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A week with the beadle before he retires

Marc de HaanLeiden will look slightly less like Hogwarts now

Thousands of students have heard the words “hora est” with relief, but now his time has come. After 27 years of loyal service, Willem van Beelen, the most remarkable beadle in the Netherlands, is leaving Leiden University.

(Originele en iets langere Nederlandstalige versie)

“They’re always nervous, although some cope better than others”, remarks beadle Willem van Beelen while he pulls on his black gown and picks up the Rector’s official chain: a man of few words, perhaps, but the most visible face of Leiden University. He was an administrative assistant until a vacancy turned up at the beadle’s office. He became an assistant beadle in 1981 and since 1989 he’s been in charge of academic ceremonies and their correct procedures. Next week, he’ll be 64 and he’s taking early retirement at the end of this month.
Today, like every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, he is making sure that the doctoral defence ceremonies run smoothly. In his experience, well-meant comments such as “Remember to enjoy it, it’s your big day” and “Are you nervous now?” don’t help matters at all. “I try to explain the procedures, clearly and matter-of-factly.” He has just conducted the doctoral candidate and seconds into a separate room in the Academy Building. “The seconds are like witnesses who help the candidate by looking things up.”
Van Beelen explains the correct manners and forms of address to the future doctor. He hands the official chain to the Vice Rector and guides the doctoral thesis committee to the doctoral thesis room, where they run through the questions. He welcomes the doctoral candidate’s friends and relatives in the senaatskamer and leads the candidate and the doctoral thesis committee inside. For exactly three quarters of an hour, the candidate must answer tough questions about the dissertation. Then Van Beelen enters the room and announces “hora est” loudly and clearly, immediately putting a stop to the defence and the committee withdraws to discuss it. Spoiler alert: according to Van Beelen, it nearly always ends well.
Still, he understands the candidates’ jitters: “They have spent years working towards this moment. Often, they’re the clever ones of the family and perhaps a future employer is there in the room.”
In reality, there is no need for nerves. “If there is any controversy, it’s sorted out before the ceremony. I can recall one doctoral award ceremony when there was some discussion about awarding a degree “cum laude”. Now, that’s a problem, because then the certificate needs to be rewritten.”

Van Beelen is hidden behind a gigantic pile of doctoral certificates as he fills them in by hand. “It’s a morning job; I never do it in the afternoon. I can concentrate better in the morning.”
You might suppose that the position of beadle requires beautiful handwriting but Van Beelen opens a volume from the eighties. “This is how I wrote when I first started here. As you can see, my handwriting’s improved over the years.” His earlier handwriting was clearly legible, but you have to admit that it lacks the wonderful curls and strokes from his later work. “It’s a matter of just going for it.” One mistake means rewriting the whole thing. “Just don’t think about it.” He raps the table, “knock on wood”. “It’s never happened in all these years.”
This afternoon features an inaugural lecture: a newly appointed professor is holding a speech. Before the ceremony begins, Van Beelen fetches his evening dress for the university’s anniversary, coming Monday.

Saturday and Sunday
Van Beelen usually spends his weekends at his cottage in the Veluwe region. “I do the gardening and chop wood for the fire.” If the weather’s good, he goes cycling.
According to Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker, Van Beelen only lacks one feature compared to other beadles: he lives in Katwijk instead of Leiden. “Katwijkers say: ‘Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work but on the seventh day thou shalt rest.’” He grins. “That’s what I do at my little cottage in the Veluwe. It’s Sunday, so today I’m not allowed to mow the grass.”
His house in Katwijk is 150 metres from the beach, “When I get home, I like to go for some air before dinner. I used to run into the queen, on her horse.” He was present when she received her honorary doctorate in 2010. And when Nelson Mandela, Ban Ki-moon, presidents and prime ministers received theirs: he’s seen them come and go. “Prime Minister Rutte, our King …”, he adds. “Willem-Alexander was nervous too when he graduated.”
After the summer, he will go shrimping in the traditional way, trawling a net at walking pace. “In September or October, otherwise they’ll be full of spat. And I’ll pull the beach cart. Get the kids out, put the shrimps in. I peel them too, but it’s better to let my brother do that – he doesn’t like them so he won’t eat them.” Van Beelen doesn’t like angling. “The wait’s too long.” He’s not interested in football, Katwijk’s passion, either. “I only talk about it to tease the fans. ‘Rubbish again, weren’t they?’ I say.”

The repetition for the university’s 441th anniversary is in full swing in the Pieterskerk. Van Beelen checks the weather forecast on the Internet, typing with his index fingers. His computer is on top of a piece of paper covered with red and yellow tabs from dozens of packets of current buns. “It’s windy but the radar says it will stay dry.”
Professors enter the gowning room one by one, get changed and if they’re new, have their photographs taken. Van Beelen regularly checks his pocket watch and the students’ procession is given the signal to proceed.
At three minutes to three, the professors’ procession starts to move too, with Van Beelen leading, staff in hand. For the camera, he’s given it a polish, but he actually only polishes it twice a year. “For the opening of the academic year and for dies ceremony. I do it a bit in advance, otherwise it’s too shiny, which not to my taste.”
It’s gusty on the bridge and the professors all grab their berets but the weather forecast was right: it stays dry. At the church, the beadle ensures that the dies proceeds without a hitch.

The morning sees Van Beelen having his photograph taken with his successor, as he will be leaving Leiden University at the end of the month. That’s why he handed the sauce pan he used for years to make the university seals over to the Rector during the dies ceremony.
Van Beelen shows me a booklet from 1943 containing a list of beadle’s duties by a predecessor. “The beadle has the doubtful honour of making the seals for the certificates at home, i.e. in his free time. He pays for the gas and is not reimbursed for making the seals. One stick of wax will make two seals. The wax is melted in a pan and it takes 40 minutes to produce two seals. The beadle must try it several times before he gets it right.” Van Beelen adds: “This book saved my bacon. It also says: ‘The wax should be melted on a stove or gas cooker. It can’t be done on an electric cooker.’ I only have an electric cooker, so I use a paving stone to conduct the heat.”
He makes the red seals at home in the attic, with the windows wide open to let the fumes out. “You have to concentrate. You can’t do it here: what if the phone rings … the wax mustn’t boil over. I make about twenty in one go, so I have a stock of them.” Van Beelen also irons and starches the cappa, the cape worn by honorary doctors, at home.
It hasn’t yet been precisely arranged who will make the seals when Van Beelen retires. “It’s probably up to us”, sighs Frank Geerlings, who works at the Beadle’s Office. “But don’t expect us to fiddle around with a sauce pan. Dutch working conditions laws won’t allow it, for a start.” The office has ordered a kind of pistol that automatically melts the wax. “We’d better test it next week.”

Today’s schedule is full of doctorate defence ceremonies again. Last year, there were 411: “A record”, says Van Beelen. “Although no one here has paid any attention to the fact. When I started out as an assistant beadle in 1981, there were 141. Sometimes, I read a dissertation, or the summaries. So now I know a little bit about lots of subjects. I particularly like reading about history and classical languages.”
He is going to miss being among people. “I like it here, I grew here.”

By Petra Meijer

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