Text: Thomas Vos, Communication UG / Photos: Elmer Spaargaren
He started his career in the mail depot of the UG, spent years driving a mobile laboratory around the Netherlands and abroad and is now a chauffeur for the University; after a career spanning almost 50 years, Jan Staal is retiring from the UG this spring. How does he look back on all the years he worked for the University, years in which so much changed?
It all started with a job ad in the Nieuwsblad van het Noorden around 1970. The UG was looking for people to work in its mail depot, the beating heart of the University, then located at Oude Boteringestraat 44. Staal: ‘I knotted my tie, put on my jacket and off I went. Just a lad of 16, 17 years old. They took me on. It was a big, new world for me. But the mail depot was busy and chaotic; I didn't like it much.’
Sitting in his office in a warehouse on Nadorstplein on the Zernike campus, Staal talks about his years at the UG. Everything he’s experienced, the highlights and the low points: they are all unique stories, which he tells which great enthusiasm. Like his very first job in the mail depot. Staal hung on for as long as he could, but when his boss pointed out a vacancy for an administrative assistant in the Chemistry Department, his pulse started to race. This job was more in keeping with his interests and knowledge. He applied, and the job was his. ‘I loved working in such a big department. The job was great and I felt part of a close team. Everyone knew each other and we’d got each other’s backs. They were good times.’
Staal worked among the chemists for 15 years. He helped Ben Feringa with the accounts. But time didn’t stand still and his work became increasingly automated. Staal wasn’t keen. He enjoyed doing things by hand. In 1986, he left the Chemistry Department and joined what was then known as Central Services. He was later made head of the service unit and put in charge of logistics within the UG. Staal’s diverse remit included telephony, the transport of hazardous substances and managing the drivers, etc.
This lasted until the early 2000s, when he received a special request from the Faculty. They wanted to get more young people interested in natural science programmes. The Faculty was converting a lorry into a mobile laboratory that would travel around the schools. So they were looking for a suitable driver for this new ‘Discovery Truck’ (now known as the Your Future Energy truck). Staal: ‘I had plenty of experience in the Chemistry Department, so they asked me and I said yes. I was thrilled.’ From 2006 onwards, Staal and Theo Jurriens from the Faculty of Science and Engineering and a number of students took the truck to dozens of schools. At first, they confined themselves to the Netherlands, but the truck was soon in great demand across the national borders: ‘We drove from Roodeschool to the Eiffel Tower, and from Stockholm to Maagdenburg. Lots of travelling, lots of hotels. I sometimes spent seven days away from home at a stretch,’ explains Staal. Wherever they went, they encouraged pupils to do all kinds of tests and experiments.
Staal is nostalgic about his time on the truck: ‘It was fantastic. You could compare it with national service. You find yourself in a totally different world. I was swallowed up by the world of education.’ But although he loved the job, the long days and hard work started to take a heavy toll on Staal. It all became too much in 2010 and he became ill: ‘It just crept up on me. I gradually felt worse and worse, and before I realized what was happening, I was in hospital.’ At first, they couldn’t find out what was wrong, but he was later diagnosed with burnout. He stopped working on the truck and concentrated on his recovery. Luckily, he was soon back on his feet.
A year later, when he was feeling better, Staal resumed work in the logistics department of Central Services. Not long afterwards, he heard about a position that he thought would suit him: chauffeur for the UG. He was given the job and has been driving various UG staff, including members of the Board of the University and Deans of the faculties, to destinations up and down the country. The job suits him to a T. He is known for being professional and ensuring that his passengers always arrive on time: ‘It’s experience. I always take my time. Check the departure time, allow a bit extra, take everything into account. I even allow half an hour for getting to the city centre. You never know; there might be heavy traffic on Ebbingestraat or roadworks somewhere along the route.’
To Staal, the job means much more than just driving around: ‘I always make sure that my tie is straight and that my passengers don’t forget their bags. It’s all about the details, the practical matters. And you build up friendships with people, like President of the Board Jouke de Vries, for example. We drive somewhere together and we drive back together. He sometimes uses the journey to get things off his mind. I often joke with him that we're both “driving forces”.’ But very soon this conscientious, attentive chauffeur will be handing in his keys forever. No party, no fuss: ‘Most of my former colleagues have left and I don’t know that many people anymore. I’ll obviously be saying my personal goodbyes to the ones I do know.’ He’s not worried about getting bored: ‘My wife and I are going to bike around France. We love that country. We’ll take our camper van and go where the mood takes us.’ Being a chauffeur is in your blood, it seems.
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