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Vernon Ehlers, Former Longtime Michigan Congressman, Dies at 83

Ehlers was known as champion of the Great Lakes and science education

As a congressman from Michigan, Vernon Ehlers used his physics background to advance environmental and STEM legislation for nearly two decades. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
As a congressman from Michigan, Vernon Ehlers used his physics background to advance environmental and STEM legislation for nearly two decades. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

The first research physicist ever elected to Congress, Vernon J. 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 the age of 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 for Michigan’s 3rd District in 1993, succeeding Rep. Paul J. Henry who died of brain cancer. The seat was seat once occupied by former President Gerald R. Ford. Ehlers served for 17 years before retiring in 2011.

He served as co-chairman of the House Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education Caucus and was a member of Republicans for Environmental Protection (now known as ConservAmerica). He also sat on the Science, Education, and Transportation committees, and chaired the House Administration Committee from 2006 to 2007.

“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 earned his doctorate in nuclear physics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1960 and was a professor of physics for more than two decades before entering Michigan politics, and, later, the national arena.

In 2002, he helped create a federal program to clean up toxic contamination from rivers and harbors that feed into the Great Lakes. Michigan Democratic Rep. Sander M. Levin, said in a statement that Ehlers’ leadership on that effort was an example of his willingness “to work with others in the Congress, regardless of party, to achieve solutions for those he represented.” 

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,” McBride said.

Michigan lawmakers from both parties took to Twitter to reflect on Ehlers’ legacy.

“They don’t make them like Vern Ehlers anymore,” GOP Rep. Fred Upton tweeted. “So well respected on both sides of the aisle, hard-working, & always a teacher at heart. #RIP”

The Wolverine State’s senior senator, Democrat Debbie Stabenow, echoed those sentiments, adding that Ehlers represented Western Michigan with “distinction.”

Democratic Sen. Gary Peters said Ehlers’ “public service was exemplary, an example for all of us to live by.”

Republican Rep. Justin Amash, who succeeded Ehlers in the 3rd District, said his predecessor “served our community with honor and did his best to represent everyone.”

GOP Rep. Tim Walberg called his former colleague “a very good man and a great legislator.”

Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee remembered Ehlers as “a leader who valued country over party and always strived for bipartisan consensus.”

Ehlers is survived by his wife of 59 years, Johanna Meulink; four children; five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The funeral service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.