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
Creative Commons License
This pho­to is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons Attri­bu­tion-Non­com­mer­cial 3.0 Unport­ed License.

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