Joop van der Zwan (Concierge at the BSN 1966-2001): another wonderful (his) story by Mike Weston, BSN school archivist

A couple of months ago, in April, Simon Brooks and Kathy Moore held a party to celebrate their 30 years of living in The Netherlands. Among the guests was a certain Joop van der Zwan, seen in the photo at the bottom of this article with his daughter, Anja, plus ex-Head of Economics, Eric Porter, Simon, Mike Weston and Kathy.  Joop is now in his eighties, still in fine fettle and still very interested in the fortunes of the BSN. Daughter Anja, who has worked at the school since 1980 as a laboratory technician, keeps him in the picture.

But why should this elderly Dutchman be so interested in the fortunes of our school? Because he is one of a number of unforgettable, larger than life figures who have dotted the landscape of the BSN over the years. Indeed he is now our only direct link with the staff of the Senior School when it first opened in 1966. Only a few people at the school will remember Joop – after all he retired 18 years ago – but I think it’s time that others got to know him. In an earlier blog I wrote about a man called Bob Carrington, Head of the Senior School when I arrived in The Netherlands in 1972.  Bob was an important influence on me as a young teacher. So, at the same time, was Joop van der Zwan. A headmaster and a concierge.

Here is what I wrote about Joop back in 2001 on the occasion of his retirement:

“1966 was a very important year in the history of the BSN. All pupils, Primary and Secondary, were housed in one set of buildings on the Tapijtweg and there was serious overcrowding. That year, after much discussion and negotiation, additional premises were bought at Parkweg 17 and a separate Senior School was opened. At the same time a young Scheveninger, Joop van der Zwan, was looking for a new job.

Staff of the new Senior Division in 1966 with Joop front row one from left

Joop had spent the previous 13 years, since leaving school at the age of 15, working as a sailor – for the fishing fleet, for Shell tankers, for the Norfolk Line and various other companies. He had seen much of the world, but it was a tough way of life and he had a young family. He needed a land-based job. And the English School was looking for a concierge. That was how it all began.

Anyone who has only known Joop in recent times cannot perhaps appreciate just how essential he was, during those early years, to the efficient every day running of the Senior School. He was in charge of virtually everything outside the classroom. If there were problems with lighting or heating, plumbing or ventilation, he had to sort them out. Broken windows, blocked toilets and drains, short circuits, damaged furniture, leaking taps, painting and decoration – in fact all the maintenance work in some large and not very new buildings.

But there was so much more besides. He looked after the staff and the students, running errands, ferrying people and goods around, making phone calls to sort out endless problems for those who spoke no Dutch. He made the tea, he copied exam papers on incredibly primitive machinery and he was immensely popular amongst staff and students alike. Helped by his wife, Greet, he did all the cleaning, the mopping up, the unpleasant, smelly jobs. And so on and so on. If a teacher were ill someone could always stand in for them, but had Joop ever been absent it would have been a catastrophe.

Fortunately, he never was. A photo of him in the school archives bears the caption, “ Joop van der Zwan. Concierge. Possibly the most important person in the school.”

Outside his office in 1981: “Possibly the most important person in the school.”

From 1966 until 1979 Joop was in sole charge of the Senior School but with the move to new premises in Voorschoten the work was far too much for one person and he was joined by Cor Barnhoorn, Joop doing the days and Cor the evenings. As pupil and staff numbers increased and the buildings expanded, so the workload grew. Yet somehow it still all got done, quickly and efficiently, and always with a smile. Then, in 1990, after barely a day’s absence from work in a quarter of a century, Joop was involved in a bad accident. Falling down the stairs at his home he sustained serious head injuries and had to be rushed to hospital. Fortunately he was able to return to work after some weeks but although he tried to continue full time it became clear that that was no longer going to be possible.

So for a decade now, as other younger concierges have joined the school to help cope with the ever increasing demands of running such a large and complex establishment, Joop has become part of a team and has been responsible for the early morning shift each day. By 10.00 a.m. he has finished his day’s work and leaves for home, so it is possible that some students, indeed some staff, may hardly have any dealings with him and may not know him well.

To all of us, whether staff or student, Joop is a man who is fundamentally good and kind, who is cheerful, easy to get along with and always ready to give a helping hand. But for those of us who have been at the BSN a long time, those of us to whom he has become a very real friend and who knows just how much he and his family have given to this school, it is hard to imagine the BSN without him. But time passes and he has earned a rest.

We hope that his retirement will be long and happy. For myself, I shall miss him badly. Whether he knew it or not, as a young teacher I learned a lot from Joop about working with and respecting people from all sorts of different  backgrounds, so essential in a school like ours; and I shall often think back to the early days when, at times of emergency, the then Headmaster, Bob Carrington, would say: “Quickly! Someone find Mr van der Zwan! He’ll sort it out.”

Joop in 2019 with family and friends
Joop in 2019 with his family and friends

Stories from the Archives is a Voices Blog series by British School Archivist Mike Weston.

Mr. Mike Weston, BSN school archivist,
detective and storyteller

Mike came to the English School at The Hague (BSN) in 1972 as Head of German, intending to stay for two years. Now he is in his 47th year at the BSN. Over the years he has taught a range of subjects and has been involved in many school activities. Starting a school archive from scratch and tracing the history of the school is the activity which has given him the most pleasure. Once he reached retirement age, he asked if he could stay on as archivist in hopes to be of service for a while yet. In this capacity, he regularly dives into the archives and comes up with some great stories. His stories are all our stories, enjoy them.