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Master of ceremonies at some of life’s happiest events

Leiden’s beadle, Willem van Beelen, is retiring on 29 February. How does he look back on his career and what do those in the know have to say about him?

How does Willem van Beelen himself look back on his career? 

‘With total pleasure. I’ve seen just about everyone come and go: from the professors to special guests like Ban Ki-moon or more recently President Poroshenko of Ukraine. Not forgetting the many royal visits, by King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima, for example. 

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General  of the United Nations, delivered the Freedom Lecture in 2013 in the Pieterskerk. 

‘But for me what’s just as special is that I have guided so many young PhDs on the best day of their lives. You can get married as many times as you like, but getting your PhD is something you do only once. It is one of the happiest times in their lives. When they see me, they know that the defence is over and they heave an enormous sigh of relief.’   

PhD candidate Jelle Nijdam receiving instructions.

Are you going to miss your work?

‘After 27 years, now is a good time to stop. The stress of always having everything organised on time is something I won’t miss. But I will miss the people I’ve worked with.’ 

Do you have any tips for your successor Erick van Zuylen?

‘Stay on your toes. People may well know the protocol beforehand, but on the day itself their nerves can get the better of them and they can forget even the most obvious things. As the beadle you have to step in and tell them what they have to do, like who has to present the diploma to the candidate.  Otherwise it will become a mess. The other thing is that, as beadle, you have to remain yourself. People are quick to see through it if you are acting a role.

Willem van Beelen handing the staff over to Erick van Zuylen. (Photo: Monique Shaw)

‘Another tip is to make sure you’re not distracted by other people. Five minutes before the start of a defence I always find a quiet spot in the Academy Building. I don’t have a phone with me and only my assistant knows where I am. It’s a way of making sure I am on time.  I’ve never once been late.’  

Van Beelen has always been on time throughout his 27 years. (Photo: Marc de Haan)

Rector magnificus Carel Stolker: ‘He’s the epitome of dignity and calm.’

Carel Stolker addressed some words to the beadle during the recent Dies Natalis in February 2016. 

‘Willem has guided the great of the earth – Nelson Mandela, Queen Beatrix, Ban ki-Moon, presidents and prime ministers, our present king and queen – and at all times he has been the epitome of dignity and calm. He has also announced the Hora Est thousands of times, often to the relief of the candidate and the committee. Van Beelen has instructed our PhD candidates in the rituals of a defence in Leiden. He has assisted rectors and  saved hesitant young professors from making mistakes.’ 

Nelson Mandela received an Honorary Doctorate from Leiden University in 1999.

How important is the beadle for the University? 

‘The beadle is the University’s most visible official. It’s a position that breathes decorum, but above all it’s a position that calls for interest in people - nervous people, young and old, whether it’s a PhD candidate, a newly appointed professor, an Honorary Doctor or the Rector. Over the course of his career, Van Beelen has carried out all the centuries-old duties of the beadle  - and he has done that magnificently. All universities have a beadle, but Leiden has had Willem van Beelen. On behalf of the whole University community, I would like to thank you, Willem, heartily for all that you have done for our University.’  

Head of Cabinet, Rosalien van der Poel: ‘If Van Beelen is there, it will all be fine.'

Rosalien van der Poel, together with Marianne Wanders, organises important ceremonies and meetings where the beadle has a role.   

‘Van Beelen has always been there, standing firm. But, often without the public even realising it, he was giving all kinds of instructions. He would  ‘nudge’ people subtly to the right place. He would run through the different roles in advance so he knew them by heart.  He would notice potential difficulties, such as if the Rector had to be on a particular spot but couldn’t get there in time because just prior to that he has to be on the podium. I could always rely on him: if Van Beelen’s there, it will be fine.’  

What else would you say is typical of Van Beelen? 

‘He’s a very modest man, but not completely without vanity.  For his collection at home he always received all the photos and DVDs of the most important ceremonies: Ban Ki-moon, for example, or the Indonesian Vice-President Boediono. He most treasured the photos with members of the royal family.  Van Beelen always kept strictly to the official programme, apart from one time, at the end of 2015, when the king and queen came to the Academy Building for a meeting about China. He was standing at the entrance that time, which wasn’t in the guidelines. But it was the last time that he would be able to welcome the couple in his official function.’     

Van Beelen, and behind him King Willem-Alexander. (Photo: Monique Shaw)

Dr (since February 2016) Herbert Rolden: 'It's a huge relief when the beadle appears.'

Herbert Rolden obtained his PhD on 2 February 2016 and is one of the last candidates instructed by Van Beelen.

‘It’s not often that I’m as nervous as I was at my defence. It's an exciting and rather stressful event, that happens only once in a lifetime. It’s so reassuring to have such a polite, calm and modest man with so many years of experience guiding you through it. I could not have done without his advice: he explains how the ceremony proceeds and gives you as much time as you want to ask questions. I knew my defence was nearing its end when I heard the beadle arrive and the sound made by the sceptre.  That’s the point in time when an enormous weight falls from your shoulders. It’s a huge feeling of relief! The banging of the sceptre and the words Hora Est are the point when you realise that you have reached the end of your examination and all you have to do now is to relax and recover. And then you can celebrate your success.’

PhD candidate Herbert Rolden (centre) with his assistants receiving instructions from the beadle.

How important do you think this kind of ceremony is? 

‘It’s important that the University has such a ritual and it’s an honour to be part of a centuries-old tradition. The ritual itself is a unique reminder of that tradition. It makes a doctorate in Leiden so memorable and adds a special allure to science.’  


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