Van Valen joined Beloit’s faculty in 1960, and taught U.S. and African history until his retirement in 1989. Later in his career, he developed and taught courses on environmental history. His areas of expertise included the history of industrial workers around the world, French and American policies toward native people, and American attitudes toward conservation.
As a historian, Van Valen regularly turned his attention to studying elements of the college’s past. He was interested in James J. Blaisdell, one of Beloit’s first professors and a pioneering environmentalist. Van Valen researched and published articles on Blaisdell who, among other things, was instrumental in preserving the land that became Big Hill Park north of the city of Beloit. Van Valen was also responsible for locating, securing, and translating the Civil War diary of Arthur H. Smith, which is now in the Beloit College Archives. Smith, a member of the class of 1867, became a prominent missionary to China.
In addition to teaching, Van Valen took on many institutional responsibilities at Beloit, including chairing the graduate fellowships and scholarship committee. He was also veteran, serving during World War II in the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
Van Valen earned his B.A. from Swarthmore and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Claremont Graduate University. He was predeceased by his daughter, Margaret Van Valen Russell’82, and is survived by his wife, Julia Smith Van Valen’49, and son, Tim Van Valen.