Jan Van den Beemt Jr. was never one to “let the moss grow under his feet,” his friends and family say.
An avid traveler, scuba diver and archaeological hobbyist, Van den Beemt brought the stories of his adventures back to his classroom at Keene High School, where he taught in the social studies department for 27 years.
The retired teacher and local resident died in October at the age of 77, according to his obituary, which he wrote himself prior to his death. And, as his final act, Van den Beemt willed the rest of his estate to the high school to create an annual scholarship in his name.
“[My students] had to wrestle with trying to reach that elusive label called adulthood. Many also had difficult issues at home and elsewhere, outside of school. They had to face many forks in the road without knowing for sure where each fork would take them,” he wrote. “By and large, they were good people who were following a healthy direction or looking for one.”
According to his brother, Peter Van den Beemt, Jan Van den Beemt died of complications related to an infection.
Born in 1943, Jan grew up in the Philadelphia area before his father’s work took the family to Switzerland, his brother said. Both of them attended an international school in Zurich, where Jan Van den Beemt seemed to thrive and make friends easily.
“Jan just made friends all over, all nationalities, and he had an incredible cross-section of nationalities in the people he knew,” said Peter Van den Beemt, who now lives in Thailand. “He just gravitated to it.”
Jan Van den Beemt came to Cheshire County in 1972 after teaching for a while in upstate New York. In the halls of Keene High, he was affectionately known as “Van,” according to his close friend and former colleague Ted Miller. He primarily taught elective courses popular among upperclassmen, such as abnormal psychology and anthropology, and advised various extracurricular activities, including the student council.
Miller said Van den Beemt was often selected by the senior class to attend its end-of-year banquets and was honored several times as Outstanding Social Studies Teacher or Outstanding Counselor.
“He was never aloof or the kind of teacher that made you feel uncomfortable when you walked in because of a superiority complex,” Miller said. “That wasn’t his book. He was really down to earth and [had] a great sense of humor.”
Steve McCormack, a retired Keene High social studies teacher, said Van den Beemt drew on his extensive travels, which took him to Africa, South America and beyond, to help his students experience the material outside of their textbooks.
He was a collector of historical artifacts across time periods and civilizations, including Greek, Roman, Minoan and Native American pieces.
“With Jan’s passion for archaeology, he was able to tie in not only the past, but the prehistoric or ancient past for students,” McCormack said. “… The kids felt comfortable asking questions. No question was a foolish question, and his classrooms were always interactive.”
Van den Beemt was also well liked among the faculty, his former colleagues said. During his tenure, the staff in the social studies department had a reputation as the school troublemakers. They often pulled pranks on one another, from depositing a teacher’s new desk chair on top of a roof overhang to letting a live chicken loose in one of the classrooms.
“The camaraderie was really strong, and he was in the thick of it,” said Jen White, a social studies teacher at Keene High who worked with Van den Beemt before his retirement. “We had fun and we played jokes on each other, and he was right in the midst of it.”
This penchant for mischief dated back to his teenage days, Peter Van den Beemt said, when the brothers would experiment with firecrackers and homemade cannons in the gully behind their house. Later in life, Jan Van den Beemt was a gun enthusiast who enjoyed hunting and target shooting.
“Through our history, there were always pyrotechnics somehow,” Peter Van den Beemt said, laughing.
Jan Van den Beemt was a man of many hobbies with a love of adventure, from flying lessons and motorcycles to saltwater fishing. Ted Miller and Van den Beemt bonded over a mutual interest in Philadelphia sports teams and cuisine — Miller grew up in south Jersey — as well as hunting, fishing and judo.
Van den Beemt even acted as a scuba diving instructor for Miller and his wife, helping to guide Miller through his deathly fear of the murky depths. The three friends would go on to take numerous diving trips together in distant locales such as Bermuda, Honduras and Belize.
“I think a favorite [memory] for me is he helped me to get over my greatest fear,” Miller said. “He helped me to conquer it, with the help of my wife, Sue.”
Van den Beemt’s decision to leave his estate to the high school came as no surprise to his former colleagues. As he had no children, Miller said Van den Beemt had been talking about establishing a scholarship fund since his retirement in 2000.
Antje Hornbeck, a spokeswoman for N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, said the school district is still finalizing the details around the scholarship and that she could not share exact financial figures. But his friends and family say they’re pleased to see his legacy live on through the fund.
“I think Jan wanted to make sure that, after he passed away, that whatever he had would continue to do good things, because he was always willing to help somebody who was in need,” McCormack said. “… How many people can say they gave everything they had?”
In lieu of flowers, Van den Beemt requested that those who wish to honor his memory donate to his scholarship fund. Donations can be sent to the Trustees of Trust Funds for the Keene School District at 193 Maple Ave. in Keene.