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Retiring after forty years at the RUG

Concierge Bert has seen it all

After nearly forty years as a concierge at the Academy building, Bert Kamstra is retiring. The squatter riots, lots of promotions, honorary doctorates for people like Gorbachev, Tutu, and Kohl: he’s seen it all. ‘It’s a big chapter of my life that’s ending.’
By Jelmer Buit / Photo Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

He never had aspirations to be a student. ‘I’m more of a doer’, says Kamstra. ‘I’m not much of a student. I like to work with my hands. I don’t need to be reading all day.’

He found a fitting job at the university. ‘I’m really good at customer service. I feel right at home here. Outside of my regular activities I was able to spend time on things that I thought were important. I had a really great time here.’

That great time started over thirty-nine years ago, when Kamstra applied for the position of concierge at the university. There were two vacancies. His letter was selected from among 290. ‘I’m not sure why. I think I just did a good job answering their questions.’

Postman

He says the first few weeks at the university were difficult. ‘I’d previously worked as a postman for the PTT, and I had a lot of freedom in that job. I suddenly found myself behind a desk most days. Everything was new to me. But I ended up getting used to it. You have to give it time, of course.’

Kamstra didn’t completely lose the link to his old job: ‘When I got here, the central post room was still in the Academy building. PTT vans showed up every morning to pick up the mail. Those were some fun moments.’

The setting makes it special

Kamstra’s favourite part of the job were academic ceremonies. ‘People were usually really tense during those. I’d always try and cut through some of that tension. I compare it to the tension before a sports game. They’ve been working towards this for so long. I try to relieve the tension by making them feel that it’s going to be okay.’

Beadle

Kamstra currently serves as beadle for the building. He’s been to many a promotional ceremony. He especially remembers the honorary doctorates. ‘We had Desmond Tutu, Helmut Kohl, Gorbachev, you name it. They were right here, in this building!’

Kamstra strictly adheres to the protocols and traditions of the beadle functions. ‘It’s important to me. Our traditions go back more than four hundred years. I like to abide by them. Some universities send people their degree when they finish their PhD. I can’t even imagine us doing that. The ceremony, the setting, that’s what makes it special.

Sometimes, however, there is room to do things a little differently. ‘Photos aren’t allowed during the defence. But some candidates ask if we can make an exception. I then ask the rector if we can. If he approves, it’s fine. We’re the hosts, so we try to be good to our guests. We try to keep it interesting.’

Squatter riots

The most interesting thing Kamstra saw during his tenure were the squatter riots at the Wolters Noordhoff complex. ‘I got a phone call to report to the Broerstraat, because they were about to evacuate the Wolters Noordhoff building. It felt like a war zone when I got there. Everything had been blocked off with garbage containers. The atmosphere was scary, entirely unlike the Groningen I know.’

Our boss was pelted with rocks and fled his house

The Wolter Noordhoff complex had been occupied by squatters. In 1990, it was evacuated by the riot police. ‘The squatters knew they were going to be evacuated. They’d already thrown rocks at our former boss’ official residence; he fled his house and spent the night at the Academy building. Tensions were running high.’

Kamstra says the actual evacuation was ‘really calm’. But the actions taken in preparation were stronger. ‘The Academy building was an emergency medical post. The fire brigade had laid out all the fire hoses. We were ready – we were prepared for anything.’

Referee

When he wasn’t working at the Academy building, Kamstra spent his days refereeing football games. He quit doing this three years ago. ‘I spent forty years on the field. My wife said it was time for us to spend the weekends together. We compromised, and that’s why I’m currently still refereeing at the FC Groningen youth club. I was on the field as recent as last night.’

In 2015, Kamstra’s commitment and hard work are rewarded with a royal medal. ‘A friend of mine was given a medal as well, so I joined him at city hall. Suddenly people were taking pictures of me, as well. I asked my wife if they were playing a trick on me,  but she said they weren’t. When I saw my daughters sitting in the room I knew it was real. That was really special. Everything was perfect.’

In short, a special day. ‘My home situation wasn’t great at the time. My mother-in-law had just passed away, and we were still dealing with all of that. We spent the morning at city hall and the afternoon at the funeral home. Those are the things I remember.’

Alcohol

‘We used to have Vindicat inaugurations right here in the auditorium. We had to make sure no one snuck in any alcohol. We’d be stationed at the bottom of the stairs and everyone had to go past us. Every once in a while someone would get a bottle in, but we’d catch them later. Students may be resourceful, but so are we.’

Be yourself, there are plenty of other people. And no smoking on the stairs

‘I’ll definitely miss talking to people. I was a real focal point at the university. I loved working with all the young people. We really tried to cater to what they asked of us. That’s what kept me young, I think.’

He doesn’t know what he’ll do next. ‘But I love walking. So I think I’ll be taking daily walks. I love doing that, and the exercise is good for me. I like nature.’

Does he have any advice for his colleagues? ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing. The work we do here is amazing, don’t forget that. And for the students: just be yourself – we have enough of everyone else. And no smoking on the stairs.’

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