Talen’s seminary background spurs community outreach

August 29, 2011
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Jim Talen came to Grand Rapids from the Chicago suburb of Highland, Ind., to study religion at Calvin College. But he changed his mind about entering the seminary, and years later ended up being elected and then later re-elected to the Kent County Board of Commissioners.

“I came here to go to Calvin, and I actually started off as a pre-seminary student, believe it or not. I ended up taking a few seminary classes, but … I graduated with a philosophy degree and an elementary-education degree — so my goal was to teach philosophy to first-graders,” he said, tongue in cheek.

“I spent five-and-a-half years at Calvin because I switched to education about halfway through and had some catching up to do. But along the way, I also picked up some seminary classes just because all that stuff has always interested and fascinated me — questions about who we are and why we exist, and what we should be doing and all that,” he added.

During his final semester at Calvin, Talen did his student teaching at Jenison Christian, and then stayed on to teach there, so he and his wife, Pat, planted their roots here.

After becoming involved in neighborhood issues, Talen decided to run for the county commission. He lost his first time out with 48 percent of the vote. He ran again as a Democrat and was elected as part of the “Clinton landslide” in 1992. He began serving the following January and held the district until 2000, when he decided not to run again because he felt he wasn’t spending enough time with his family.

“I was knocking on doors during off-election years. I would start right after the school elections, which were in June back then, and I would spend 20 or more hours a week until Election Day knocking on doors. So, June, July, August, September, October — for five months, in addition to my full-time job and in addition to my county commission work. All that to say, after eight years, I was burned out,” he said.

Jim Talen

Organization: Kent County Board of Commissioners
Title: County Commissioner, 16th District
Age: 58
Birthplace: Highland, Ind.
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Wife, Pat; children, Elliot, Evan and Emily
Business/community organizations: Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, Kent County Finance & Physical Resources Committee, and Heritage Hill Association
Biggest career break:  Working with Gene Proctor at Baxter Community Center, who greatly influenced Talen and exposed him to different cultures.

“My daughter left for college, and that was a reality check for me because she was gone from the house and I realized I hadn’t given her as much time as I would have liked to. And I thought, ‘I’ve got two boys just going into high school, I don’t have to do this commission thing now. I can do it later, but I need to be available for my sons.’ So I decided not to run. The irony, and I always tell people this, is little did I know once my boys got to high school, they could care less if I spent any time with them,” he said with a laugh.

Talen said he is very happy he ran in 2008 and was re-elected. “I have been having a ball, seriously.” He called his time away from the commission a sabbatical, and said everyone who holds office should take one. “I think it recharges the batteries. I think you can get into a little cocoon while in public office, and you need to get out of that cocoon,” he said.

Talen is a program developer for Family Futures, the former Child and Family Resource Council, and is primarily responsible for the Connections Program, which helps parents support their children’s healthy development. “We give them information. We give them a tool that helps them screen their children for developmental delays. We’re really trying to make sure that kids are developmentally ready to enter kindergarten. That’s the goal of the program,” he said.

“You might connect the dots there … because this fits so well with one of my main interests at the county, which is the way we deal with too many people in jail and too many people in the judicial system and unhealthy situations in our county that the Health Department has to deal with. The best way to deal with those things and to address them is early on, in the first couple years of kids’ lives,” he said.

“Equipping parents and identifying issues with very young kids and then getting them the resources that they need to address those things just pays off so incredibly for those kids, for those families, and for the whole community, in the long run. When I was first on the commission eons ago, that was one of my big things: prevention.”

Before joining Family Futures two years ago, Talen was network administrator at Grand Rapids Christian Schools for 10 years. He also served as assistant director at Baxter Community Center for 15 years and was the IT trainer at Blodgett Hospital prior to it merging with Butterworth Hospital to form Spectrum Health. Talen currently teaches Microsoft Office classes at Grand Rapids Community College.

Talen has been married to Pat for 38 years. They have three children: Elliot, Evan and Emily. Pat is from South Holland, Ill. She attended the same high school as Jim, but they didn’t date each other until after graduation. Pat also moved here to attend Calvin. “We actually got married after our sophomore year at Calvin, which was a little unusual back then,” he said.

Pat taught physical education but now works in special education, where she provides support services for the classroom setting at Vanguard Charter. “She has kids with special needs that are in the regular school system, and she works individually with those kids,” he said.

Elliot is Pat and Jim’s youngest. He works at D.A. Blodgett-St. Johns and is a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan. Talen is an equally die-hard Chicago White Sox fan. Each season, they take in a Sox-Tigers game in Chicago and at Comerica Park, where they’re headed to watch the clubs battle this weekend.

Evan runs a wine-and-cheese shop in Richland, Wash. “He is our creative entrepreneurial child,” said Talen. Emily and husband Michael presented the Talens with their first grandchild, Ava, about four months ago. Michael works for SUSPA Inc., a German firm with a local facility on Roger B. Chaffee Memorial Drive. He and Emily recently moved to Germany so he could run the European division. “We’ve come to learn the joys of Skype. It’s an amazing thing. They can move their computer around and show us the place they’re living in and they can show us Ava. It’s pretty cool.”

Talen is very active in the community. He has been involved in the Heritage Hill Association since they bought their house there 36 years ago. He was involved in the early redevelopment days of the Wealthy Street district, which helped set the stage for SEED. He is the county’s representative on the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority and sits on the county’s Finance Committee. When he isn’t working or commissioning, Talen likes to head up north to the shoreline with Pat. “The other thing I like to do is brew beer,” he said.

Besides grappling with the budget, Talen felt the biggest issues facing the county this year are the public pressure One Kent Coalition is exerting to consolidate the county and Grand Rapids into a single government, and the numerous requests the county has been receiving to put dedicated millages on the ballot. As for his future, Talen is still interested in serving the public, but he may make a big change in four years.

“I’d like to stay on the county commission a couple more years. I don’t know about after that. I really want to retire when I’m eligible for Social Security at 62,” he said. “What I’d really like to do is retire from my job, teach part time at Community College, and find things to do in the community. I love Grand Rapids and I love where we’re going. It’s nice to be in a county that is developing in a pretty progressive direction.”

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