Born-and-bred Rotterdammer Peter Harteveld was only 17 when he started working for the university. He was a trained ship’s cook, “just like my grandad – he worked on board the SS Rotterdam.” Still, Harteveld never earned a penny at sea: “In the second year of my programme, they suddenly realised that at 1.98 metres I was actually too long for the job. ‘You don’t fit in a galley; you’d have to hunch over the whole time!’ is what they told me.” But no worries. “‘Look – people on shore need to eat too,’ is how my Grandad put it.”

And so started a long career – originally at Medische Faculteit Rotterdam [the predecessor of the Erasmus MC, Eds.] – that lasted almost 48 years, one wife, two daughters and a smattering of grandchildren. A career that was rounded off last Friday, at 3 p.m., with Harteveld in his regular spot behind the information desk in the Erasmus University College (EUC) building on Nieuwemarkt. But apart from Harteveld and his colleague, the place was deserted. There was no one to make a fuss about it, no farewell parties, due to corona.

Probably not how you expected to end your career at the university!

“Yes, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand it all came rather suddenly: I would have liked to have done a full 48 years by retiring in December. But at the same time I’m preoccupied with my daughter at the moment. She has been in quarantine with her husband for the past twelve days after catching corona. Fortunately she’s on the mend now. But in times like these, work and retirement aren’t your primary concerns. And the folks at EUC held a conference call and gave me a heart-warming farewell.”

Why did it end so abruptly, meaning you couldn’t round off your 48th year?

“I have a medical history: I’ve had heart surgery, four bypasses, infectious mono, diabetes. At the start of the corona crisis, I told my boss that I found it all a bit tricky – normally speaking, I take public transport to work. The last few days my wife dropped me off in the car. Wednesday last week, the Head of HR called me to tell me I would be retiring as of that Friday. My medical history means visiting the EUC building has become too risky. And as a security guard, you need to be there in person. It’s a shame that I can’t keep working until December. But I’ll survive: ‘it is what it is’.”

Peter Harteveld’s career

Harteveld started as a cook at what was then still called Medische Faculteit Rotterdam. A few months later, in 1973, Medische Faculteit Rotterdam merged with Nederlandse Economische Hogeschool to form Erasmus University, and he moved to the central kitchen at Woudestein. As a cook, he prepared food for locations throughout Woudestein and Hoboken: “Croquettes, frikandellen, noodles, fried rice – you name it, we made it.”

When the ‘long hours, hustling and slogging away in the kitchen’ started to become too much, Harteveld started on a new job as caretaker of the L Building [the present-day Sanders Building, Eds.] “More time with the students and staff, less grafting away. It was perfect.” After this position was terminated during a reorganisation, he could choose between the post room, technical support or security. He chose the latter. At 54, he retrained as a security guard and completed a computer course. “‘You will need to get yet another diploma, Peter!’ they told me. But I did just fine!”

Peter Harteveld 2
Image credit: Marko de Haan

Why did you stay with the university all those years?

“Before ending up at the medical faculty, I worked in a nursing home for a year. But then they switched to frozen meals, meaning they no longer needed a cook. That’s when I got a job at the university, and I’ve never felt like leaving. The university’s a wonderful employer that offers all sorts of opportunities to develop yourself. For example, I’m tremendously happy that at age 54, when I was studying for my security diploma, I still had an opportunity to learn about the law and how to use the power of arrest and the power to seize property. It’s an incredibly interesting occupation.”

What makes it so interesting?

“You have a lot of interaction with students and staff members. And everyone in the building has his or her own specific wishes. As a security guard, you need to ensure that everyone’s wishes are fulfilled as far as possible. How can you keep everyone satisfied – that’s the challenge. And you need to be able to say ‘no’ occasionally too.”

What’s the most remarkable thing that ever happened to you?

“Over the years, I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences, but also less pleasant ones. For instance, when the Erasmus MC was still one of the few high-rise buildings in the city, it was popular with people who wanted to end their life. That’s something you have to deal with as a member of the support staff. One time it happened on New Year’s Day – I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”

“But I also have happy memories. Absolutely incredible student parties in the university’s C Hall. A stage caving in on Herman Brood and his entire band, students going through 43 fifty-litre barrels of beer in one evening. There was always something going on. There were fewer parties after they started monitoring the budget and awarding student grants based on credit totals. Those days are gone – today’s students are a lot more serious.”

Did you see academia change in other ways besides?

“The campus is booming; it’s bursting at the seams. I’ve seen more and more buildings go up. Buildings that are fit for demolition haven’t been torn down. The N Building for example. ‘Slis’, we used to call it:sloopinstandhouding (‘demolition maintenance’). Or take the V Building, that gaudy thing out in front of Mandeville. That was intended as a temporary solution, but it’s still here seven years on.

“I’ve also seen all sorts of developments in education: from teaching with a flip chart to lecture halls full of electronics. And the lecturers were expected to stay up with all these technological trends. In the old days, students had to go over to the bookcase; now they snap open their laptops and they’re ready to go.”

Erasmus University College
Erasmus University College at Nieuwemarkt square in Rotterdam. Image credit: Frank Berkelaar

Do you have anything else you’d like to share with the university community now that you’re retiring?

“A lot of students see it as a given that the toilets are clean, that the catering has been arranged and the Wi-Fi works as intended. Because ‘watch out’ if it doesn’t! Mayhem… But the monitors in the classrooms, the video clips that start when you press play, the toilets that are cleaned after use – all this work is done by people. And they deserve a bit more appreciation now and then. The cleaners for example, who come in every morning before 7 and set to work.”

I’ve heard you call yourself a true ‘Erasmian’. Why?

“Yes, I’m a prime example. My wife and I live in walking distance of the most beautiful temple on Earth: ‘De Kuip’. Apparently you have something called the ArenA somewhere in Amsterdam – but you can find arenas anywhere. For me, the Feyenoord stadium is one-of-a-kind, and this temple plays a special part in my life. And the same applies to the university: that’s like a temple to me too. They’re places where I feel at home and enjoy the atmosphere, and where I have a wonderful time together with the other people there. I don’t get that feeling anywhere else. And if you feel that in this city, that makes you an ‘Erasmian’.”

Will you be missing it – the university?

“One thing I won’t miss is getting up at 4:45 every morning because we had to open the building for the cleaners coming in at 7. But I’ll definitely be missing my dear colleagues. We won’t be forgetting each other. I have a nice barbecue in my garden, and when the time’s right and corona’s behind us, I may invite them over for a farewell party with all the trimmings.

“And for now? As long as the virus is making the rounds, I’ll be staying in. I try to enjoy myself as much as possible. And after that… oh man, I have so many hobbies: drawing, painting, photography, fishing, ballroom dancing. I’d also like to write about the history of the EUC building. Enough to keep my calendar full for the next five years.”

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