Wout has worked at the university for exactly fifty years. Although technically, you can’t say he worked at Erasmus University all that time, because that name did not yet exist when he became a mailroom clerk at the Faculty of Medicine at age fifteen.

How were things done at the time? Well, at age twelve you’d go to a vocational school, and at age thirteen, you’d decide what you wanted to be: a painter, a baker or a carpenter. But who knows that sort of thing when they are that age? By the autumn of 1970, Wout had finished training as a painter. But when his parents asked him if he actually wanted to be a painter, he had to admit that, no, he didn’t.

Young Wout

One day he read an advertisement for a job as a mailroom clerk at the Faculty of Medicine, which had been established just four years earlier. Maybe he’d like that? Because he was not yet sixteen, his mother had to accompany him to the job interview, much to young Wout’s chagrin.

Wout grew up in a working-class family close to the Feijenoord stadium in the Zuid neighbourhood of Rotterdam. His father worked as a shipbuilder at Piet Smit’s shipyard. He knew next to nothing about academia. True, he did know the Dijkzigt Hospital (now called the Erasmus Medical Centre), but other than that, it was all new to him.

Only the first six floors of the tall building that made up the faculty had been completed at the time, but the building was already being used. “We took a builders’ hoist to the next floor.” He found it quite exciting as a teenager to go to the professors (one of whom regularly appeared on TV) to get them to sign for the receipt of a letter or parcel.

Back in those days, many departments focusing on mail and archiving were run by ‘men who had fought in the East’ and who were spending their final years before retirement as heads of departments. They were colonels and rear admirals – people like that. Whenever the young Wout said something like ‘I thought I might…’ to his boss, he’d be told, ‘There’s no need for you to think. Kindly leave that to us.’ And Wout didn’t particularly mind that.

Not many people will admit to it these days, but Wout is not afraid to say it: “I’ve never been the ambitious type. The main thing is that I’m enjoying myself, and I always have. My family and I have always led a comfortable life. I don’t need a bigger car. If I were to win the lottery, my life would hardly change.”

In the basement

After seven years at the mailroom and archiving department of the Faculty of Medicine, which had by now merged with the Netherlands School of Economics and been rechristened Erasmus University in 1973, Wout switched to the Woudestein campus in 1977. To be exact, he started working in the basement of the Board Building (which now houses the Erasmus School of Economics – eds.), where, until 2018, he performed his duties amidst filing cabinets full of personnel files and minutes of the Executive Board’s meetings.

Two years ago, following the most recent restructuring, he switched to the P Building. Once again he is working in a basement, where his job is to get rid of the university’s hard-copy archive. He either transfers archival documents to an external party who will store them, or gets them digitised, or draws up ‘declarations of data destruction’. Those documents that must be preserved in hard copy are passed on to either the National Archive or Rotterdam’s Municipal Archive. “I don’t think anyone else will take my position once I retire”, Den Hollander says, resigned to this idea.

He is not likely to lose sleep over it, because ‘only about 10 percent of the stuff held in archives is actually genuinely worth preserving’. But what is strange to him is how fast those fifty years have gone by, and how close the ending is drawing. In four months’ time he will be allowed to retire.

Wout den Hollander (1)
Image credit: Amber Leijen

Last few years have been tough

Has he been looking forward to that day? Not necessarily, although he is looking forward to being able to devote more time to his hobby (collecting music), and obviously to his three grandchildren, as well.

He never thought he’d actually spend the full fifty years in the university’s employ. However, all the early-retirement schemes he was counting on ‘were cancelled just when it was about to be my turn’. As far as that is concerned, he was unlucky until last year, when the retirement age of 67 was reduced to 66 years and four months. He thinks it’s a pity that the university did not allow him to retire early after completing his fifty years in the university’s employ, but he is not going to whinge about it.

He will admit that the last few years have been tough. There was yet another restructuring, and several of his long-time colleagues left for various reasons, and the way in which people interact with each other at the university has changed.

‘Times have changed’

“I used to know practically everyone. I knew the names of the people who served on the Executive Board, and we interacted more with each other. Now you need to ask questions by e-mail, and sometimes you have to wait several days before receiving a reply.” Sometimes he misses the good old days when people had coffee together whenever someone was celebrating a birthday, and when files were closed and fridges opened at 4pm on Fridays, for the weekly Friday afternoon drinks. Many people working at the Board Building would then show up to discuss life, the universe and everything. For instance, a former secretary of the Executive Board was in the habit of showing up at precisely that time.

Wout played on the university’s football team for years and was also involved in the organisation of the O&W sports tournament (which ceased to be organised in 2004), where all the Dutch universities and the Ministry of Education would compete against each other to win the trophy. “Things were a little more congenial, a little more engaged then”, he says, without wishing to sound like he is complaining. “Times have changed.”

Greatest years

The greatest years of his fifty-year career were when Wout was working with Marco, an intellectually disabled man he was asked to supervise. “I was mostly working on my own and was doing a lot of manual work, and I’m a quiet kind of person, so I guess that’s probably why they asked me”, he now says about that.

He supervised Marco in his duties for about thirteen or fourteen years. It was more than just telling him what small jobs to perform. “He had incredibly thick glasses and was barely able to see anything when he was typing. So we took him to an optometrist, one of whose employees was the daughter of one my colleagues, and they tested him and gave him contacts. After that, he was 50 per cent better able to read things, and as a result, his performance improved considerably! Those were the kind of things we did.”

Marco suddenly passed away over twelve years ago. A week after his death, Wout was asked whether he wanted to supervise a new intellectually disabled employee. He is still angry that they asked him so soon. He was quite put off by the whole thing.

Erasmus wearing a travelling cap

Due to the coronavirus crisis, Wout’s fifty-year anniversary celebration was a relatively small affair. “In the morning we had cake and coffee, and in the afternoon my supervisors addressed me outside, near the Erasmus statue, in the presence of my wife and colleagues. I was awarded the statuette of Erasmus wearing a travelling cap. I believe that’s kind of a big deal. Then we had another cup of coffee, and then I resumed work, as usual.”

That evening, after crossing the bridge on his way back home in IJsselmonde, he went to a restaurant with his wife and children. Because working for the same employer for fifty years may not be a huge achievement, but it is special.