvania. He taught and did research at the American University in Beirut before returning to the U.S. as an investment banker in New York. Byker then helped build a successful natural gas company in Houston before being lured back to the Grand Rapids campus in 1995.

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“When the search committee called me, I started thinking about what it meant to take these skills and experiences and apply them to higher education,” Byker said. “As it turns out, you’re going to use all of those things every day. There’s a legal and a financial and an academic component to almost everything we do.”

What both men always have considered as their No. 1 goal, though, is to provide the best possible experience for their students. That means this year will be no different from the rest, even though it will be their last at their respective helms.

“I’m not big on celebrations,” Byker said. “Obviously, the better job you do in your last year, the better you leave your successor to take the college to the next level.”

Bultman said, “I suppose people might think we could coast through this last year, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case. Rather, we know that the students at our institutions have one time to go through college, and we need to make it the best for them that it can be -- that’s our motivation every year.”