Mees was a Rotterdam lawyer and, among other things, founded the Rotterdamsche Scheepshypotheekbank and the investment fund ROBECO. He was also involved in founding the Nederlandsche Handels-Hoogeschool, the institution that preceded Erasmus University, where he continued to hold a variety of board positions until 1964. The silver plate was a gift from Cornelis van Stolk, one of the other two founders. Stolk had two silver plates made in 1913, which he presented to his co-initiators Ruys and Willem Mees, as a token of gratitude for all their efforts.

Needle in a haystack

Ruys’ memorial plate has been part of the university’s heritage collection since the 1960s, but Mees’ plate vanished without a trace for years. A relative went looking for it twenty years ago, but suspected that the plate was probably at another relative’s house abroad.

Cora Boele, a recently retired EUR employee, who was responsible for heritage management, had been searching for the object since that time. “We knew the plate existed, thanks to a photo in a commemorative publication from 1963. We also knew it had to be in the possession of the Mees family. However, Willem Mees had five daughters who all took on different surnames after their marriages and some had also moved abroad, so it really became like searching for a needle in a haystack.”

Celebrating Dies Natalis – with granddad

In 2018, Boele found a lead after reaching out to an editor of an annual magazine of the Mees family. “I posted an ad in the magazine, asking if anyone had any knowledge of the whereabouts of the plate.” Unfortunately, no one responded to the ad.  There was no breakthrough until 2022, four years later. “To my astonishment, that year’s chronicle was full of baby photos of Mr Mees!” Boele contacted the woman who had posted the pictures, hoping she would have more information about the plate. Boele ended up getting in touch with Mrs Helene Veltman-Montagne through her contact, in whose house, sitting in a cupboard, was the silver plate.

Mees’ granddaughter was given the shiny object by her grandmother when she became the first of Mees’ descendants to study in Rotterdam. She did her degree in Sociology at Erasmus University in the 1960s. “I even sat next to my grandfather at the Dies Natalis when I was doing my degree”, she says. Willem Mees was around eighty years old at the time, but was still active at the university as a member of the Board of Trustees, a kind of Supervisory Board.

Cora Boele (left) and Helene Veltman-Montagne next to the portrait of Willem Mees. Image credit: Arie Kers

A guided tour

Veltman says she was happy to loan the plate to the university. “It was in a drawer at my home in Amersfoort. Now the plate will end up in a place that is very dear to me.” She only wanted one thing in return: a tour of the university to which she could invite a few members of her sorority and family members.

Wednesday was the day. After a presentation by Boele on the history of the university and the major role Mees played in shaping it, Veltman formally handed over the plate to the university by signing a loan agreement.  Subsequent to the ceremony, Veltman, a number of family members and her former fellow students were given a tour of the campus. “It’s very nice to be here, but I don’t recognise much from my time here. For example, we always liked to sit in the cafeteria in the library, but I have no idea where that was anymore!” says Veltman.

The group also took a peek at where the plate is to be displayed: near the Rector’s Room, where a display case will be installed that will exhibit the plates of both Ruys and Mees side by side in a fraternal display.