I have to tell you, that news left me a little depressed, all day. Not for the congressman himself. For him to step down now makes a lot of sense from a human perspective, as does just about everything Ehlers has done throughout his career.
While he is as mentally sharp as ever, the congressman turned 76 last week. He has a healthy, well-rounded attitude towards life, more so than most politicians I've known.
Serving in Congress is hard work if you do it right. His wife Johanna has had health issues, and he decided he wanted to enjoy some of the years they have left. He said something yesterday that was so sensible it's hard to believe a politician said it:
"Each of us should recognize that the world doesn't depend just on us. I've been there 16 years now. That's more than enough time for most people and I've accomplished a great deal."
So why am I sad? Because he was that rare thing in politics, a work horse, not a show horse; a man who had a mind open to compromise and who actually got more done than he got or took credit for. He was a man of both science and faith.
His background was unique. He is a conservative Republican and a deeply committed Christian who was also a scientist; a kid from small-town Minnesota who earned a PhD in physics at UCLA.
He became a physics professor in Grand Rapids and got into local politics because he cared about waste management issues. Before he knew it, he found himself in the state legislature. Then it was on to Congress, after Paul Henry died tragically of a brain tumor. There, the professor became a master of getting things done behind the scenes. You've heard a lot about Asian carp lately? Few did more to fight them then Vern Ehlers.
In fact, he was the man responsible for the electric barrier designed to keep them out of the lakes -- something that might have worked if the authorities had turned it on and kept it on.
Nobody has done more, in fact, to get funds to clean up our lakes and fight invasive species. But you haven't heard him grandstanding about that. Nor do most of us didn't know that Vern Ehlers was the man responsible for moving the House's computer, vote-tallying and e-mail systems out of the stone age.
He liked to tell high school kids that he had been a nerd, and telling them not to look down on the nerds of their generation, because the cool kids would all end up working for one.
Ehlers wasn't comfortable criticizing his colleagues. He did, however, once tell me this: "Conservatives ought to remember their legacy of conservation, and that to be conservative means to conserve what is good. Unfortunately, some vocal members of our party tend to forget that." That philosophy led him to oppose drilling for oil in the Arctic, and to oppose parts of the Patriot Act.
There are many issues on which I disagreed with the congressman. But if I lived in Grand Rapids, I think I would have voted for him, every time.