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Second chances: Vos reflects on life by writing biography

Kenneth Vos pours defoamer into a pan during the process of making maple syrup in his Vermont sugaring house. (submitted photo)1 / 3
kenneth Vos (far right) is shown with (from left) Dennis Brady and Ivan Kooiker of Luverne during a hunting expedition at Talcot Lake. The photo was taken by a fourth hunter, nephew Loren Vos, also of Luverne. (submitted photo)2 / 3
Kenneth Vos (second from left in back) and his fellow students proudly hold up an afghan they knit for wounded soldiers in a picture taken in 1943 at the Hardwick Elementary School. (submitted photo)3 / 3

When Kenneth Vos set out to write a book about his life, he had two motives for doing so.

“One was for myself,” he said, referencing psychologist Eric Erikson’s eight stages of development. “You look back at your whole life: Does it make any sense? Is it a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end? Does it hold together? What meaning can I find in my life? I thought of various conclusions, and the most embracing one is that I was a fortunate person to get a second chance at life in different areas.”

Vos’ other motive was to leave a lasting legacy.

“I think more people should do it,” he said. “I wanted to leave something for my children, my children’s children and my friends. It’s kind of a hunger to connect with something larger. … Every intelligent adult ought to leave something for the people to follow, how they saw life and what they experienced.”

The result of that quest is Vos’ autobiography, “Up the Hayloft Ladder.” Now living in Vermont, Vos looked back at his growing up years on a farm near Hardwick and the chapters in his life that followed. Born in a farmhouse near Matlock, Iowa, in Sioux County — a stronghold of the Dutch Reformed faith in which he was raised — Vos moved with his family to a farm near Hardwick when he was 10 years old.

“It was definitely hard work,” he recalled. “I never remember as a child hearing the word Depression, but we were living through it, although those of us on the farm were more fortunate food-wise. There were very positive things about living on the farm, especially in those days, and negative things, too. In those days we lived closer to the land, closer to the earth in some way. We could hear the meadowlarks, the turtledoves, the mourning doves. We handled all the sheaves of grain before we pitched them into the wagon, pitched them into the threshing machine. ... Our farm was very fertile, but we had many Canadian thistles, and we’d go up and down every farm row in that 320-acre farm…. It was a rigorous life, but at another level very satisfying. I had kind of a kinship with Mother Earth.”

Always a good student, Vos attended a country school near Hardwick, then Luverne High School, graduating in 1948.

“I was part of one of the smallest high school classes. I won an award for being the highest boy scholar in my class,” he noted. “I always loved books, could never understand people who didn’t like school.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college, it was just a question of where. Initially, I was pretty good at science, and I got accepted into the South Dakota School of Mines and Engineering. At the last minute, I changed my mind and went to Central College in Pella, Iowa.”

At Central, Vos was first a pre-engineering student, but when he struggled with math classes, his focus changed to the humanities.

“At some point, maybe when I was a sophomore, I decided I was going to be a clergyman, and I got into a whole other track and became a literature major. I have a whole chapter on my experiences at Central, which was then much smaller than it is now. … It was kind of a weird combination of liberal education and this strong Dutch Calvinism — the plague of my youth. I defined myself as a youth, not in terms of that culture, but in defiance of that culture. It was so life-denying, so legalistic, moralistic. I think it’s softened a great deal since then.”

Despite his feelings about the church in which he was raised, Vos continued his studies toward the ministry, and upon his graduation from Central received an award for “that student who shows promise of making the greatest contribution to the Christian ministry.”

For seminary, Vos chose to the New Brunswick Theological Seminary on the campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“That’s what brought me to the East Coast, pulled me out of the Midwest,” Vos explained. “I had a very happy experience in my first parish in Fishkill, N.Y., for seven years, but then got caught up in this awful American myth of upward mobility and went to a church in Hawthorne, N.J., that had a segment of these rigid Calvinists. They didn’t like me at all. They were so anti-cultural and objected to me having illustrations from literature in my sermons. After three years, I got so disillusioned, I said the heck with it.”

Vos enrolled in a doctorate program at Columbia University, and while on a camping trip to Vermont with his first wife, fell in love with the landscape and ambiance.

“We came upon this lovely hill farm with a sugar maple orchard,” he said about the property where they settled in Vermont. “When I went for the closing, I saw a little sign that said Lyndon State College, so I went there and met with the president. They were starting a philosophy program there, so I got hired and thoroughly enjoyed teaching there for 32 years.”

In retrospect, Vos looks at his life as BV and AV — Before Vermont and After Vermont — although he continues to stay connected to his Midwestern roots with regular trips back to hunt every fall.

“I love that Luverne area, the farm land there,” he said. “It’s a different world. I come every fall and hunt in Minnesota, and then I go with friends and hunt in South Dakota, too. My current wife and I bought a farm in North Dakota — we just rent it out to people there — so I also include North Dakota a little bit in my hunting. There’s a whole section in the book about hunting. My favorite anymore is pheasants.”

Other interests for Vos include collecting antiques, and for many years, maple sugaring. When his first marriage ended, the farm was sold but he kept the maple sugar orchard and continued to tap the trees.

“I did it for the last time this year,” he said. “I’m developing arthritis in my knees, so my dear son tapped a few trees for me, and I decided this would be the last year. We tapped 160 trees, and we used to tap as many as 1,200.”

It takes about 40 gallons of sap, boiled down, to yield a gallon of maple syrup, Vos explained. Each tap provides, on average, 10 gallons of sap.

“Like farming in the Midwest, producing maple syrup is undergoing something of a revolution, which includes using a vacuum to suck more sap out of the trees and operations as large as 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and even 40,000 taps.”

Retired since 1999, Vos and second wife, Frances, continue to live in northeastern Vermont. He has two sons.

For Vos, writing “”Up the Hayloft Ladder” was an introspective process that resulted in many self-revelations.

“If the autobiography has a unifying theme, it is gratitude to have had a second chance at life in three significant areas: vocation, psychological and spiritual wholeness and marriage,” he explained. “... I got a second chance at life again.”

“Up the Hayloft Ladder” is available online from Amazon, Authorhouse and other online book merchants. Vos can be contacted via email,

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers may be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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