When close friends pass away they take part of your soul with them. Last week two of them drifted away from this earth and were taken to their last resting place, Ruud Lubbers, Dutch prime minister for 13 years (an impressive political achievement), and Frans Swinkels of Bavaria Bier, a well-known Dutch brewery that proudly, successfully, and smartly stayed family-private, producing excellent beer you can buy in the US in every large grocery store.
We had known each other from six years Jesuit boarding school, the Canisius College, closed years ago, in Nijmegen, a town drenched in history, situated at the majestic river the Waal somewhere in the lower middle of Holland. If anything makes you friends, boarding school does: you eat, study, sport and grow up together as teenagers, day and night, and sleep together in dorms like brothers. All very different, gifted with varying talents, moods, and dispositions. You go to class each day and struggle together through exams, some more successfully than others, depending on your given talents, character and drive to persevere. Ruud stood out already in school as a wiser and smarter guy than everybody else. He was part of the school paper team which I headed and contributed insightful articles on domestic and foreign policy. He presided over various school committees. Frans was a calm companion, sure of himself, always warm with a friendly smile on his face, an amiable southerner, quick to compliment anyone he admired. Both true friends.
We kept seeing each other later in a select group of some 25 school graduates. Personally, I met Ruud a few times when he headed student bodies at the Rotterdam University where he studied economics. Then suddenly as the Minister of Economic Affairs, stepping down the imposing staircase in the hall, on the day I was leaving the ministry to take up a new job in Geneva. He found time to join our regular reunions and invite us to his country home. Frans did the same, always supplying us generously with his Bavaria beer. It gave us an opportunity to keep abreast of each other’s life and achievements, share the funny and not-so-funny memories of our boarding school time, the harsh or supportive Jesuit supervisors who eventually drove me away from Catholicism, and take away another day of supreme togetherness.
I vividly remember meeting Ruud as prime minister in his office at the Parliament of The Hague, in a small turrid, called ‘het torentje’, where we chatted like we did at school. Boarding school bond transcends the social levels between people. Who as an ordinary guy can walk into the office of a very busy prime minister just ‘to chat’ like old school friends? He (right in the picture below) was our tour guide in the parliament building, showing us the precious historical rooms where his predecessors and our national founding fathers gathered, debated and ruled. An unforgettable moment.
Both friends were sent off in Catholic churches, with different but imposing spheres of liturgies as I heard from friends who attended, and both with large followings. Being the only one who lives in the U.S., it makes you feel the loss even stronger. Slowly but surely, our little group of close friends is thinning out, reminding you of the approaching after-life that will hopefully bring us all together again.