Kelly Vanderwerff Bender would want you to know she was Dutch. I’m not kidding – the Dutch people are known for being direct and clear communicators. Kelly was the most direct and clear communicator I ever met. She also liked things “just so” and it was very, very (very) difficult to get her to give up on something. Those qualities, as well as her quick wit, keen intelligence, and ability to persuade made her a highly effective and beloved leader of our harm reduction efforts.
Kelly came to us from a local substance abuse agency. When I asked her to look at the position description for a new job we were creating at the University, she gave very helpful feedback about what qualities a successful candidate would need. I was thrilled when she decided to apply for the position as, frankly, she was the only person I could think of that could take it on. While she led our harm reduction efforts for just over 3 years, she moved us forward many years in good practice.
During her tenure, we implemented our first-ever comprehensive harm reduction plan. In that time, we decreased high-risk drinking by over 16%, established a healthy campus-community coalition, and enjoyed the re-emergence of a vibrant downtown. Kelly created good relationships with bar owners, law enforcement, and campus leaders. She didn’t give up, even when an interaction left her frustrated.
I think many people would tell you that when they first met Kelly, she could be intimidating. She was tall, striking, and there was that directness. But once you got to know her, and she let you in on her funny side, it was hard to imagine you’d ever thought of her as daunting. I remember sitting in our front office with her and our secretary, Genea, laughing about Kelly’s obsession with (ugly) cats, and how she killed more than one (she didn’t actually kill them – but they died quickly in her custody).
She told us stories about her husband, Chad, and her stepdaughter, Piper –about her role as a Dance Mom at Piper’s competitions. Chad’s police dog, Ivan, was a frequent story topic. She was just wickedly funny and often referenced “you know, we Dutch like things our way” when she was explaining how Chad had no chance in changing her mind on something.
When Kelly got sick, her determination gave us all confidence that cancer had no chance. It just didn’t seem possible that the strongest person we knew would not be able to overcome this. She didn’t talk a lot about her illness at work – she got a fantastic wig and continued to work until very shortly before she died. It was very important to Tom and me, and to all her colleagues that she make the decision on when to leave the University. We were able to have lunch all together on her final day in the office at her favorite downtown restaurant. It was a great day with laughs and she told Genea she was so glad she was able to be here for it.
I miss Kelly everyday because I never in my life knew anyone quite like her. I know many campus and community colleagues feel the same way. In many ways, I looked up to her and learned so much from her, even though I was supposedly her supervisor. She changed this place through her work and through her spirit and I am so grateful for that. I miss her wisdom and humor and I’m pretty sure I always will.