Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dr. Rose

       Of the many honors received by my parents, my mother had a favorite one -- being awarded an honorary doctorate at Centenary College in May 2002.
       Centenary's most recent graduation ceremonies this past Saturday brought to mind that day in the Gold Dome when she became Dr. Rose Van Thyn. And, as Ron Nierman lovingly recalled at the recent Shreveport-Bossier Holocaust Remembrance Service, she loved being called Dr. Rose.
Dr. Rose, at Centenary commencement, May 2002
(photo courtesy of Centenary archives)
        Didn't matter if people thought she was a medical doctor or, say, a doctor of philosophy (which, in a way, she was). As long as she was referred to as Dr. Rose -- or introducted that way to audiences where she was speaking -- that was fine with her.
      As Ron noted, "she used to laugh that she and 'Dr. Ruth' had a lot in common."
       She loved seeing Dr. Rose Van Thyn in print, such as on those address labels you often receive in the mail. She would use those for her return address on outgoing mail.
        Receiving the doctorate was a proud moment for all of us. It was quite a sight to see this little woman -- she was 80 then -- march into the Dome at the front of the graduation procession, and then be hooded during the ceremony.
        I loved the title -- Doctorate of Humane Letters.
        My mother loved to write -- she was a dedicated letter writer, especially to our friends and few relatives in Holland in those first few years we were in the U.S. She wrote in longhand her speeches for her 2 1/2 decades as a Holocaust educator, and she wrote poetry (which she also incorporated into some of her talks).
         My dad shared in the honor. I think he deserved a doctorate, too -- Doctor of Sports Fandom. He was pleased just to receive a pass that got him into any Caddo Parish school athletic event free.
          What's really amazing to me is how far my mother came in those years in the U.S. When we first arrived in Shreveport in 1956 -- and she told this to Bea -- she was terribly homesick for Holland.
           It was only a week or two when she got word by mail that her Aunt Lena -- who lived two houses away in Amsterdam -- had passed away. It wasn't a surprise; she had leukemia and we knew it. But the timing was eerie; Tante Lena died on the very day (Jan. 12) that we arrived in Shreveport; it was also her son's birthday (that was Maurits Kopuit, my mother's cousin and closest remaining relative). My mother cried for what seemed like hours.
           I was 9 and Elsa was 5 early in 1957 -- we had not yet moved to Sunset Acres -- when she was hospitalized with pneumonia. There was concern that she would not make it.
           She battled depression, anxiety, pain in her legs, inability to sleep, for years and years. This never went away, but she had a tremendous support group in Shreveport-Bossier -- led by Dad -- and she persevered.
           The brave, proud woman who stood before many audiences and detailed her experiences before, during and after World War II -- and what Nazi Germany had imposed on her and millions of others -- behind the scenes occasionally was fragile.
            But when she was asked to speak, she answered. She would not turn down any school group; she felt more than anything that educating young people about the Holocaust was the most important thing she could do, other than being a wife and mother. She spoke at churches and to civic groups and to the military at Fort Polk and to lawyers' organizations -- and my parents sometimes traveled far outside the Ark-La-Tex for speaking engagements.
           Most of all, she enjoyed speaking to young people.
          And the visits to Centenary were the most special. She and Dad, in their final decade, would spend a week at a time visiting Centenary daily as an Attaway Fellow in Civic Culture. She was fond of Dr. Donald Webb and his successor as Centenary president, Dr. Kenneth Schwab, and of Dr. Lisa Nicoletti, a professor at the college who took a special interest in Holocaust education and, with husband Steve, a special, loving interest in my parents.
           In her last couple of years, even when Mom hardly could stand and when she grew more quiet (which was rare, as those who knew her would agree), she continued to take speaking requests. But each one she accepted took a toll; she could barely get out of bed afterward.
           She was still pretty sharp mentally, although she did repeat herself some. She would sit and stare at a piece of mail or a document or bill for long spells, not really comprehending.
           One day when Bea and I were visiting, she sat quietly as we dealt with one of the women who was looking after her during the day. She had those address labels in her hand; she wasn't saying much, but she didn't seem too happy.
           A few minutes later, as I was talking on the phone, conducting an interview, she somehow got herself off the couch and, using her walker, made her way over to the kitchen table where I was sitting. Tapped me on the shoulder, threw down the labels and exclaimed, "This says Rose ... I want it to say Dr. Rose!" And she slammed down the walker to emphasize it.
           I was a bit taken back.      
           It was no surprise that my mother asked that her memorial service be held on the Centenary campus. And she is going to be a part of Centenary forever -- a Rose for the rose garden. We plan to put a plaque there to honor her.
           It will read: Dr. Rose Van Thyn (1921-2010)... wife, mother, "Oma" ... Holocaust educator.
           Please note it's Dr. Rose.

1 comment:

  1. When Oma had pneumonia, Nico was also very ill. It was determined that I should stay elsewhere. Since we had no family and not many close friends, I was sent from house to house. I remember staying with the Zatzsky family one night and at Rabbi Brenner's house another night. At the time, it was an adventure for me. A couple stayed with Nico who were from Hungry, which at the time was going through their revolution. Later, the couple were deported for not really being who they claimed to be. Elsa Van Thyn