The first research physicist ever elected to Congress, Venron Ehlers was known for his legislative work to bolster scientific research and education, raise fuel economy standards and protect clean air and water.
Ehlers, who represented Western Michigan in Congress for nearly two decades, died Tuesday at age 83. His death was confirmed by the Zaagman Memorial Chapel in Grand Rapids, which did not immediately indicate the cause of death, The Detroit News reported.
Ehlers, considered a moderate Republican, won a special election in 1993 after former Rep. Paul Henry died in office in the seat once occupied by former President Gerald Ford. Ehlers served 17 years before retiring in 2011.
He served as co-chair of the House STEM Education Caucus and was a member of Republicans for Environmental Protection, and he sat on science, education, transportation and House administration committees.
“He was talking about STEM before STEM was a cool thing to talk about,” Bill McBride, Ehlers' longtime chief of staff, told the newspaper. “Now everybody’s talking about it. He really opened the door on that.”
Ehlers’ health had been declining over the past year, so his death did not come as a shock.
“He was one of the finest public servants we’ve seen in the last few decades,” said McBride, who is now director of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s Washington, D.C., office.
“He just embodied the right approach to doing things and getting things done. I think that’s missing in the environment we’re in today.”
Lawmakers from both parties took to Twitter to reflect on Ehlers’ legacy.
“They don’t make them like Vern Ehlers anymore,” Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., tweeted. “So well respected on both sides of the aisle, hard-working, & always a teacher at heart. #RIP”
They don’t make them like Vern Ehlers anymore. So well respected on both sides of the aisle, hard-working, & always a teacher at heart. #RIP
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., echoed those sentiments, adding that Ehlers “represented [Western Michigan] w/ distinction.”
Saddened by the passing of my former colleague Vern Ehlers. He was respected on both sides of the aisle and represented W MI w/ distinction
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., remembered Ehlers as “a leader who valued country over party and always strived for bipartisan consensus.”
Saddened by Vern Ehlers' passing. Vern was a leader who valued country over party and always strived for bipartisan consensus.
Ehlers earned his Ph.D in nuclear physics from The University of California at Berkeley in 1960 and was a professor of physics for more than two decades before entering Michigan politics, and, later, the national arena.
He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Johanna Meulink; four children; five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
The funeral service is 3 p.m. today at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.