Once in a great while a person comes into your life that leaves you far more enriched and enlightened than you may have thought possible. Gerrit Willemse was such a person for me.
Gerrit had a long and distinguished career with Unilever Research and during that time was the project leader for a technical effort for Unilever Canada. it was an ambitious one:
- to come up with a new process to make the special “hardstock” that makes Becel Margarine so special.
- to do this work in Canada making use of our existing fat fractionating equipment
- to pioneer a dry fractionation way of getting the hardstock (no solvents -greener.)
Gerrit supervised the project with the help of his colleague Rob Bons. Rob is on the right in the photo above. It went from laboratory to pilot plant in Vlaardingen, then to production trials in Canada. This latter part was where I came in. I helped facilitate the three plus trials in the Rexdale factory and at the end actually made some Becel with the hardstock. In the process I learned a great deal about the thermodynamics and kinetics of fat crystallization, how to control it through microprocessors, and how to analyse the results. It was a highlight of my technical life at Unilever to work with this brilliant yet eminently practical scientist.
We succeeded but at the end never went into full scale production, because of changing economics and Marketing’s reluctance to tamper with a product of such importance to the company.
After retirement Gerrit, Rob and I kept in touch by email and in 2009 Gerrit and I had a reunion in La Coruna Spain. Maria and I arrived by cruise ship. Gerrit and his wife Janny picked us up and we spent a fine afternoon at the campground where they were enjoying their fancy new camper trailer.
This afternoon is how I’ll always remember him.
Gerrit was more than a scientist. He was an accomplished photographer – both in film and digital — and had exhibitions of his art at many craft shows. He was a devoted husband and loving father. I remember how proud he was of the fact that his future son-in-law cared enough to ask him for the hand of his daughter Aniek in marriage. His son Joris is a successful IT manager.
In 2002 Gerrit was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of prostate cancer. He retired early because his prognosis was poor. Nevertheless he soldiered on for another 15 years with courage, grace and dignity. He lived to see his three grandchildren.
Gerrit passed away at the age of 69 on March 28, 2017. He will be sorely missed. Thank you Gerrit for your influence on so many lives. You leave this world a better place for your being in it.