Pieter Van Zuuren

From a posting to Santander thanks to the A.A. van Beek Fund, via lecture summaries, ‘thee and thouing’ fellow alumni to – after an interesting, fruitful life – becoming Erasmus School of Economics' oldest alumnus!
P. van Zuuren
The oldest alumnus of ESE and the Erasmus Alumni Vereniging (EAV)

Interviewed by Charles Hermans, 6 November 2009

Although Frits Visser (Economics 1948) frequently makes quite an impact when he attends our meetings, we would first like to hand the floor to the oldest alumnus of ESE and the Erasmus Alumni Vereniging (EAV): Mr Pieter van Zuuren. He was born on 27 December – “the day after Boxing Day” – in 1913, the founding year of our university. We are proud to have been welcoming him to the EAV’s meetings for 70 years (no less) – lately in the greatly-appreciated company of Pieter Heykoop, the son of his fellow year student, the late Willy Heykoop.

After passing his final HBS B exams in Rotterdam, where he excelled in History and Geography, Pieter went to talk with the personnel manager of the Holland America Line about a job at a travel agency specialised in sea voyages. It was a most enjoyable conversation until the point where the personnel manager told him that for the first three years “any kind of pay was out of the question”. It was 1933! A rude awakening.

Friends from the HBS told him about the Economics programme at the Nederlandsche Handels-Hoogeschool on Pieter de Hoochweg in Rotterdam. He decided to do his ‘kandidaats’ examination there. After completing this phase of the programme, Van Zuuren worked for a ship’s agent, but a leopard can’t change its spots, which is why shortly after, he could be found working at Santander for two months with a grant of 250 guilders from the A.A. van Beek Fund. That was quite an experience. Among other things, he once redeemed an entire ship. During the weekend, he piloted slender little sailing boats with other young people in the Bay of Santander. Boys and girls threw flowers at each other as a gesture of appreciation: echar flores. They called him Pedro. Unfortunately, he had to leave when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Back in the Netherlands, the poor situation in the employment market led him to decide to pursue his doctorate after all. This decision gave him an opportunity to attend Professor Tinbergen’s very first lectures. And that’s how in early 1940, he obtained his doctorate at what, by now, was known as the Nederlandse Economische Hogeschool (NEH).

During the war years, he served as Secretary of Stichting tot behartiging van de belangen van de door de oorlog getroffen bedrijven (foundation for the protection of the interests of war-affected companies). He found it difficult to adapt to the customs of the business community: “If you didn’t argue your point on every occasion, you couldn’t get anywhere.” This was followed by a variety of jobs, during which he benefited a great deal from the skills acquired during his time as a student. For example, he was an active member of RSG: the Rotterdamsch Studenten Gezelschap. He made a lot of friends there, and learned a great deal from his fellow students. Pieter was not only a member of the Eloquence debating society, but also served as Editor-in-Chief of the RSG publication Skald. His writing skills came in handy when he was required to make lecture summaries, known as excerperen in Dutch. He took notes during lectures, mainly for members of the Rotterdamsch Studenten Corps – who liked to sleep in at the time.

Pieter married and had two children. His hobbies were swimming, cycling and 60-km walks from Rotterdam via Schoonhoven and de Vlist back to Gouda and Rotterdam were by no means exceptional. Later on, he spent many years working for the Nederlands Instituut voor Efficiency, ultimately retiring at the age of 65 in 1978 as an adviser at the Veiligheidsinstituut in Amsterdam, a pioneering centre that informed the public about safety in and around the home.

After his retirement, his knowledge of languages and love of writing meant that he continued to ‘work’ until 1998. He was particularly interested in the inland shipping sector. He was appointed an honorary member of Scheepvaartkring Rotterdam, which he himself helped found, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. In gratitude, he wrote a booklet about this circle, entitled Strength through Discussion.

Looking back on his student years, he recognises it as a special phase in his life. The broad education provided by the Economics programme in Rotterdam served him very well in his later work: it meant he could be deployed in a wide range of capacities and was well-rounded. His membership of the EAV is in line with this versatility. Incidentally, Pieter confirms that as a rule, alumni ‘thee and thou’ each other: known as tutoiement in Dutch. As he puts it, the meetings are often “friendly, convivial occasions”.

Still, he’s not sure whether he would choose Rotterdam if he were to enrol in an Economics programme again: he would have to examine his options, but there’s a good chance it would be Rotterdam. His advice to the current crop of students is to definitely do other things besides their studies. It’s very useful. In the meantime, Pieter is already looking forward to his next EAV meeting.

Charles Hermans

A lot of things are still the same. What struck me most during my interview with Pieter van Zuuren on 11 January 2010:

  • When Pieter was a student, the Hoogeschool had 12 professors; today, the University employs just under 400 professors.
  • As he remembers it, the share of female students was 10% at most!
  • Around 150 of the some 300 first-year students passed their ‘kandidaats’ examination. Of their number, 50 subsequently pursued their doctorate, and 90% of the 50 students who continued their studies made the finish line. This means that 45 students out of an original intake of 300 ultimately obtained their doctorate. Both the ‘kandidaats’ stage and the doctoral programme that followed lasted approximately two to three years. In other words, quite a few people dropped out in the old days too. And today, most of the students in the master programme also obtain their degree. In addition, at first glance the ‘kandidaats’ and the bachelor programme are strikingly similar: at the time, the ‘kandidaats’ diploma was already seen as a valuable piece of paper.
  • The University already offered an interesting mix of characters in Pieter’s day. You could not only find numerous students from both the region and the Netherlands as a whole, but also quite a few ‘foreign’ students. Up to 15% in his estimate – most of them from the Dutch East Indies. For example, Pieter was friends with Sumitro Djojo Hadikusumo, the later Minister of Finance of the Republic of Indonesia. As well as the ethnic Chinese Tjoe Bian An, known informally as An, and Tenku Mamud Hanafia from Aceh. They found it interesting to join Pieter on his visits to his parents. This way, they could see what Dutch homes looked like on the inside.
  • In response to the economic crisis of the 1930s, Pieter decided to quit looking for a job and continue his studies. This is a move we still see people making today.
  • Pieter had heard about the Economics programme in Rotterdam from friends in secondary school. In other words, word of mouth was as important then as it is today. Erasmus School of Economics will need to keep making an all-out effort!
  • With his lecture summaries that he offered for sale, Pieter was an early example of a student working his way through university.
  • Pieter’s horizons were broadened by his posting with the support of the A.A. van Beek Fund. This situation is the same to this day!