Conversations with Famous Persons: Rich DeVos Sr.

When in school in Grand Rapids, I was reading in a used book store, a book by Richard DeVos, the founder of Amway. Basically, the book said that wealth is a sign of divine favor, very near to saying that if God likes you, you will be rich. After all, is it not written, “…all these things will be yours as well?”

We were hippies back at Grand Valley, and all the radical types were our social group, the SDS guys and such. At Grand Valley, there were then three colleges, one for the hippies, called Thomas Jefferson college, one for the middle guys, called William James, and the usual sort of small college, called the College of Arts and Sciences. Because my major was Psychology, I was in the C.A.S., though as said, my friends and cohorts were of the more colorful sort. These were very much opposed to Mr. DeVos and the Amway view of life, and American “capitalism.” These had adopted and set the new opinions of the activist left, and called Amway “Scamway.” Now, even though I was a hippie, sporting long blond hair(people said I looked like  Greg Allman, though I see myself looking more like Edgar Winter. The truth is probably that I looked a lot like Shawn Phillips, and women who would seek him if they could would sometimes settle for me, so I was introduced to his fine work, and once took a girl to meet him.)

I was always a fan of good soap, and never quite into the things the T. J. C. people were in to: I was not an artist, but rather more of a scientist. But we loved things like romping in the woods and ravines around the college, smoking pot and watching sunsets. But I was too busy pursuing the mysteries of love, Psychology and Biology to join in much political activity. I was also beginning to discover philosophy, and had taken summer Independent Studies to read the scriptures.

We had heard that Mr. DeVos had taken control of the school board, and would soon eliminate some of the programs of which we were fond. One day I was working with a friend in the theater shop, for badly needed pay, just helping with some carpentry and manual labor, so I had on my holiest old jeans, even from high school, and probably a rough T-shirt. Mr. Devos had flown his personal Helicopter to attend a board meeting, and it was there parked outside the Campus Center building.

I had begun to read the introductory Platonic dialogues, and as is well known, one of the first effects of Socrates on the young pups is that they tend to go about questioning famous people, as Socrates did, to try to show that they do not know what people think they must know if they hold such positions. So, being a courageous type, I went and sat, cross-legged, right on the side of the sidewalk where Mr. DeVos would have to pass on his way to his helicopter, and waited. Soon he came along, attended by two burly bodyguards, who did seem a bit agitated to find me there. When He approached, I asked him,

Mr DeVos, how can a camel fit through the eye of a needle?

He answered, again, a bit agitated, “That’s not what that passage means…” He went on to explain. Later in the discussion, he would say, “You don’t have to dress like a bum.” But soon I was questioning him about the programs we feared he would destroy. He said that the marketplace must decide which programs would be kept, the ones that turned the biggest profit. I asked him if this principle was not the same as that of Thomas Jefferson College, and had the same problem with it: prior to education, the students do not know what is best to choose. The purpose of education is to uncover the true hierarchy of the priorities, but prior to education, we will not have this very clearly as a basis on which to consider each choice life sets before us, to know when we are sacrificing the higher to the lower things, ruining our lives and our society as well. At T. J. C., there were silly things like college credit for basket weaving, but also some avaunt-guard though very serious things, like the mime class of Tom Lubhart, a student of the teacher of the famous Marcel Marceau, who had continued a tradition of corporeal mime, less flashy but more artistic than pantomime. After demonstrating that the market idea of education curriculum and the Hippies idea of doing whatever one feels are not much different, we shook hands, and he flew off, again after telling me I did not have to dress like such a bum.

Years later, I had a conversation at the counter of a coffee shop with an Amway salesman, who was using the opportunity of our chance encounter to market his product, in the compulsive attempt to move on up the pyramid. Amway salesman have a bit of the evangelical method of sales that has become a part of American ministry and culture. This of course annoys everyone who is not a brick moving up in the pyramid, though we are not quite sure why we are annoyed. I pointed out to this man that in order to sell soap, he had subjected all his filial relations, to friends and brothers in law and even people he chanced to meet, to his own personal enterprise and hopes regarding this pyramid. It is in a similar way that education in America has been subjected.

We believed, and still do, that our wise professor knew what programs should be offered in a college, and in general would be the best at the superintendence of education. He had Allan Bloom out there once to consider having a St. John’s college in the Midwest. We always marveled that he did not go get a prestigious job at Princeton or Harvard. But he barely made it through his career without being cancelled on the priorities set by the marketplace.

2 thoughts on “Conversations with Famous Persons: Rich DeVos Sr.

    • “Um…common core, no I’m against that…school of choice?” -Betsy. A legacy of intelligence in education! Was that 1980? A soapmaker, ole Richie Rich, they used to call it “scamway.” They do make good soap, and might stick to it, and maybe Donney can get them on the T.V.! When he returns to his proper work!

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