“She was warm-hearted, it was like visiting an aunt "

Ria Wolleswinkel inspired by Major Alida Bosshardt


She is a Dutch celebrity: Major Alida Bosshardt (1913-2007), the figurehead of the Salvation Army. “She had a social conscience, never passing a judgement on others,” says senior lecturer and programme director for the Faculty of Law, Ria Wolleswinkel, who did a one-year traineeship at Bosshardt’s Goodwill Centre in Amsterdam’s red-light district during her study at the Social Academy. Even years later, Wolleswinkel occasionally got a telephone call or a hand-written letter from her former mentor.

“Dear Ria, How nice of you to write me, thank you so much. I do remember you well.” At her office in the Faculty of Law, Ria Wolleswinkel reads from one of the letters she received from Bosshardt in 2001. “So you were also at the inauguration [of mayor Cohen, former rector of Maastricht University] in Amsterdam. You should have spoken to me. I didn’t see you. (…)” Ending with: “I will try to telephone you of an evening. Well Ria, God bless you. Many kind regards and good wishes, your Alida Bosshardt Major.”  
Wolleswinkel (1953), coming from a Protestant farming family in the Gelderse Vallei, quit her study of sociology in Utrecht when she was a second-year student. “I felt that I wasn’t ready for it yet. I had to get to know society from the inside before I could have opinions on the Frankfurter Schule. I worked at the reception of a coffee machine factory for a while and then switched to the Social Academy.”
Ria Wolleswinkel asked Major Bosshardt for a traineeship at her Goodwill Centre in Amsterdam – a place for evangelisation, also providing social services. “I grew up in the post-war era. Exclusion, injustice and inequality all played a role at home. I still remember very well that my father cried when Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968.”
Wolleswinkel was invited into Bosshardt’s living room, on the first floor of the Goodwill Centre on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. “She was warm-hearted, it was like visiting an aunt.” She sat at a round table, surrounded by books and photographs of her own relatives, the Dutch Royal family and others. “I think she would have liked to have had her own family.”
The Major was a reference point for Wolleswinkel, who later worked in a psychiatric clinic, then completed a law study in Maastricht and eventually got her PhD in 1997. Not just because of her ‘every person counts’ principle, but also because of her goal-orientedness. “If she had a goal in mind, she would do anything to achieve it. For example, she fought hard for a retirement home in the Amsterdam city centre. She wasn’t interested in how others thought of her. It was never about her own status. Even in New York, she would sit on a piece of cardboard beside a tramp, without any fear or embarrassment.” In the Goodwill Centre, Wolleswinkel learns “to really see people, to seek a connection without prejudice”.
“If you look at my PhD thesis, which is about mothers in captivity, or my research on children of detainees and my affinity with human rights, you can see who my source of inspiration was.” However, Major Bosshardt was not the one who advised Wolleswinkel to study law, although she did (subconsciously) give her a nudge. “During my work in a psychiatric hospital, I met lawyers on numerous occasions, especially in the field of family law, for example if patients were not allowed to see their children and vice versa. Lawyers annoyed me, I didn’t understand why they didn’t think outside the box and hid behind procedures. I thought about Major Bosshardt, who would then say: ‘You shouldn’t get angry. If you don’t understand it, try to make yourself understand.’” She decided to move house and study law in Maastricht.


This is a series in which researchers talk about the person who inspired them most

“She was warm-hearted, it was like visiting an aunt
Author: Wendy Degens
Photo: Joey Roberts, Illustration: Simone Golob
Tags: hero

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