73, OM

I hate doing obituaries, and I find myself doing more and more as the years slide by and Greenpeace ages and the number of people with a history longer than a decade with the organisation declines to a smaller and smaller handful. 

Now Sjoerd is gone.

I take these things seriously — someone thanked me for helping articulate their grief, and I guess at a personal level this is also part of the way I deal with these deaths: there’s a job to do, I have to pull myself together, try to put aside the grief, and put words to paper which say something about their life.

It’s a duty, but a duty I hate and a duty which can never live up to the objective: this is a person’s life I’m trying to sketch, and nothing I know of them and nothing I can successfully communicate of what I know of them can ever do them justice.

And in a case like Sjoerd’s, for all my affection for him I can’t really say I knew him. I worked side by side with him for years, saw him every day, had lunch with him every week, and yet I never set foot in his home. After we were no longer working on the same team together, how often did I drop by his desk to chat? I didn’t know him. I knew a thin slice of him as a colleague. And that’s all I can capture, because it’s all I know. And in the end, that’s just not good enough.

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Photo ©Greenpeace/Kate Davison

Sjoerd Jongens, 57 years old, died yesterday in a bicycle accident on his way to work here at Greenpeace International in Amsterdam.

He joined Greenpeace in 1987, when he took on the job of radio operator at World Park Base in Antarctica — a place he loved for its beauty, its solitude… and the clarity of its atmosphere as a transmission medium for radio waves.

He was a veteran of two winters in Antarctica with the Australian Antarctic Division before he joined Greenpeace at World Park Base, as part of our ultimately successful campaign to ban oil and minerals exploitation in that fragile environment. He was most at home there or on the ocean, and he sailed with Greenpeace as a radio operator on many missions over the years, including voyages into the Southern Ocean to save the whales and a solar-powered “New Millennium” expedition across the international date line.

He moved back to his native Netherlands in 1989 and joined our international office as a new brand of staff member, a network support engineer. But that title hardly does justice to the role he played. I say this with the deepest affection: Sjoerd was a geek. His single-minded obsession with all things digital meant that he was constantly finding new ways to bend new technologies to Greenpeace’s purposes, and he broke new ground for two decades.

Sjoerd foresaw that a new thing called ” the internet” might be something we’d want to use in future, and he started a gopher, WAIS, and FTP server back in the late 80s. He registered the domain www.greenpeace.org and put our first website up in 1992, serving as the organisation’s first webmaster.

He set up our first web server on a second-hand 386 PC with a 20 megabyte hard disk running Xenix. Keychains today have more memory than that, and Sjoerd was proud that his Linux skills allowed him to take a computer that most people would have thrown away, and not only make it work for Greenpeace, but turn it into a piece of cutting-edge technology.

He did a great deal for Greenpeace that will remain unsung — both because he laboured so often in solitude and the nature of so much of his work was simply that it enabled others to do theirs. All most people knew was that Sjoerd was the server master, a practitioner of dark digital arts, the guy who stayed late into the night and made it all work. And the guy who couldn’t take a vacation, because his beloved machines, like pouting pets, would throw a fit whenever he left the office and refuse to work for anyone else.

He was possibly the grumpiest support person in the history of IT support. And yet he was beloved by everyone who caught a glimpse of the heart behind the gruffness. His managers, myself among them, quickly learned to keep him close to the computers, far from the staff. Mike Townsley once approached him to say he was having trouble with his laptop. “No, Mike. I suspect we’ll find that your laptop is actually having trouble with you,” was the unironic response.

But those who saw him at sea or in Antarctica saw a different Sjoerd. He kept a diary of his stay in the Antarctic, and wrote this:

Life here is a very special experience, both professionally, domestically, and socially. You are sharing a year of your life with a group of very dedicated, passionate, intelligent, well-traveled, interesting and interested peers. The landscape is unique, impressive, and on a windless, sunny day the horizon surrounds you, colorful, tingling and stunningly clean.

During a clear summer day, the Trans-Antarctic mountains on the other side of the McMurdo Bay are lit from all sides, 24 hours a day, thrusting their white-and-red peaks around 3000 meters into the sky. It’s indescribably beautiful.

Even during the long polar night Antarctica remembers light, with the Aurora Australis, the millions of visible stars, and its sharply shining moonlight. You can never forget you are in a rare environment. People call this a hardship posting, but from me you’ll hear no complaining. Do I feel honored that I had the opportunity to contribute to the preservation of this great continent? You bet I do.

There was a rainbow over Amsterdam yesterday morning, about the time Sjoerd would have been setting off on his last journey. I take some comfort in the thought that it may have been among the last things he saw, and in imagining that it might have been a tiny farewell gesture from the Earth, to one of the gentlest of her Rainbow Warriors.

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Photo by Andrew Davies
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