Upon the departure of former rector Vic Bonke

Upon the departure of former rector Vic Bonke

A colourful man with a martial moustache, from Amsterdam, doesn’t beat about the bush and is not afraid of anyone


A couple of years ago, I had Vic Bonke on the phone. He wanted to comment on a piece in Observant and asked, with resignation in his voice: “Did you know that Marjet died?” No, I didn’t know that. Marjet, the love of his life. He called her Kitten. I was interviewing him once on the telephone in 2003 when he suddenly interrupted his story and shouted at the top of his voice: “Not that way, Kitten! His foot’s doubled over.” In the background, I heard some fumbling with a grandson, Kitten’s reaction is a grumpy “I had seen it.” The sounds disappeared, then Bonke is back again: “Where did we leave off?”

So, he had been on his own for a while. And wasn’t at his best, because at his French holiday home he had fallen over backwards from a wall and that left him partly paralysed. He had trouble walking, a hand that didn’t work so well. Yes, he had had one wine too many then. Anyway, he pushed through it all.

It was the last time I had a longer conversation with him, three or so years ago, I think. Or was it longer? It has slipped away. And now Vic himself is dead, having reached the age of 82.

Colourful man

It was the second half of the nineteen-eighties and professor of Physiology, Vic Bonke, was Rector, a colourful man with a martial moustache, from Amsterdam, doesn’t beat about the bush and is not afraid of anyone. Especially not of a newspaper like Observant, which sometimes wrote things that he didn’t entirely agree with. The editor’s office was in a large sun room of the former Gouvernement, the Executive Board occupied the floor above, we regularly met each other in the corridor. Observant scrutinised the Board, the Board is not supposed to scrutinise Observant. The latter is recorded in our statutes. Bonke was well aware of this, but it got to be too much for him every now and then. Like that time, late in the afternoon, when it was already dark outside and he threw open the monumental door of the editor’s office, headed straight for the bewildered chief editor, Jacques Herraets at the time, and unverfroren started to verbally rip him to pieces. What in god’s name he thought he was doing? God damn it, was he not aware who actually paid for the petty newspaper!! Yes, the Executive Board!! Then you go and write things like this!! Had we gone completely mad??

Slamming the door

He had roared when he came in, and the roared when he left, slamming the door closed with an angry bang.

We were shaking in our chairs, Herraets had gone completely white, what was this? Indignation all around, a rector who lets himself go like that, with no heed to the etiquette between journalists and managers: that was not on. Coming down here to intimidate us, ha, this was not a good man at all, that much was clear.

I take it the editor in chief had a chat about the event, one floor up, anyway, the atmosphere quickly brightened up, and at the next meeting, Bonke was friendlier than friendly and in a happy mood; he had obviously needed to get it off his chest.

No whispering

And afterwards, when you got to know him better, you understood and more so, you even appreciated his approach. With him, there was no whispering, no machination, no cunning attempts to adapt our statutes so that the Executive Board would get more influence. Instead, there was the bull in the China shop, a couple of heartfelt curses, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, clear and direct. The fact that the university newspaper was editorially independent, was something he never mentioned again, on the contrary, he actually appreciated it. Certainly, when later on, much later on, he himself ended up in some choppy water.

That was in 1999. After his six-year rectorship – a double term even though the University Council had not wanted to offer him a second term; there was sufficient support from elsewhere in the UM for an extension – he quit the university. He felt that he had been gone from science too long, so in the nineteen-nineties he carried out some administrative tasks here and there in the country. When the medical faculty couldn’t find a dean within their own ranks, President Karl Dittrich called Bonke. It was 1997, whether he would like to help them out for a while as of 1998, just for a couple of months. Sure thing, he would do that. What it came down to was minding the shop. Well, then there was one thing they hadn’t reckoned on. Vic Bonke informed Observant that he had lots of plans. Initially, things go well and the Executive Board wanted to keep him on for longer. They agreed that it would be until 1 January 2001. A total of three years. 

Pack their bags

Unfortunately, he didn’t even reach two. On Monday, 6 September 1999, everything seemed to be peaceful and quiet: a pleasant opening of the academic year with just as pleasant a dinner afterwards. Bonke made jokes as always, especially about the Board.

But the next day he and his buddy, faculty director Edward Steur, find themselves sitting opposite the same Board, where they hear that they can pack their bags. The dismissal was made public on the Wednesday. It even made the national news, because something like this had never happened before in Dutch academia: the administrative top of a large medical faculty has never been sent packing like that. Why? The Executive Board was vague about it. Bonke was not. He gave his opinion in a long interview in Observant, without mincing matters. And that was exactly what won you over: he didn’t beat about the bush, he also admitted his weaknesses, and didn’t make things prettier than they were.

He never did that later on either, when he joined in Pim Fortuyn’s adventure – they knew each other from the time that ‘Pim’ led the UM’s Center for European Studies – and was even a member of Parliament on behalf of LPF. To the parliamentary editor Joost Vullings, who was writing a book about former LPF members (De kinderen van Pim, (Pim’s children)), he admitted without batting an eyelid that he mainly wanted to be in Parliament in 2002 for the experience and to have some fun with Pim. But anyway, the latter was no longer around.

He had the kind of refreshing candour that you seldom experience. In which he found his equal in Marjet, to whom he listened very well. Take that interview on the phone in Observant in 2003. Marjet herself took the telephone, it is about Vic possibly becoming a minister of National Health. This is how it ended:

Why did you refuse?

Vic: “National Health is a mission impossible, and Marjet said ‘if you do that, I will divorce you.’”

Marjet: “You can never get things right there. And I had the feeling that I had to protect him, I don’t want him to fall flat on his face. He is not a debater, can you see him sitting there with Jeroen Pauw?”

Vic: “I can’t go up against people like Barend and Van Dorp, or Witteman at Buitenhof. I am too naive, I sometimes trip over my words, don’t I Kitten?”


If only we had more people like him. Unfortunately, these two are no longer here.


Wammes Bos, former senior editor of Observant



Author: Wammes Bos

Photo: Philip Driessen

Categories: news_top, IM
Tags: vic bonke,im,

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