In the last article we attempted to describe somewhat the kind of environment into which George Ophoff was born. He was born in the city of Grand Rapids on January 25, 1891. He was born as the oldest of eight children to Frederick H. Ophoff and Yeta Hemkes Ophoff. The house in which George was born was located on Cass Ave., south of Franklin Street in the vicinity of Franklin and Grandville Ave. During the years of George’s childhood, the family made a number of moves in the southeastern part of Grand Rapids, finally settling at 1126 Eastern Avenue. George’s mother lived at this address until her death in the early 1950’s, and Rev. and Mrs. Ophoff returned here to spend some of the last years of their lives.
The family was, in many respects, a typical Dutch immigrant family. They were members of the Christian Reformed Church, born in the tradition of the Afsheiding, people of a simple faith, godly and pious, but finding life not all that easy in the land of hope and promise. In the course of the years seven more children were born into the family, five boys and two girls, and it was not always easy to earn sufficient to feed all the hungry mouths of growing children.
Frederick Ophoff had a job downtown at the Rex Reed Furniture Factory — a factory which no longer exists today. The hours were long; workdays began at 6 in the morning and extended to 5 in the late afternoon. This was the time before 40 hour weeks, and 10 or 11 hour days were not relieved by a Saturday off. Men worked 6 days and rested and attended church on the Sabbath.
Not only were the days long, the work hard, and the pay meager, but also in those days most men walked to work. While streetcar transportation was available, the few pennies which a ride cost were too sorely needed in the family to be spent on public transportation. The result was that working men had to be out of bed at 4:30 or 5:00 to eat their breakfast and still have time to make the nearly hour walk to their place of work. Then, at the end of a hard day’s labor, there was still the long walk home.
It is not surprising, therefore, that work consumed most of the waking hours of these men, and there was little time to spend with the family. The instruction in the home fell mainly upon the mother, and the children really did not get to know their father very well, except for the few moments they could spend with him before an early retirement at night and on the Lord’s Day.
It seems as if life in the Ophoff house was a fairly normal life, not unlike that of many other families in similar circumstances. On the one hand, it was a noisy and quarrelsome household – as so many households were with growing broods of children. In later years George was to complain that he could not find in his house the quietness he needed for study. But on the other hand, it was a godly home. The family grew up to be extremely close knit — a closeness which was to remain throughout the lives of the children. In fact, there was an unusual closeness because one of the more difficult aspects of the break in 1924 which Rev. Ophoff endured was the difficulty of breaking with a family which was precious to him but did not agree with him on the matter of common grace. Although the responsibilities for the education of the children fell mainly upon the mother, and although all the strength and energy of the father was consumed in his work, nevertheless, there was a profound realization of the importance of covenant instruction. Not only were the children given such instruction in the home, but a few pennies had to be eked out of the family finances each week to pay for Christian instruction.
George was baptized in the Franklin Street Christian Reformed Church which was located on Franklin Street a short distance east of Grandville Avenue. This church no longer is used by a Christian Reformed congregation, but the building is still standing.
When the family moved to the southeast end of town, the membership papers of the family were transferred to the Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church. There George received the main part of his catechetical instruction; there he made confession of faith at the age of 16; and there he remained a member until the day when he became a minister of the gospel.
The Christian instruction which the children received from kindergarten through the ninth grade was in Oakdale Christian School. At that time the school was not located where it is now but was on the corner of Butler and Temple Street. The immigrants from Netherlands already at the very beginning of their history, showed a strong interest in Christian education, and they built schools almost as soon as they built their places of worship. This was due in large measure to the emphasis on the truth of God’s covenant, which was characteristic of the Reformed faith in the Netherlands in general, and of the Churches of the Separation in particular. We do well to pause here a moment to consider this. Most of us have been educated in Christian schools and now have children attending Christian schools. In fact, we, as Protestant Reformed Churches, have erected our own school system. The danger is that we become so accustomed to our schools that we forget that they are wonderful blessings of God’s grace to us and tokens of His care and concern for us. And we forget too, that these schools were built out of the deep and abiding sense of covenant consciousness which characterized our forebears. They were often built out of great financial sacrifice. They were built because our forebears, seemingly sometimes better than we, understood the importance of the truth that God gathers His people in the line of covenant generations. It is this covenant consciousness which we must, at all costs, preserve among us, for this stands as the bedrock of a solid parental school system.
Already as a child, George showed some of the traits which were to appear later in life in different contexts and with different results. Many of our readers who knew Rev. Ophoff remember well the crooked index finger on his right hand with which he could gesture so vehemently. This crooked finger was a legacy of his childhood days. While he was not one of the playground bullies who were so common in those days and who can still sometimes be found on the school-grounds, and while he was not in his earlier years one who would deliberately go around provoking fights, nevertheless, he was not afraid of a good healthy brawl. Especially if he was provoked—and he was often the butt of childhood pranks and pestering- he would easily turn in anger against his tormentors and engage in a no-holds-barred fight; from which he would usually emerge the winner. And if he believed that the reason for fighting was a just cause-just according to the standards of young boys in those days-he would back down for no one and fight regardless of the odds against him. Many were the times when he incurred the wrath of his mother for coming home with torn clothes, for clothes were not easy to come by and each little boy had only one change of clothing, worn all week, washed on Saturday, and returned to the wearer on Monday morning in time for school. The crooked index finger was a lasting result of one such fight, for the finger was broken in a brawl and was never properly set. It had to heal itself, and it healed crookedly.