“I think you can use some help with LAVAL. My friend Arie has a daughter who studies French and is looking for an internship. I told him I would discuss it with you.” With Big Anton being the owner, this meant making sure that Norma, Arie’s daughter, would need something useful to do during her time at Witte de Wit. Anton had added that “it would also be good for her to be distracted from her French boyfriend’s attention.” As the internship coordinator of the secondary school in Amsterdam-West I taught with, I had insisted and made sure that our students needed to come back with a positive experience after having spent their time with the various companies in the city. I would not accept internships spent on photocopying or filing for three weeks.
Dré and Piet would have their farewell in a few weeks’ time, so Norma could take Dré’s desk. Snuf could then move in from his temporary quarters at Anton’s Potrozen to physically take over Piet’s position.
When Norma showed up for the interview, we were all shocked. She could have been the twin of the girl we had in the old Witte de With posters, with the windmill. Thoroughbred Dutch: blond, blue-eyed, well-proportioned in the ‘right’ places. In the male-dominated, sexist rose world with the posters of centerfold ‘Normas’ in the boiler rooms, this would mean a lot of attention and remarks, but for Norma herself a handicap to be taken seriously. As her internship coordinator, this would be an extra challenge, very unlike Maurice’s comment: “Your wife will not be amused, John.”
With a meeting at LAVAL scheduled for the next week, the contents of the box of papers in the safe in the meeting room would be a good start for the internship. After the announced transfer of LAVAL’s ownership from Monsieur Paul Schmidt to his good friend Agostino Crispi, Schmidt’s attempted divorce, Mrs. Schmidt’s refusal to sign the transfer papers, subsequent lawsuits between Crispi and Schmidt, and the huge success of Premier Rouge®, I had received copies from both parties of contracts, handwritten memos, bank transfers. For both, I was considered the key to the blocked royalties. I was the only one to understand French and also our own lawyer, Peter Doedens, fully accepted since our victory in the ‘Elan case’, and Anton’s brilliant accountant Teun Waterhuis, fully relied on my interpretations. Since all documents were fully confidential, I kept them in the safe, guarded by grandpa Gerrit.
Norma understood the divorce and ‘black’ and ‘white’ sums involved and laid down in the copy of the handwritten and signed agreement. Plants that were in the soil and thus part of the real estate was also understandable, but that this was different for breeder’s rights, also for the same plants, was too much to comprehend. I had to think back to my first day, in the car with ‘Professor Piet’. I’d better not talk about winter grafts or stentlings.
Although the ownership of the LAVAL varieties was officially disputed, the documents and discussions with Teun and Peter about these were clear enough, we were convinced that Crispi would eventually win. As to the representation of the Witte de Wit varieties, it was clear that we would deal with Crispi. Since our calculation on the net income for the sales of Leonardo® in Italy, with Witte de Wit ending up with Hfl. 0.28 of the royalty rate of Hfl. 1.40, receiving the money close to two years after the planting, Big Anton was very motivated to change the agency agreement with Crispi. Anton, Maurice, Norma, and I would go, but needed to prepare our different roles.
The meeting would be in French. I would be translating for Anton and Maurice, keeping in mind that Crispi could understand Dutch. Norma would take notes. We would fly to Nice. Julia was to stay on her post, envious of Norma but understood.
Agostino Crispi no doubt was in desperate need of funds, with ongoing lawsuits and Premier Rouge® royalties blocked in Holland and plantings in Africa without any control. He would have no wish to change the present arrangement for Leonardo® in Italy. Witte de Wit’s announced proposal for a 50-50% division, including the LAVAL agency for South America, payment within a year after planting, in itself was reasonable. Norma faxed the agenda for the meeting to Crispi.
Our strategy would be that, when royalties in Italy would be discussed, I would write down the figures and explain Big Anton in Dutch. Anton would then become annoyed and I would propose to let the discussion rest and be continued the next day. Which is exactly what happened, with the difference that Anton really became angry and Norma unhappy not to finish the meeting, at least discussing the other points on the agenda. She had not been amused from the start, when Agostino and I extensively discussed family and business in general, rather than starting with the first item on the agenda. I later explained that Crispi was Italian, not Dutch.
We decided to follow Crispi’s invitation for drinks and an early dinner at one of Crispi’s befriended restaurants. The Three Musketeers, present and silent in the meeting, would join. Crispi’s girlfriend wasn’t there, so Norma would be the only woman at the table. On our way to the cars, I persuaded Vincenzo to change places with me and mix, so we could try to appease the rather hostile atmosphere. After all, he could speak English. So Vincenzo climbed in the back of Big Anton’s Mercedes, sitting next to Norma, Maurice in front, Big Anton driving. Francesco was driving Agostino’s Mercedes and I invited Agostino to sit in the back with me and Guiseppe in front.
Walking into the old house in the tiny village that had no signs of being a restaurant, I quickly whispered to my Dutch companions: “Solved. Exactly as we wanted it. I’ll explain later.” Maurice was perplexed, Norma angry and Anton understood. He spontaneously became very thirsty, the mood festive and the dinner wonderful.
The visibly chagrined Norma needed my explanation: “You don’t conclude agreements with Italians in the boardroom, but privately, mostly in a restaurant. I told Agostino that I could not lose face in the presence of the owner, Big Anton and that I was aware of Agostino’s financial situation. Moreover, I confided to him that we were sure he owned LAVAL and that I would not let him down. We agreed that a 50-50% division of royalties would be fair, and the Witte de Wit’s Italian royalties wouldn’t be due at short notice.”
It would be a short night, as the following morning we would leave for the San Remo flower market at 4 a.m., which we changed into 5 a.m. when the Crispis dropped us off at our hotel just after midnight.
The Three Musketeers arrived fresh and fruity, apparently used to short nights. Agostino was not going to join. Maurice and I were also on time, with Norma showing up after 20 minutes, but no sign of BIG Anton. Banging on his door was to no effect, so, finally, with the help of the janitor we invaded his room, got him out of bed and in the car. That is, in the car of Antoine, the ADHD LAVAL salesman. I had remembered him from a previous visit, speaking incessantly and only in French. I had my revenge for having us wait for over an hour by obligingly opening the passenger door, helping the drowsy Anton into the tiny car, and closing the door.
When we arrived, I again graciously opened the car door for Anton. He was furious. “You NEVER do this to me again!! This guy refused to shut up!” We entered the building, lost Big Anton, and found him on our way out, asleep on a bench.
Still, after we returned, Big Anton was happy with the trip, especially the new codes he had seen in the LAVAL trial house.
The preparations for the farewell party for Father Dré and Uncle Piet were in full swing. With the decennial Floriade exhibition taking place in the neighboring Zoetermeer, numerous international events were organized in the same week of July 1992: the Rose Festival, the International Rose Ball and Rose Breeders’ Dinner.
Sjef was very determined that we needed to throw a party that would belittle all the others, with a double occasion: the retirement of Dré and Piet and the 75th anniversary of the Witte de Wit breeding company. Of the last we are not historically sure, but decided it was close enough.
A big tent was put up at the Witte de Wit’s premises, the inside arranged as a museum. Seedy, Junior, and Alex had managed to collect all old prize-winners from rosaries in various countries to display them as live paintings. Dré and Piet, gobsmacked throughout the occasion, were appointed Officers in the Order of Orange-Nassau by the mayor. Their families had done most of the preparations for this, implying coming up with sufficient contributions to the community and convincing letters to the mayor and aldermen and the queen’s special committee.
The retiring pair, having named and introduced varieties for decades, never had varieties named after them. Two amazons on horseback, dressed in pure white (‘Witte de Wit’) rode in the tent, presenting ‘Dré’s Hot Romance’® and ‘Piet’s Classic Romance’®, subsequently baptized by the beaming duo.
All this took place during the reception for family, friends, neighbors (allowing parking on their premises), international agents, colleagues, and other business relations. Norma acted as speaker, after some time announcing “Ladies and gentlemen, we thank you all for your attendance and we would like to finish the reception. Let the party begin!” We had announced an informal dress code and bus ride, so our guests were somewhat prepared. All guests were maneuvered outside into a row of waiting buses that had arrived in the meantime. Now everybody was overpowered, hesitant to board, but the promise that we would return later in the evening and a little pushing, filled the buses.
We disembarked in Amsterdam and were welcomed by a captain pirate with a parrot into the hold of a bark, big barrels of wine and other spirits, tables of food, pirate waiters, and belly dancers, all reminiscent of the Dutch Golden Age. Follows one big feast with an expensive American lawyer, shirt bottomed down, telling dirty jokes to our Japanese agent; Ivan De Wildeman of the Melle rose research station in tears on Junior’s shoulder because we launched one of their varieties; a German breeder looking for his watch; Seedy returning to his student days in acting as barkeeper; and much, much more on the two decks of the stranded vessel.
Everybody was sad to go, but once on the buses dreaming off into the ships returning from the East Indies into the port of Amsterdam, filled with spices and adventures. Our retirees were one big smile.
Back in Benthuizen at 1 a.m., only a handful were still awake, but not for long. Luckily the mayor and neighbors were among the guests as the brass band started playing and fireworks lit the polder with the words ‘Dré en Piet bedankt!’ (‘Dré and Piet: thank you!’). In the meantime, the museum had been transformed into a discotheque with a live band entertaining the crowd into the very early hours.
Surrounded by canals, I was making sure our guests would leave in the arranged taxis and not end up in the water. The German breeder, who seemed to have lost his wife as well, thought that maybe his watch had dropped out of his pocket into the water on the way out. Apparently, his wife had ended up in a different bus and other part of the party tent. When they reunited, she retrieved the watch from her purse.
After that week I heard that The Rose Festival, International Rose Ball, Rose Breeders’ Dinner, and parties at auction and other breeders had been very disappointing, with hangovers and everybody sharing Witte de With stories.
For me, it had been a day of extreme anxiety. Just before the reception I had received news that there had been an explosion at the chemical plant Cindu in my hometown Uithoorn. “Erik!” had been my first reaction.
Erik was the goalkeeper of our football team of friends, for years, and Erik was not afraid of anything, ending up with concussions, bruised ribs, broken ankle. Erik was a member of the Cindu in-company fire brigade. I instantly knew this was very bad news.
Throughout the day I had been in touch with my teammates and catching the news: there had been multiple explosions, the whole place burnt down and, yes, there were casualties but also firefighters that jumped in the nearby river Amstel, ablaze, and were rescued and rushed to a specialized hospital in Beverwijk.
After all the guests had returned to their homes and hotels I finally heard: Erik had been the first one in, a hero, but had not survived. 10 July 1992, Erik left behind his wife Carla and two very young sons.