“When an old man dies we lose a library”. Willem Jansen, a longtime resident of Round Pond, died at Harborview June 30th of Altzheimer’s and cancer. He was a vast library
Born in 1934 in Arnhem, Netherlands [“A Bridge Too Far”], from the ages of 6 to 10 during the Occupation Willem had to be the man of the family, running errands across town on his kick scooter, balancing the family’s needed supplies on the handlebars. His father had to stay out of sight to avoid being scooped up for factory work in Germany. When the Germans stripped the rubber off his wheels “that made my job a little harder”.
Even younger than this, when his mother was busy, she put him in a packing crate with a Calvanist bible and told him to teach himself to read - which he did. Most Dutch schools were closed during the Occupation because they refused to teach Nazi propaganda. When they reopened after the war, classrooms, as was customary, were divided between the academic side and the trade side. Willem, from a poor family, was placed in the trade side - “so I just learned both sides of the room”. After the grade school years he was sent to trade school where he learned tool and die work.
During the war, Holland realized that there was no protection in being a neutral country. Therefore, after the war, it restarted its military services, hardware, and Fokker plane production. Willem took the air force entrance exams and on the basis of his test scores he was made an automatic lieutenant major and put in charge of the entire Dutch motor pool in Rotterdam. He learned to drive and repair anything and how to manage people and industry. He was tempted to stay on and become a pilot [he faked his color blind test], but he wanted to get on with life. From the airforce, Willem was accepted at Delft University in their engineering school, finishing the 2 year program in 6 months. His father, who was a delivery man for ESSO, announced one day what a wonderful company he worked for, that if any child of an employee was accepted to an American university Esso would pay for it. Willem thought this was a nice idea, he had heard that both MIT and CalTech were good, but MIT was closer and easier to get to. He boarded an old troop ship with just the clothes on his back, made his way to Boston, arranged for the head of admissions at MIT and the program director of ESSO to meet. One said “We’ll take him if you pay for it” and the other said “We’ll pay for it if you take him”. Willem had them shake hands over the table and he was in.
He received his engineering masters degree in 1 ½ years while he learned English, made lifetime international friends, took up squash, and co-founded an engineering research company [later to grow into a 150 man engineering think tank outside Boston, Willem as director of research]. He was one of the first at MIT to see the potential of computer design, waiting long hours in the middle of the night with his punch cards ready for his spot at the local Eniac in Boston. When he finished his PhD in 6 months, MIT said it wouldn’t look right - he had to wait to receive it for 2 years. Meanwhile, he should be a teaching fellow [as well as organizing his growing company]. He married Natalie Peterson, a young psychologist, proudly started an American family and proudly became an American citizen, settling eventually in Weston, Massachusetts. From boyhood, he had felt that America was a big country in which to try his wings - everything in Holland was small; besides, he had always liked Voice of America jazz on his homemade crystal set.
After several successful years with his research company he proudly bought Fairview Farm in Round Pond, fulfilling a Dutchman’s dream of giving his family a country summer home. For years he drove back and forth from Boston to join his family on summer weekends.
Willem was widowed in 1994. Later he met Alexandra Wilson and they were together for 25 wonderful years of shared adventures and travels including a 5 year stay in Shanghai where Willem was a visiting professor at Jiao Tong University, China’s premier engineering school. Willem had been a trusted consultant and lecturer in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. He foresaw that China would be needing his expertise and was one of the first foreigners allowed in. Besides China, Willem had consulted for years throughout Europe, Asia, South Africa and South America. Having expertise in both tool and die machining as well as the academic side of engineering made him unique in his specialty - turbomachinery.
Willem was a self made man, honed by the privations of WWII. He was a deep reader, deep thinker, multilingual, and a genuinely kind secure man. He had a delicious sense of the ridiculous and a quaint precision of language. He set a goal of learning something new every year - raising orchids, watercolor painting, writing poetry, snowshoeing, scuba diving, raising vegetables, wallpapering. He built a boat and taught himself to sail it, sailing it everywhere around the nearby Maine islands. He repaired anything. Among his many quiet contributions locally he rewired the Washington Schoolhouse in its restoration. He was a devoted family man - always had time for his family - and all children instinctively loved and trusted him.
Willem is survived by his 3 children: Tasha, Willem and Kim; by 4 grandchildren: Jesse Jansen, Morgan, Mckensie and Madison Murray; by his wife, Alexandra, and her children and grandchildren, and extended family in Holland. There will be no church service; Willem had enough as a child, sitting 5 hours every Sunday on hard benches to listen to fire and brimstone; he never went again as an adult. “I could do it easier now, but when you’re young you don’t have anything to think about.” There will be an accordion concert later in the season given in his memory for anyone to attend. As a teen, Willem rode his beat-up old Triumph motorcycle into southern France every summer to work on farms and pick grapes. He tied his old accordion onto the back seat “to attract girls”.
Helen Neering was once asked what it takes to live the good life. Her reply was: “Be kind and be useful.” Willem was the kindest and most useful of men.