A big heart for Holland. A unique path to principled leadership.
With a passion for our city, a joy for connecting people and their talents, and a willingness to explore the real-world consequences of every issue that comes to the Council chamber, Nancy is well suited to her role as mayor.
But Nancy – a high school English teacher by training – describes herself as an improbable politician. Her interest in community service was sparked nearly 40 years ago. And her pace was much more like the tortoise’s than the hare’s.
But it was the right approach for Nancy, and it all began when she closed out her teaching career at Holland Christian High School to become a full-time, work-at-home mother for her and husband Jim’s three children.
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, Nancy enjoyed listening to the Focus on the Family radio program hosted by Dr. James Dobson, and two central messages captured her attention:
• Applauding good character traits can be a vehicle for strengthening individuals, families and communities.
• Christians can promote civility by praying for leaders at all levels of government.
Taking these core ideas to heart, Nancy became active in an initiative to publicly acknowledge positive behavior. She introduced herself to then Holland Mayor Al McGeehan to offer prayer and support. McGeehan was touched by the gesture. And he encouraged then Holland Police Chief John Kruithoff to invite Nancy to attend a gathering of civic and business leaders to discuss having Holland designated as “A City of Character.”
A meeting with a memorable date
Although Nancy had lived in Holland for years, the first time she had ever set foot inside City Hall was to attend the character-focused meeting, a date she’ll always be able to remember because it was held on the fateful morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The meeting commenced, but as reports of the terrorist attacks came in, the atmosphere quickly turned grave. City law enforcement officers that were present had to immediately excuse themselves to do their respective jobs.
Seeing the situation unfold in City Hall – and seeing our city’s first responders spring into action— underscored in Nancy’s mind the important role government can play in promoting the good and positive. She realized then and there that she wanted to contribute to Holland, to whatever extent she could.
And this is what Nancy has done for more than 16 years.
She was first elected to Holland City Council in November 2005. In November 2015, she was elected the first woman mayor in the 148-year history of the office. That’s a long track record of leadership for a public servant for someone like Nancy who has never considered herself a “politician.”
Nancy said she definitely felt out of place at the first meeting of Chief Kruithoff’s “City of Character” group. And she was.
“As people were introducing themselves, it was ‘I’m so-and-so from such-and-such bank, or from this or that company,’ “ Nancy said. “When it was my turn, I just said, ‘Hello, I’m Nancy De Boer from home.’ I felt I was the missing link, with little in common with many of the professionals in the room.”
But the individuals in the group didn’t see it that way. They recognized her as a person who already believed that acknowledging acts of good character could, collectively, fortify the city. In 2002, they elected her executive director of the West Michigan Character Council, a position she holds to this day.
When the council seat in her ward opened up prior to election day, Mayor McGeehan and others suggested to Nancy she seek the appointment. Although she was eager to step up her service to the city, she wasn’t sure she wanted to jump into the “competitive” nature of electoral politics. With her family and responsibilities at the character council, she was already plenty busy. With the deadline for the council seat application fast approaching – and no one else expressing interest — Nancy began seriously considering it. Nancy relied on prayer and the counsel of her husband Jim and others for guidance.
“God has a way of clarifying your direction,” she said. “But there’ll always be twists and turns.”
And such was the case with the council appointment, as the council chose to fill the seat with Kurt Dykstra, a lawyer who entered the race minutes before the deadline.
“I was not confident, and there was much about city government I didn’t understand, yet I was very disappointed not to be picked,” DeBoer said. “I had a lot to learn. I didn’t know in advance that I would be interviewed by the entire council, and on television, no less. At the time it felt overwhelming, so I thought that was the sudden end of politics for me.”
But it wasn’t.
“As quaint as it sounds, it was still in my heart to serve the people of Holland,” she said.
And soon thereafter, Nancy won election to her first of three four-year terms in City Council, where midway through her third term (2015), she became mayor. In beginning her work on council, Nancy said her approach was to tackle the issues that came her way as a student, to view her duties on council the ultimate deep-dive into learning about Holland’s many opportunities and challenges. As she served on the Parks and Recreation and other committees, she listened carefully and studied hard.
Holland 101 – Understanding what it takes to lead
As the former Nancy Bushhouse , Nancy says she’s 25% Dutch, but didn’t grow up in Dutch culture. Her father was an executive for a telephone company and her family moved several times in the Midwest before settling in the Chicago area. Holland was just a hamlet her family traveled through to visit her mother’s relatives in Muskegon and her Dad’s relatives in Kalamazoo.
Nancy and Jim were newlyweds when they moved to Holland after she was offered a teaching position at Holland Christian High School. They had met two years earliers as members of the Calvin College Choir. Nancy, a mezzo-soprano, and Jim, a baritone, became friends while performing in a campus musical titled “The Impossible Possibility.” Both were seeing other people at the time, and when the show closed, Nancy said she and Jim realized they missed each other.
They began dating and the De Boers have been married 39 years.
Nancy has three words to describe her very first first impressions of Holland, “Clean, green, and safe.” She admits she missed the racial and ethnic diversity she appreciated in Chicago. But Holland’s minority populations grew in the late 1980s and 90s, and Nancy said this trend helped our city “feel more normal” to her.
Nancy won’t forget her first ever springtime in Holland. She remembers admiring large tulip beds on the verge of blooming on the campuses of Holland High and Holland Christian High, and then muttering to herself, “That won’t last long with teen-agers.” But she was wrong. She was amazed to see the plantings remain pristine.
“I couldn’t believe how pervasive and infectious our civic pride was,” she said. “Holland is unique. When spring comes, wow! The beauty of our city is breathtaking,“ Nancy said. “I love it that Holland celebrates the coming of spring with Tulip Time. Most of us are happy to see winter gone. So it’s a great reason and season for a festival.”
Holland’s natural beauty has, over the years, enhanced Nancy’s personal awareness of the attractiveness of our area.It’s not just because her many civic involvements; as mayor, with America in Bloom, and with International Cities in Bloom. She’s an avid watcher of HGTV, where she enjoys gathering economical tips and ideas for remodeling and beautifying her own home as well as properties in the city.
Her favorite activities are arranging flowers, writing narratives for the West Michigan Character Council awards, reaching out to diverse individuals (young and old) to wrestle with city issues, reading poems by Lucy Shaw, and ushering at Hope’s Summer Repertory Theater so she can enjoy the musicals.
She and Jim, who recently retired from Holland Public Schools as a vocal music teacher and is now a professor of music at Hope College, also greatly enjoy being grandparents. Son Eric, 34, a technology teacher at a K-8 school in Richmond, VA, and wife Sarah have two children. Daughter Maria, 32, teaches Spanish in Zeeland Public elementary schools. She and her husband Steve Darrow live in Holland Township and have an infant daughter. Son Jordan, 28, lives in Kentwood and is a trucker for Halvor Lines.
If you love to fan the flame of Hope-Calvin rivalry by keeping score, Nancy, Jim and Maria graduated from Calvin College. Eric and Jordan are Hope College grads. So, are the De Boers a house divided?
“No,” Nancy said, stating it just like an seasoned politico, “We love everybody.”
A leader who dares to care
During her decade as a councilmember – along with her participation on city issues – Nancy championed Holland Youth Advisory Council activities, the Labor Day BoardWALK, and the Pay It Forward Holland initiative. The role of mayor has brought additional opportunities for fostering positive connections with residents and influencers, including involvement in the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council, which addresses issues involving multiple municipalities.
“As mayor, I represent Holland in many places,” she said. “It’s a privilege and I try to be the best voice I can be.”
Although, Holland employs a city manager who administers municipal government, Nancy embraces the fact that many people come to the Mayor’s Office with their concerns.
“We share a love for this city we all call home,” she notes. “You build community one by one, friend by friend.”