Jaap Blaak6 April 2017

When Martin Luther King Jr. was presented with an honorary doctorate from the VU Amsterdam in 1965, physics and economics student Jaap Blaak volunteered to guard the back door during the ceremony. While in position, he found himself face-to-face with Reverend King. The future entrepreneur and investor wrote the following story about their unique encounter. ‘I remember that he called me ‘son’, and that he had very large hands.’

A few days before the event, I was in the corridor looking at the bulletin board to see if there were any job openings. Perhaps I could trade in my Deux Cheveaux for a better car, because it had broken down on the Afsluitdijk, on my way to visit my fiancée in Groningen. A picture showing Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to his people caught my eye. It was attached to a note looking for upper-class men, preferably in possession of their own morning coat. That piqued my curiosity.

Not long afterwards, and without too many questions, I was charged with guarding the back door of the small auditorium in the Concertgebouw, where the ceremony would take place. Together with five other similarly attired fellow students, I guarded the entrance gate for all of the VIPs, and closely monitored whether they had the right identification papers. That afternoon, I saw more of the upper crust from Dutch politics, the Royal Family, academia and the military in one place than I would see for the rest of my life.

Luns got angry

Princess Beatrix was unsure where she could put her beautiful coat and her sash with valuable jewels. Together with Prince Claus and other officials, I busied myself with her and secured her coat and sash. One of the next guests was a man in a raincoat asking where he could park his bicycle. After a thorough search of his briefcase, I discovered that it was Mr. Tilanus, head of the Dutch political party CHU, which later became part of the CDA. A bit later, Mr. Luns got angry that he couldn’t get in without a ticket. An academic 15 minutes later, the main auditorium was full and the guest of honour received his honorary doctorate.

During the break that followed, the first of the new doctors were admitted to the small auditorium. But no one was in position to congratulate them, so we took the job on ourselves. In an orderly row, we congratulated the doctors one-by-one. It was then that I had the pleasure to shake Martin Luther King’s hand. I remember that he called me ‘son’, and that he had very large hands.

(No) whisky for Bernhard

The hosts had already asked the palace what Her Majesty and the Prince Consort preferred to drink on such occasions. Apparently, Prince Bernhard always drank a specific white wine, so the hosts had arranged it for him. But to everyone’s surprise, he ordered a double whisky, which wasn’t in stock. A colleague came to me for help: what do we do now? I suggested he could go get the whisky at cafe Keyzer next door to the Concertgebouw, which is still there. A bit later, the young man returned without whisky; he didn’t have any cash on him, and wouldn’t get a free drink, even for Prince Bernhard. So I gave him some money.

Around 10 years ago, my American granddaughter came to visit us, and she told us about a paper she had written about Martin Luther King. When I told her that story, she couldn’t believe her ears. All of her classmates had to hear about how her grandpa had known ‘Dr. King’, or was indeed a close friend! That’s a fond memory, and it’s still one of the stories that gets told and re-told in our family.

VU, I certainly have a lot to thank you for! Even an honorary doctorate pales in comparison.

Jaap Blaak studied Business Economics, worked as a manager at Hoogovens (now Tata Steel), and later became an investor and founder of biotech companies.

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