The unpaid letter writer always remained hopeful about the world



Wouter ter Heide

In the archives of De Persgroep alone, publisher of de Volkskrant, his name yields 4,366 hits. For decades he wrote letters to almost all Dutch newspapers, weeklies and online forums, including the World Federalists. Yet Wouter ter Heide from Zwolle is not a well-known Dutchman. He died on November 29, aged 82. Occupation: unpaid letter writer.

His first letter was printed in 1977 in the Zwolle Courant. The topic is still topical: underpayment of newspaper deliverers. Central themes in his collected oeuvre were universal human rights and global cooperation. At his funeral, a friend recalled what he answered when asked what he did in everyday life: “I act.”

The committed Ter Heide never voted. He did not believe in the short-term politics of the average politician. He thought more broadly. What possessed him? ‘I am trying to get society back on the right track’, Ter Heide told a reporter of in 1992 HP/The Time (also author of this piece). He had high hopes for the rise of the internet. Ter Heide thought that the medium would bring redemption, because everyone around the world could now communicate with each other.

In his last letter in this newspaper, on August 18, 2021, he criticized Sigrid Kaag because she did not want to work with the ChristenUnie again. The ‘far-reaching and profound global problems do not require exclusion, but inclusion’, according to Ter Heide.

Gymnastics teacher in Paramaribo

Born in 1939 in the Javanese city of Soekaboemi, he was in Japanese camps in Bandung and Batavia from 1942 to 1945. After returning to the Netherlands in 1946, the family ended up in Zwolle. Ter Heide worked as a gymnastics teacher in Paramaribo from 1966 to 1971. Once back in Zwolle, he broke with the prevailing work morality and resigned as a gymnastics teacher. A divorce had gripped him; as an outdoor person – inspired by James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – he lived frugally on benefits, on a farm in Langenholte, on the outskirts of Zwolle. From then on, he spent the time and energy that he previously granted family life (with two daughters and a son). “There are periods when letters to the editor are my only contact with the outside world,” he said in a statement HP/The Time.

He did not own a car. Ter Heide must have cycled around the earth more than twice, calculated his son Michiel. That is why the former gymnastics teacher remained so physically strong, he thinks. Not without a toll: after Ter Heide lost a toe as a marine at bivouac in the harsh winter of 1963, his participation in the last Elfstedentocht cost him a second toe. Nevertheless, he skated out of the trip.

Ter Heide remained an optimist, a thinker and – certainly after his move to the city center – a well-known figure with a broad interest in young and old, a connecting factor in social and cultural life in Zwolle. Neighbors of the monumental street of Eekwal saw Wouter at work every day in front of his window: he read newspapers and books, and then wrote his letters on his computer. His message was hopeful, his children say. ‘The current crisis is only a harbinger of the harmony that awaits us,’ said their father.

At the end of last year, after a fall on the street, he ended up in hospital, where he died a week later. His paper letters are preserved in many folders, including lively correspondences with editors about whether or not to print. The children are considering publishing some of them on the wouterterheide.nl website. ‘Although peace on earth is often dismissed as a pious wish, I consider it a feasible option’, wrote Ter Heide. He may experience that, because the man believed in reincarnation. As the text on his funeral card said: ‘Everything comes to an end, but it is never final.’