The Other Stephen Hiemstra

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer 1:5)

My father, which I sometimes introduce as the other Stephen Hiemstra, was born on April 17, 1931 during the Great Depression. He grew up on a small, feed-livestock farm in southern Iowa and attended college, in part, under the GI Bill.[1]

His education followed a series of apparently serendipitous decisions, which, in fact, allowed the family to prosper during the normally traumatic move from rural to urban employment. Dad was one of the first in his extended family to attend college and our end of the family prospered more than most. God’s hand is clearly on him.

Although Dad was one of the first in the Hiemstra family to attend college, he was not the last. Dad firmly believes in education. He made sure that each of his children made it through college and two of us, John and I, have completed doctoral studies. Between Dad, his brother John, my brother John, and I, there are four of us in the extended family with doctoral degrees. We are truly blessed.

Dad worked for the federal government during a formative period, beginning in late Eisenhower Administration through the early Reagan Administration, when belief in the positive contribution that government could make was at an historical peak. President John F. Kennedy set the tone for this golden age of government service in his inaugural address when he chided Americans to: “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”[2]

Dad took up this challenge with vigor and passion. Not only did he strenuously pursue his work writing voluminous numbers of studies and professional papers, Dad was active in professional societies[3] and often took a leadership role and won awards for his work.

Because I followed Dad into a career in agricultural economics, many of the professionals mentioned in his memoir are my own personal friends and colleagues. Early in my career, this posed something of an embarrassment as I worked to distinguish myself from my father. This was a vain effort. Everywhere I went at home and abroad, I ran into friends of my father.

During my year abroad studying in Germany, for example, I felt that I had finally escaped the shadow of my father—I was so wrong. One evening, for example, I attended a doctoral celebration party and in the middle of it the department chair walked up to me and invited me to dinner—he apparently was doctoral candidate with Dad at the University of Berkeley in California. At another point, I helped a couple of random American tourists order dinner in a restaurant only to learn that the husband was an agricultural economist from Oregon State University and a friend of my father. Another time when a colleague asked if I had authored a journal article in 1963, I joked: “didn’t you know that I was a child prodigy agricultural economist?” The article was, of course, one of my father’s publications.

Now that the need to distinguish my career from my Dad’s has subsided it is easier to appreciate the broad scope of his contribution to agricultural economics, particularly in the areas of food consumption, demand, and distribution studies.

In 1983 Dad retired from federal service and joined the faculty of what is now the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Purdue University as associate professor on August 17, 1983. He taught classes such as marketing and strategic management, but also undertook research and consulting for numerous institutes and firms in the hotel and restaurant industries. He traveled, for example, on lengthy study trips to Liberia and Hong Kong during these years.

Dad was best known at Purdue University for starting the first doctoral program (anywhere) in the field of hospitality and tourism management in 1989. His first three students are now faculty members and the program that he started now has 30 doctoral students and is a leading program in the field.

The role of Dad’s Christian faith in his life experience has always been important, even if his memoir makes only occasional references. The church has traditionally taught personal disciple, commitment in marriage, and generosity in giving which are all evident in my father’s life. Dad was a good role model to the rest of us who benefited from his faith and devotion to Christ. He also served a number of churches as elder and in other roles.

More than his church work, however, Dad—introduced once as the “father of the WIC program”—[4]took seriously the concept that God is the creator of all creation and all knowledge is God’s knowledge. His work as an economist was a calling, not just a career. As the Prophet Jeremiah wrote of his own calling:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer 1:5)

Dad’s call came early, even before he was aware of it himself. A prophetic call is not necessarily just to preach and teach—we only know of Jeremiah because of his writing. For Jesus’ own brother, James, wrote:

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (Jas 1:27)

He was most proud of his contribution to USDA’s food and nutrition programs, which provided food to needy families (primarily single moms with kids) throughout the United States and territories, such as Puerto Rico and Guam, where the need was especially urgent.


Hiemstra, Stephen J. 2016. My Travel Through Life. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

[1] I abstracted this reflection from a postscript that I wrote for my father’s own memoir. See: Hiemstra (2016).


[3] During his federal service the principal groups were the American Agricultural Economics Association, the American Economic Association, and the Society of Government Economists. During his time at Purdue University, Dad was heavily involved in the International Council of Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Educators (CHRIE).

[4] The USDA has a feeding program for pregnant women called: women, infants, and children (WIC).

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Puerto Rico

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying,
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 
(Jer 1:4-5 ESV)

Puerto Rico

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the formative events in my emerging career as an agricultural economist was the World Food Conference of 1976, which was held at the Stephen’s Theatre at Iowa State University. The conference followed concerns expressed in the 1972 Club of Rome report:

“The intent of the project is to examine the complex of problems troubling men of all nations: poverty in the midst of plenty; degradation of the environment; loss of faith in institutions; uncontrolled urban spread; insecurity of employment; alienation of youth; rejections of traditional values; and inflation and other monetary and economic disruptions..[which have] three characteristics in common: they occur to some degree in all societies; they contain technical, social, economic, and political elements; and, most important of all, they interact.”

The Club of Rome project followed the OPEC oil embargo in 1972 and world grain shortages in 1972-74, and it modeled the world economy and predicted catastrophic resource constraints before the end of the twentieth century—because the world’s best and the brightest minds had advanced this premise, it captured the attention of the entire planet. Here was an urgent reason to study economics, particularly agricultural economics, because starvation was expected. As one speaker put it: “ya gotta wanna”. Before you can avert starvation and save the world, you have to want to do it. Before the end the conference, I clearly wanted to.

Another important topic discussed at the conference were results of the Alliance for Progress that was initiated by the Kennedy Administration and focused on economic development in Latin America, but the lessons learned were applied worldwide. Economic development focused, in part, on land reform and modernization of agriculture to boost food production. Because of the successes of Operation Bootstrap in Puerto Rico after World War II, Kennedy appointed Governor Luis Muñoz Marín as coordinator of the program.[1]

When I left Iowa State to begin graduate studies at Cornell University, my interest was to study economic development with particular interest in Latin America, where Cornell had strong ties. One challenge in pursuing Latin American studies was that I had studied German, not Spanish, in college and would need to become fluent. So I enrolled in Spanish at Cornell and looked for opportunities to study in Latin America in doing my thesis research.

Although I had never been to Latin America, my father—the other Stephen Hiemstra—had strong ties to Puerto Rico. All through my college years, my Dad traveled to Puerto Rico because  his work as chief economist for the Food and Nutrition Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture required periodic visits. As chief economist, he was responsible for, among other things, program evaluation of the food stamp program and, because about two-thirds of all Puerto Ricans were eligible for food stamps, the Puerto Rican program required special attention. Consequently, my Dad suggested that I consider Puerto Rico as the place to focus my research. When I ran the idea by my advisor at Cornell, he was delighted and told me that he had personal ties to the director of the agricultural experiment station at Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.[2] By the end of my year of college Spanish in 1977, arrangements had been made to finance my studies on the island for the summer.

I flew to Puerto Rico by way of Mexico City (Aeroméxico was wonderful) where I spent ten days with a Chilean friend (and former roommate), Eduardo, who was working at the time for the Inter American Development Bank (IADB). While I expected that Eduardo would use the occasion to share his IADB work experiences with me, but he felt that it was more important to expose me to Mexican culture. For example, in Mexico City we visited the Museo Nacional de Antropología—full of pre-columbian artifacts,[3] Chapultepec—a very large park with canals in the center of the city, and Pirámide del Sol—an Aztex pyramid.[4] Then, Eduardo’s roommate, Cuauhtémoc,[5] invited me to a fiesta de quince años (quinceanera) in Veracruz, Mexico.[6]

My experience in Mexico overwhelmed my sense of social justice between the beggars, small children working as street merchants, and the vast differences between rich and poor. To see old men walking naked in the streets in the very shadows of great cathedrals, startled  and shamed me. Fearful that I would run out of money far from home, I refused to buy much of anything, even from the small children; at one point, Eduardo bought some small trinket from the kids right after I refused even to talk to them—shaming me in my fear. The same fear of the future that keeps us from offering charity in our comfortable surroundings somehow becomes obscenely perverse in the company of those that are absolutely destitute.

The quinceanera also brought shame. The quinceanera was for Cuauhtémoc’s cousin and, because she was now 15, by custom she was eligible to marry. At the party, her friends all lined up to dance with me because everyone knew that I was a gringo and single, but, as a self-respecting 24 year old, I did not know how to react to invitations to dance from a room full of 15 year old girls; in any case, being inebriated, I did not handle it well. After the party, when I objected to sleeping in a bed with three other guys, the family put me up in a hotel—all by myself. When I woke up in the morning in this strange hotel, Eduardo and Cuauhtémoc were nowhere to be seen and I had no money, no idea where I was, a terrible hangover, and not enough Spanish fluency to work it all out. That evening, I found myself at a dinner party as the guest of honor of the young lady’s parents who were anxious to arrange a wedding for their daughter; she, like any other 15 year old, found the conversation tiresome and spent the evening watching television. In the end, I was shamed of my ignorance and I think that Cuauhtémoc found me a disappointment.

After 10 days of tacos (even though freshly made) for the three meals a day, I was ready for Puerto Rico. On my last day in Mexico City, I think that Eduardo was tired of my complaining about the tacos and took me to a nice Mexican restaurant. He ordered dinner for me, but refused to tell me what he had ordered. After we finished eating, he asked if I enjoyed my dinner and I said yes. He then told me that I had eaten cat—to this day, I am not sure what it was.

My flight to Puerto Rico included a fueling stop in Guatamala—I only remember the sweltering heat and humidity. By the time we arrived in San Juan, it was already late afternoon. For some reason, I had expected that someone would meet me at the airport, but I found myself alone in the airport the only white person in a large crowd of black people; while I had read many books about Puerto Rico and its large population of persons of African descent, I never expected to find myself racially isolated in this kind of situation. When I asked for directions to the bus station, I only got blank stares—finally, someone explained that I need only take one of the buses out in front of the airport. Because Río Piedras was not far from the airport, I decided to take a taxi hoping that I would not get lost. It was almost dark—about 8:30 p.m.—when I arrived at the University of Puerto Rico.

For some reason, I expected that the University of Puerto Rico knew that I was coming and walked confidently to the main dormitory with my one large suitcase. When I arrived, a dozen students were hanging out at the front desk when I inquired about a room. The desk clerk knew nothing about me and had no idea what to tell me, but one of the students was from New York and told me that he knew a boarding house with a spare room. So in the dark, about 10 p.m., we walked to Calle Manilla where he introduced me to Matilda, an old woman who spoke no English at all but who had an extra bed to rent for 30 dollars a month. Happy to have any place at all, I took a shower and went to bed, wondering whether I had made some horrible mistake.

Years later (2012), drifting off in church listening to a sermon in Spanish, again I wondered whether I had made a horrible mistake in choosing to get involved in Hispanic ministry. I prayed: “Lord, why have you brought me to this time and this place.” God answered my prayer as I started to reflect on how I had come to Christ through the testimony of a young New York gang member—Nicky Cruz,[7] in the movie, The Cross and the Switchblade.[8] I thought: “Cruz, Cruz—that sounds Puerto Rican.” I later learned that Nicky Cruz was indeed Puerto Rican. In other words, God had brought me to faith at age 13 through the testimony of a young Puerto Rican, even though at the time I had no idea what a Puerto Rican was.

Consequently, neither my “horrible mistake” in 1977 nor my “horrible mistake” in 2012 was any mistake at all.


[2] La Estación Experimental Agrícola en Río Piedras.








Iowa State University. 1977. Proceedings of the World Food Conference of 1976, June 27-July 1. Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Meadows, Donella, H. Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1975. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books Publishers.

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