City's treasured son farewelled

FULL HOUSE: Some of the 500 people who attended the memorial service for the late Eelco Boswijk at Old St John's in Hardy St.
FULL HOUSE: Some of the 500 people who attended the memorial service for the late Eelco Boswijk at Old St John's in Hardy St.

It felt so typical that Eelco Boswijk might have scripted it himself - some jazz and classical guitar, lots of laughter, a little raw emotion, a significant artwork and a touch of Dutch pride, all to honour the man who turned a Nelson coffee house into a legend.

Mr Boswijk's memorial service at Old St John's in Hardy St on Saturday drew a full house, perhaps 500 people, many of them old and loyal patrons of Chez Eelco, the business he began in 1961 and left in 2000.

The old church, owned by his son, Eelco Jr, and daughter-in law, Ali Boswijk, has had a new start as a performance venue. In a touch that Mr Boswijk would have smiled at, it is also where he married the minister's daughter, his former wife, Christine - who later revealed to Saturday's crowd that she had swooned when she first laid eyes on him in his dress trousers and cummerbund behind the counter on opening day at "the Chez".

REMEMBERED: Grandchildren Tashee Boswijk, left, Wren Van Der Leij and Cielo Boswijk with their grandmother, Christine Boswijk,  at the memorial service for  Eelco Boswijk at Old St John’s in Hardy St.
REMEMBERED: Grandchildren Tashee Boswijk, left, Wren Van Der Leij and Cielo Boswijk with their grandmother, Christine Boswijk, at the memorial service for Eelco Boswijk at Old St John’s in Hardy St.

A private funeral had been held for Mr Boswijk, who died on March 16, aged 84, but on Saturday he was present in one sense - a large portrait of him by Sir Tosswill Woollaston, the first exhibit in the coffee house's gallery - took centre stage, flanked by the Dutch flag, a pair of clogs, some memorabilia from his home province of Friesland and a can of Chez Eelco mussel soup.

There was a party atmosphere from the beginning, when jazz musicians Gabor Tolnay, Simon Williams and Chris Cowles, members of the Nelson group Out on Bail, played as people took their seats. Later Miles Jackson, who performed at the Chez Eelco with his wife, Margaret, for 12 years, played the anonymously composed Romance on his guitar. It was the word that came to mind when he thought about what to play at the service, he said.

There were moments of sadness as old friends and family members took turns to speak but, overall, it was what master of ceremonies Philip Woollaston said had been intended: a celebration.

"You couldn't know Eelco without having your life changed - and changed for the better," Mr Woollaston said. "That was very true for the whole Nelson community and the city - Eelco just changed it by being here and doing his thing."

Two of Mr Eelco's oldest friends who also emigrated from Holland, Henk Jacometti and Karel Adriaens, spoke of their early years together and their enduring friendship.

One of the first Chez Eelco staff, Raewyn Henelius, recalled the queues that formed on Friday and Saturday nights, the exhibitions by local artists, the jazz and the enormous fun of working there.

"People would fall in love there and hold hands - instead of celebrating a tryst over a glass of wine as happens today, it was always over good coffee."

Arch Barclay talked of the years when an audience limited to 50 would cram into the gallery for performances of one-act plays and solo shows by the members of Nelson's Garrick Theatre.

"The cream on the cake was the half-time bonus, when Eelco contributed coffee and chocolate eclairs to audience and cast, all part of the door charge. He was the most generous person I could recall."

Mr Woollaston read a tribute from World of WearableArt founder Suzie Moncrieff, who said Mr Boswijk did not hesitate to write a cheque for $1000 so the first show could go ahead 27 years ago. He was a man of great vision, with a colourful and generous personality, she said. "Thank you for believing in my crazy dream."

It was Mr Boswijk's former wife who hinted at the private man behind the public persona.

"When your teen years are stolen by war, when the Germans occupy the best rooms in your home, when your father is taken to a concentration camp for not betraying his Jewish patients and your sister at 17 is working with the Underground, what holds a young life together and where do you find solace?"

Arriving in New Zealand by flying boat, Mr Boswijk had set about living his dream, developing a philosophy with an indifference to reality or seriousness, a mistrust of "isms and isations" and an urge to find the freedom of his lost years.

Chez Eelco had become a stage where everyone who walked through the door could become both actor and audience, Ms Boswijk said.

"He provided the props, and Fellini couldn't have done it better. Through music, theatre, exhibitions, chess and an open-door policy, the plot changed seamlessly according to those taking part, a dynamic that continued virtually round the clock, starting with the early morning cleaners until the streets emptied and he would wend his way home."

For Eelco Boswijk life was for living, and money was "merely a vehicle for things to happen".

"Eelco, the public figure, loved or not, became a community icon in this town, and was awarded medals for living the life he believed in, but at what cost to himself?" Ms Boswijk said.

"For to embrace so many, to spread so thin, aloof, loved, but difficult to reach for those closest to him, especially his family, imbued him with a loneliness, a kind of depletion."

He had lifted her eyes away from small-mindedness, she said, and gave her the gift of their children, "shaped not only by his DNA but more importantly by his ability to look beyond the surface of life . . . to make things happen, to make dreams come true, to jump into life and reach for the safety equipment later".

"The children talk of a childhood where you never knew who would be in the shower before you or who would be sitting at the kitchen table when you came down to breakfast. For him it was all an adventure, all fun."

Mr Boswijk's godson, Barney Geerligs, raised a laugh from the mourners by noting that he had not been "the best of godfathers . . . He did not bring me up in the ways of the church, and for that I'm very grateful."

Speaking afterwards, one of the first wave of artists to exhibit at the Chez Eelco and a friend since, Geoff Heath, said it was exactly the occasion that Mr Boswijk would have wanted.

"This is superb acknowledgement of how he's contributed. He was the hub of Nelson." "

The Nelson Mail