as told to Will Gottlieb
Coastal Journal staff
If you’re lucky and you live into your 90s, you will have been a lot of places and done a lot of things. John van der Zanden is one of those lucky people. When talking about his life, he occasionally has to refer to his notes, but he is still sharp at 94, and has a hell of a story to tell – or two, or three. Here’s just a part of it:
I was born in Berlicum, Holland. I had one brother and two sisters. Everybody is deceased. I’m the only one left. I was the oldest. I’m 94 now. My last birthday, March 29, I was 94. I see the doctor once a year. A lot of people see the doctor every day, almost. But I see the doctor once a year.
[Reads from his notes:] “I started skating at the age of 5, on a small pond, pushing a chair back and forth until I got tired. Also I watched other skaters doing their thing on ice and would try to do the same. After that, I decided this would be the right thing for me in this sport. I did this activity until I was 18.”
I entered military service when I was 17. At 18, you have to go in the military service in Holland, every boy.
My dad was an engineer for the Dutch government, and built bridges over the Rhine and the Meuse rivers. He got me out of a concentration camp. I was made POW by the Germans for three months, and I was interrogated almost every day. I don’t know how he did it, it was very unusual what he said or something, but he could take me home. And boy, that was quite a celebration! That’s unheard of, really.
I was very much in the blitzkrieg when the Germans invaded Holland. That was a mess. I was 10 years under the Nazi occupation. What happened is, I was defending the airport in Bergen, North Holland, a military airport. And they [Germans] bombed the airport – a lot of my people were killed, you know. But I survived that. So they took me POW, and I was locked up in the same barracks under the supervision of the Nazis until my dad got there. And somehow he took me home. And boy, that was, “Clap, clap, clap!” So here I am! Nobody believed it! That’s unheard of. No one gets let go with their parents. They put them on forced labor or something…
I never had any forced labor. I just sat there and did nothing, just waiting, wondering what happens next. And my dad traveled all over the country, because he was not sure where I was stationed. He did not know I was at that particular airport. But he hit it right, and my name was on the list, and that was it. I went home.
Since I left home in Holland, I’ve been busy all my life. Some of the jobs I had and everything, it’s unbelievable. I became a U.S. citizen in 1955. I worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon. My rank was too low, so they promoted me to staff sergeant.
[Reads again from his notes:] “In 1964, I signed up with the Village House Ice Skating School to further my activities in figure skating. That was in Falls Church [Virginia]. I continued this activity for several years. When I joined the Village House School, my instructor for several years was Gerard Renaud” – that’s one of most famous instructors you could find, and he taught me what to do on ice. And he was good, man, he was tough, I tell you! “[Renaud] was formerly with the Ice Capades West Company, and later with the Ice Capades East Company. In 1961, he [Renaud] left the Ice Capades and taught figure skating for 44 years. He served as a mentor and coached several elite skaters to titles in regional, sectional and U.S. National championships. His students nicknamed [Renaud] ‘The Spin Doctor.’
“I had a similar nickname, I was called ‘The Edge Doctor.’ [Laughs.] So after I completed my certification at the Village House School, I started giving instruction in figure skating to people of all ages. I was connected to several rinks in the Washington D.C. area. In 1969, I established the USDA Ice Skating Club with the Department of Agriculture. I gave ice skating instruction to all levels under the auspices of the United States Figure Skating Association Basic Training Program.”
I love the sport. I have all my ribbons hanging in my room. I did everything on ice that Renaud taught me. I skated with the hockey players, because that was good exercise for me. Just for fun, you know, just for the exercise. One guy said, “Look at that guy over there! He skates faster than we do!” I said, “Well, wake up, don’t say that.” [Laughs.]
I thought I would do that the rest of my life, and there would be nothing but skating. But there was a drastic change after I got older. Less skating, but I got involved in big organizations. I finished school when I was 22 years old. I went to grade school, then intermediate, and another school, but then for four years, I went to business school. After I finished business school, I spoke four languages fluently.
I was an accountant, so I thought there must be something better than just skating, you know. So I went to the USDA employment office, applied for a job, and two days later, I got a job with the International Cotton Advisory Committee, Department of Agriculture. I could never believe that.