By Christopher Gilmour
Read at Japie's funeral 16th February 2001
Words meant a lot to Japie. He delighted in their origin, development and their context. Often a time he would pounce on an interesting word that arose in conversation and go to his well-thumbed reference books to trace the evolution of its meaning, from Greek or Latin, Dutch or German, to present day usage. He would tease out their import, savour their interpretation and explore contexts for their usage. It is therefore more than a little ironic, that we have all found ourselves at a loss for words when we try to express what we feel about Japie. Words are either inadequate, we are frustrated by the inability to communicate the essence of our feeling, or words are just simply too hard to articulate, as our feelings get the better of us, and we choke on our emotions. The words that I have to offer are poor indeed. All that I can hope for is that something of what I have to share will strike a chord and refresh fond memories of a wonderful and beloved son, brother, uncle, friend, colleague and teacher.
How then can we measure Japie, the person? Which characteristics defined him and immortalise him in our memories? We could start by looking at his relationship with children, for they are discerning and quick to recognise a person who is truly interested in them.
In children's eyes Japie shone clear and bright. He loved children and they returned his affection. It was interesting to watch his technique with the young ones. He would quietly wait in the background, not forcing any attention on himself. Children like to be noticed and would gravitate to him and start talking. They were then hooked because Japie was a great listener. Often he would quickly have them in front of a chess board or playing the recorder, or outside into the garden for strenuous play. His nephews and nieces, Jannie's children and Annatjie's children, kept him well informed of their progress in mathematics, and he stimulated their interest with problems via e-mail. His expertise had to be broadly based, such as when he was called upon to show great interest in Susan's daughter's new shoes. When Japie came to live with Ingrid and I, our daughters, Kirstin and Anna were of an age where they, their cousins and friends, could exploit a willing slave. He would exhaust himself swinging them around or playing horse to his young riders.
Another measure of a man is his passions. As Japie's students will attest, he had a penchant for expresso coffee, the aroma of which percolated down the corridors from his office, and Côte d'Or dark chocolate which often sustained them through a consultation. He would not compromise on either coffee or pasta, and insisted on supplementing our household budget by stocking up the cupboard with literally hundreds of rands worth of his favourite brands, terrified that stocks would run out at the local Pick and Pay.
Cricket was a lifelong passion, shared by his whole family. He would regale fellow devotees with statistics and fond memories of Graham Pollock's great innings at Centurion Park. Many of us spent fruitful hours of research at Newlands together.
Outside of Mathematics, his chief passion and consolation was music. His collection of records and CD's is extensive. He shared this joy with many special friends. Not only was he highly knowledgeable about music, but he was also a talented player of the violin, piano and recorder. He took great delight in ensemble playing, and, yes, sometimes some strain, especially when called on to perform. His lifelong love of music stemmed from his grandmother who was an organist with formidable talent, playing for the church till well into her eighties. In music, as for language and mathematics, Japie looked to the roots, delighting especially in performances on original instruments of the Baroque period.
Japie was also remarkably well read, and often preferred to read the classics, and here I include Asterix, in the original French or Italian.
Japie used his words carefully and thoughtfully. There were exceptions: any devotee of Faulty Towers will allow himself the extravagance of sharp repartee and a silly chuckle now and then. Japie often indulged himself in this respect. He had a wonderful, wry humour. At work his forays into humour were often a release from having to attend to administrative duties - in particular, meetings. Meetings were probably the one place where Japie did not feel obliged to listen. Normally he was an exceptional listener, whether it was to child, colleague, student or friend. He was the doyen of seminars and colloquia. But when it came to meetings he would feel almost honour-bound to retreat into what has been called "illegitimate research".
His passion for research was paramount - he was a mathematician's mathematician. In an age of specialisation and narrowly focussed research, he devoted himself to reading widely and deeply. His knowledge was formidable, and this, combined with a gentle spirit, attracted postgraduates, both his own and those of others. His contribution to the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at UCT was, in this alone, inestimable. Professor Brian Hahn, Head of the Department writes "As a leader of younger mathematicians, and as a deep mathematical thinker himself, Japie was one of a class; he had no peers, only disciples. The Department has been richer for his life and will be immeasurably poorer for his untimely passing". Tributes have poured in from around the world, where colleagues of the highest rank in his field mourn the passing of a wonderful man and a brilliant mind.
I close with these words of Professor Bernhard Banaschewski, intimate
friend and research collaborator; they capture, more elegantly than mine,
what Japie has meant to each and every one of us.
Your soaring mind
gave me more insights than
many a venerable teacher.
Your vast store of knowledge
of a multitude of wonderful things
never ceased to captivate me.
The sense of humour we shared,
wry & whimsical & full of appreciation
of the absurd,
was a source of constant enjoyment.
Alas, all these are gone now,
cruelly fallen by the wayside -
But as a miniscule contribution
to eternal life
they will be remembered
Requiescas in Pace.
Japie was my brilliant teacher, and one of my most treasured friends. To me he represented all that was good about doing mathematics. Every time I have a mathematics question, or discover some strange piece of nonsense that would have appealed to his unique sense of humour, the realization that he is gone now is still a blow. I will miss him terribly. I miss him terribly already.
Hardy Hulley Dept. of Mathematics
I must have known Japie over a period of about a decade, but at first it was only a distant relationship - he was someone who was there as a researcher in the background - someone I saw on the other side of the tea-room, or heard at colloquium talks or seminars. I think it was only in the last few years when Japie became an honorary member of our joint UCT, UWC and Stellenbosch Number Theory and Algebraic Geometry Group that I really got to know him. We would drive out to Stellenbosch in his car, talking merrily all the way. Often he would be concerned to draw me out on some topic in mathematics, or mathematical physics, but we also discussed goings on in the University, current politics, European travel, and especially music. He had a lively aesthetic sense, and appreciated equally elegant theorems, and daring and dazzling performances of baroque chamber music.
Japie Vermeulen was a warm and valued colleague, a serious mathematician, and a true friend.
Kenneth Hughes Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
I met Japie for the first time in 1995, just one or two weeks after my arrival in the then Department of Mathematics. In that year already I had many interactions with Japie. He taught me Category Theory and helped me understand some aspects of Differential Geometry.
He was as sympathetic and attentive as a second supervisor for both my Masters dissertation and my PhD thesis. I remember especially that I had many very stimulating exchanges of ideas during the course of my PhD studies. He was often available and very approachable. His sense of compassion was very remarkable. I would say he was a human being. I particularly remember that several times he spoke French to me just to make me feel a little bit at home.
It is very unfortunate that Japie has left his colleagues and students in an extremely unexpected way. My prayer goes to all that loved him and all that he loved that they may find consolation and comfort.
May God bless Japie's soul.
Patrice Ntumba Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
I knew Japie as a gifted mathematician who excelled in many fields. I only really had a chance to get to know him in 2000 when we drove up to Ceres to see the snow, and talked in the car. I came to see him then as a generous and, above all, gentle man with a sense of humour hidden behind a reserved exterior. Whenever I remember Japie I shall recall his gentleness before anything else.
Tracy Craig Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
During the time that I have known Dr. Japie Vermeulen, he was always a fine gentleman: kind, courteous, friendly and helpful. Intellectually, he was in a league of his own.
I remember one incident after watching a cricket match at Newlands, we were walking back to his car (he gave me a lift there). During the walk, he was so deep in thought solving some Mathematical problems, that he missed an intersection and I stopped him. He then joked and said to me that "The world almost lost a Mathematician."
At this moment I feel that his words were so true, now the world did lose a brilliant Mathematician (and a kind man). It is so very sad and heart-rending that I should need to say good-bye to him so soon. I will miss him for a long time.
Yen-I Chiang Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
A quiet man, but a radical thinker. We will miss him; so will mathematics.
Chris Brink University of Wollongong
I have been fortunate enough to visit the Maths Department at UCT three times. Each visit has been highly enjoyable and one of the reasons for that has been Japie. Together we have played chamber music, watched and argued about cricket (after all, South Africa and Australia are the only two countries who can play the game at present), taken coffee and chocolate together and of course discussed our work and academic politics.
As I realise how hard the next trip to Cape Town will be, I appreciate how devastated must be his family, the Gilmours and the department. My very deepest sympathy is with you all.
Jeff Sanders Oxford University
I was introduced to Japie at the beginning of the year 1999. He was going to be my teacher for my Masters degree. Soon we became good friends as well. Between him, his students and colleagues he created a very strong bond. He excelled in his teaching and I always left his office with renewed confidence in my work.
We have always started our lectures/discussions, in his office, with coffee and chocolates/biscuits. In the year 2000 he drove a number of us to see the snow in Ceres. It was my first time to see the snow. He shared his enjoyment of the game of cricket with us.
He truly was leading a very charming life. I will never forget one morning when he came up to fetch me from our office to go and teach me in his office. He knocked and opened the door. My colleague who sits next to the door looked up first and Japie said to him: "I am looking for that chap over there."
During the weekends and after hours he has been only a phone call away. We are very sad that he is gone, but memories of him will remind us what a wonderful person he was.
He has gone to rest. May his soul rest in peace.
Shuungula Onesmus Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
Ek het Japie verlede jaar leer ken toe ek belangstelling getoon het in gevorderde wiskunde (ek was toe 'n eerstejaar). Japie wou niks weet van my vrese dat ek niks sou verstaan nie, en het my saamgeneem na 'n seminaar by Stellenbosch universiteit waar ek vir twee dae met derdejaar wiskunde kon speel, en tot my verbasing dit vreeslik geniet het.
Toe my belangstelling toeneem in plaas van afneem, het hy die dapper stap geneem om aan te bied om vir my klasse in algebra en kategorie teorie te gee: 'n wonderlike geleentheid vir 'n eerstejaar. Japie se eksperiment was om te sien of iemand 'n beter begrip vir wiskunde sou ontwikkel as hy of sy van die begin af kategorie-teorie geleer word (in plaas van die tradisionele versamelings-paradigma) eerder as om dit baie later by te leer - want dan moet die versamelings-paradigma weer afgeleer word.
Goeie vordering is gemaak en ek het die lesse baie geniet, maar toe kom eindjaareksamens tussenbeide - ons klasse sou hierdie jaar hervat het.
Net soos al Japie se ander studente voel ek nou 'n bietjie verlore, en teleurgesteld dat ek net so 'n kort tydjie saam met hom kon deurbring.
Op persoonlike vlak was Japie vir my 'n inspirasie. As 'n Afrikaanse meisie by 'n Engelse universiteit was hy vir my 'n kosbare voorbeeld van gelukkige Afrikanerdom - kreatief, vreeslik slim, en met 'n wye kennis van die wêreld en al sy tale en gebruike - ons het heerlik gesels tydens die twee uittogte na Stellenbosch.
Dit was altyd heerlik om die agting te sien waarmee al sy kollegas hom betrag, en my groot teleurstelling is dat ek nooit 'n kans gehad het om na sy strykkwartet te gaan luister nie.
Japie - ek sal jou ernstige toewyding aan en jou opgewondenheid oor wiskunde mis, maar meer nog jou bedrieglik skaam en heerlik droeë sin vir humor - sulke stoute ogies! En dankie vir die koppie espresso wat my hare laat regop staan het - ek sal dit, en jou, nooit vergeet nie.
As sy ouers en suster het julle baie om op trots te wees, en baie om te onthou - ek hoop die versameling tributes kan hiertoe bydra - en dankie dat julle Japie vir ons geleen het.
Elmien Wolvaardt Cape Town
Daar is twee goed wat vir my voorop staan wanneer ek aan Japie dink. Die een is die fantastiese manier waarop wiskunde altyd sy eerste taal was. Meer as enige wiskundige wat ek ooit teë gekom het, het Japie altyd eerste wiskunde gepraat. Sy metafore en vergelykings het hy soveel keer uit sy breë wêreld van strukture en kommuterende prentjies getrek.
Die ander, en meer persoonlike herinnering, is hoe daar altyd 'n heerlike koppie espresso en donker Cote d'Or sjokolade beskikbaar was indien jy oor jou laaste idee, konsep of probleem wou gesels. Dit was altyd wonderlik en gerusstellend om te weet dat daar so 'n fantastiese mens beskikbaar was daar onder op die tweede vloer. Ons sal almal hierdie besondere voorreg vreeslik mis.
Dit verbly my hart om te weet dat ek wel een van die geseënde en bevoorregte mense was om hierdie wonderlike mens en briljante wiskundige te geken het.
Hendrik Schalekamp Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
I never had the opportunity to work with Japie, either in research or in teaching. In a large Department, that is not surprising. But I knew him as a colleague with a quiet and friendly smile of greeting in the corridors or common room, and I knew his reputation as a brilliant researcher with a formidable intellect. He will be sorely missed by his fellow researchers, graduate students and colleagues.
John Webb Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
Most of my interaction with Japie was as Head of Department during the last two years. He undertook any duty I assigned to him conscientiously, cheerfully and without complaint (by no means a typical response from staff!). In fact, he was always prepared to "go the extra mile". He voluntarily took on additional lecturing in the Honours course because he felt the students needed the material; I thought he was doing too much, but I couldn't stop him.
I'll just single out one further aspect, as I think it typifies the man. He became eligible for promotion only last year, having served his period of probation. However I practically had to force him to apply for promotion! He apparently had no interest in the status or the additional pay he was simply terrified that promotion would mean more "administration" (which was not exactly his main strength!). However I promised him that would not be the case; he was such a valuable researcher and postgraduate supervisor and mentor that I undertook to shield him from as much of the dreaded admin as possible. A new aspect of the promotions exercise last year was that we asked postgraduates being supervised by the applicant to write brief comments about their supervisors. In Japie's case there were also comments from students he was not supervising himself; because of his astonishingly wide mathematical knowledge he acted as a sort of general oracle for any postgraduate who wanted to talk through really difficult mathematics. Reading their comments was a moving and humbling experience. Japie was regarded by his students with a mixture of awe, respect and affection, and they clearly felt that he would spare no effort in helping them to understand the issues at stake so that they would be able to solve their problems themselves - every true teacher's objective. Needless to say it was very easy presenting his case for promotion to the Faculty committee; he walked into a senior lectureship.
As a leader of younger mathematicians, and as a deep mathematical thinker himself, Japie was one of a class; he had no peers, only disciples. The Department has been richer for his life and will be immeasurably poorer for his untimely passing.
Brian Hahn Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
I knew him, though not well. Yet, as mathematician, certainly. My first encounter: an honours class in algebraic topology. I think I was the only student, and he was already a legend. Over the years we raced through various topics together, with me always a little slow, he always patiently explaining: Differential geometry, Lie groups, categories, frames, toposes... Always amongst the books, the papers, and the strong smell of espresso. Always resolving to do more, and always running out of time.
Peter Ouwehand Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
University of Cape Town
Japie Vermeulen was one of the most original minds and one of the deepest mathematicians I have ever met. I do not believe the Department will ever be able to recover from this loss.
Igor Barashenkov Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
Japie was a great mathematician and a good, kindly person.
Paul Cherenack Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
I am deeply saddened by the sudden death of Japie Vermeulen. Apart from being a tremendous asset to the department he was a warm, kind and very likable person. His major strength was research supervision and as a beacon of original thinking, students flocked to him in large numbers. It was only on very few occasions that I found him working alone in his office. Most of his day was spent interacting, stimulating and encouraging his research students which he did quietly, effective and without fuss. It is this quiet way of doing things that has made his loss so much harder to fathom - it is only now that he is gone that we realise how much influence he had and how important his contribution to UCT was. He will be greatly missed by us all.
Peter Dunsby Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
I worked with Japie teaching 2nd year engineering students. He was always kind, friendly and unassuming. Please accept my condolences for your loss. May the peace of God that surpasses all understanding be with you during this difficult time.
Steve Tladi Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
I have only really met Japie through my sister Penny Roux and the music group, but I have been greatly moved by his life and death.
I remember him as a person who loved incredibly strong coffee, and hanepoort grapes, and farm cheeses; as a phenomenal musical encyclopaedia; as a quiet but solid friend to the music group. Once he was kind enough to make time to help me, a virtual stranger to him, with my computer. One always had the impression that Japie would go out of his way to help in times of need.
Know that he was much loved by his friends.
Jacquie Nutt Cape Town
It came as a great shock to read of Japie's sudden passing. It immediately brought to mind memories of his affability, his readiness to assist at all times, his assiduous work and kindly outlook, during the many years I knew him as a colleague. Japie made a deep impression as a fine person.
My hearfelt sympathy to his relatives, colleagues and friends.
Michael Walker Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
Japie's great commitment to learning and the academic life, his willingness to help others and his gentle nature made him a delight to talk to and to interact with. I shall miss him greatly.
Ronnie Becker Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
Japie had the office next to mine. I remember when we were re-shuffling offices last time, John considered moving downstairs, but thought he'd stay upstairs next to Japie; Japie ended up moving downstairs - my gain!
This meant that I had an excellent view of many of the people who trooped in and out of his office. He was there for so many people. His post-graduate students, obviously. He was one of the most popular supervisors we have. Also other people's students would hang about for advice and chats and courses. (Japie had the most enormous white-board I've ever seen installed in his office - it was simply necessary. He did a huge amount of teaching in that office.) Under-grad students - with all the things he had to do, he still made time for weak students, sukkling with Engineering Maths 1.
And research associates, of course. Here much of the communication was by email. Jo once told me that it was hard getting Japie just to chat on email; if you wanted a response, you had to ask him for a favour. That he would always make time for!
Ales (a colleague in Prague) told me how lucky he thought we were in Cape Town to have Japie always ready to hand, that Japie had the most incredibly good instincts about mathematical things. How valuable a comment "yes, that'll probably work" or "I think try this way" from Japie has been to so many people! I remember bitterly the many times I've thought "When I have a moment, I'm going to pick Japie's brains about this." When he first came, we never expected him to stay, but after his permanent appointment and promotion I thought we would be together in this department until we were both old and retired, and there was no hurry.
I don't for a moment feel that I can explain how much Japie meant to his mathematical community all over the world. Here he was a member of at least four different research groups. I say "at least" because I'm only now realising just how much he was involved in, and I certainly don't know about it all. We did appreciate him, it's not as if we didn't know what we had till it was gone. We did know, and we did appreciate him.
A new bookshop opened up in Rondebosch recently; an absolutely irresistible temptation for Japie, of course. The two of us were comparing our hauls. He showed me the stack of things he'd gotten. One book, he said, Jeff had seen and bought before him, but he (Japie) looked so woebegone that Jeff just gave it to him as a present; which Japie was extremely chuffed about.
There were many things in life that he loved and knew a lot about: music, cricket, coffee, art, wine, computers. But I don't know so much about these things. Other people can tell you more about their outings to the New Year's cricket test at Newlands, and their coffee-shop research, and all his unbelievable knowledge about computers, and such things.
For me, my most precious memories of Japie are about how uproariously he could make me laugh. How we would slouch in the doorway, with John or Chris or Robert or Neill or Jurie or whoever was passing by, with Japie making irreverent jokes about a faculty meeting we'd just attended, or entertaining us with tales of his strange school-mates or his days in the navy. Japie was a stunning mathematician and a very gentle person, but this is what I will miss most.
Anneliese Schauerte Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
Japie Vermeulen was a promising mathematician who sought to understand the deep connections between things. With his ceaseless efforts unfolding into insight and progress, he also shared his fascination by encouraging and inspiring others. Though his tragic and untimely death is mourned, his life is indeed celebrated.
Diane Wilcox Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
I have worked as secretary to the topology research group for the past seven years and cannot imagine our group without Japie. He was a very important team member and latterly team leader. Japie, among other things, assisted me with a variety of computer problems and I will always be grateful for the help and encouragement he gave me in my job. Japie was a fine man and would never have believed he would be so missed by so many people.
Moira Cooke Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
Sunday 11 February 2001 was a tragic day indeed. We have lost a kind, gentle, caring friend and colleague who will be missed so much. No more the shy smile, the wonderful dry sense of humour, the infinite patience and kindness shown to everyone.
I knew Japie for about 12 years, having seen him both socially at the Gilmours, and in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, and I feel privileged to have known him. He touched the lives of so many people, and engendered feelings of affection and respect wherever he went. He has left a gap which will be hard to fill!
Di Loureiro Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
As some of you will know, Japie and I have collaborated intensely during the last few years, and had various plans for the future. Only a few months before his accident our monograph "Proper Maps of Toposes" was published by the American Mathematical Society. Japie and I were very proud of our work. I will always remember Japie as a very special collaborator. I sometimes thought he was slow, but with hindsight it always turned out he was hesitant or sceptical, because he saw subtle complications in our work which I hadn't thought of. He combined this with a fine, ironical sense of humour which is typical of Dutch calvinists and perhaps goes back to the years he spent here as a boy. I feel privileged to have been able to work with him.
Ieke Moerdijk Utrecht University
I am deeply shocked and saddened by this horrible news.
I will always remember him as very friendly colleague and excellent researcher.
Jacek Ronda Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
This is extremely sad news to lose such a wonderful person and a great and admired mathematician. Kindly pass on my deepest condolences and sympathies to all those in the department and especially to all in the Topology Research Group.
Dharms Baboolal University of Durban-Westville
On Japie's Passing
pursuit of knowledge
pursuit of beauty
that other world of refinement
a crystalisation of what is good in humanity
he saved special things for special times
protecting the fragile heart
he reached out with an open heart
with determined sincerity
our weaknesses and talents
knowing the measure of our capacity
reflecting back truth
knowing self and solitude
knowing silence and music
knowing mortality - the fragile flesh
he created the space
for us to come together
suspensions and harmony
texture of sound
Japie, I was so looking forward to seeing you again
in Cape Town and Cambridge
playing Corelli and savouring tea and conversation
(I have known Japie for about 8 years. We met often with Penny, Christine
and friends to play baroque music.)
Ek sien hom nog bedees
terwyl studente eksamen skryf aan lees
uit een van die AMS se reeks monografieë;
die blote titel maak vir my verleë.
Ek vra hom hoe dit gaan.
Hy sê dis swaar om te verstaan
oor die geskrif so baie om die lyf het.
Hy sluk en knip sy lens-vergrote oë
-half aandagtig, half-bewoë-
"Die ergste is dat ek dit self geskryf het."
Henri Laurie Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
This is a very, very sad news. Japie was a great mathematician and a very kind person. We mourn him now and will miss him always.
Ales Pultr Charles University
The news from South Africa this past week couldn't have been more terrible for anybody who knew Japie. It's one of those moments where you really want to turn back the clock to undo the senseless damage that has occured. Not only your local community but the categorical community at large really lost a brilliant mind and a wonderful human being.
I write this so that you and your colleagues know that there are many of us from far away who mourn with you.
Walter Tholen York University
This is so very shocking.... It will take time for me to digest this tragic news.
He was one of the most talented young mathematicians I know and I have been lucky to have profited from his disinterested comments.
Marta Bunge McGill University
It is with deep regret that I heard of Japie's passing. I remember well the happy collaboration I had with him in Utrecht and Trieste a few years ago. Please convey my condolences to his colleagues and family.
William Lawvere State University of New York
The news is terrible. You summed it up: he was a wonderful human being and had a brilliant mind.
My deepest sympathy to you and your family, who knew him as family. Please also convey sympathy to his sister, whom I met once, and to his parents, whom I do not know. They may be comforted in knowing that his many mathematical friends are devastated by his death.
Joan Wick Pelletier York University
Dear Chris, what a tragedy, individually and for the community of mathematicians! I am shocked and offer my heartfelt condolences to the South African colleagues.
Karl Hofmann Tulane University, New Orleans and
We join you and all colleagues from UCT, especially Keith and Guillaume, in your sadness and pain for the death of a marvellous human being, an inspiring and brilliant mathematician and a good friend.
Manuela Sobral / Maria Manuel Clementino / Jorge Picado University of Coimbra
I knew Japie when he was a graduate student of Chris Mulvey at the University of Sussex in Brighton on the south coast of England; I was a graduate student in Cambridge at the time.
I remember being with him at the Category Theory meeting in Cambridge in the summer of 1986. The conference outing was a punt trip on the River Cam. It is usual when a group go out on a punt for everyone to have a go at punting - which involves standing up in one end of the boat and pushing it along by sticking a 3m pole into the bed of the river. Japie - like most people when they do this for the first time - was very nervous about this. But I was sitting in the punt thinking that, in a couple of months' time, he would have to go back to South Africa and join the army, which was still fighting the civil war over the dying apartheid system.
I realised that, with the coming of majority rule in South Africa, it would be much more difficult for Japie and my other South African colleagues to visit us in Europe. Even for Europeans, it's hardly a cheap trip. But I was hoping that, one day, I would be able to visit your country, and visit Japie at home. Sadly I shall not now be able to do that.
It is several years since I last saw Japie, and we haven't even exchanged very much email recently. Grieving for the loss of a friend in such circumstances is very difficult, and I know I shall think of him from time to time in the future, and will want to say things to him, but I shall not be able to come to terms with the fact that he's not there any more.
Please would you forward this message to his family and friends, and tell them that he had friends in Europe who will really miss him.
Paul Taylor U.K.
Ek staar na die foto, probeer 'n gevoel vasvat. Die foto is die een van Berg-en-Dal, ons nuwejaar in die middel-van-nêrens. Hoe pragtig was dit nie. Dié aand was daar nie een ander liggie as ons eie lantern nie. Dit was donkermaan. Selfs die wolke het onverwags weggetrek. Die sterre was ongelooflik. Vir die eerste keer het ek iets ontdek waarvan ek (net-net) meer as jy geweet het - ek kon 'n paar sterre vir jou uitwys. Ons het saam die boekie probeer raadpleeg, probeer uitvind watter ander stellasies nog bo ons sit. Dit het ons baie gedoen - saam koppe oor 'n boek gebuig. Sonder uitsondering was dit altyd jý wat mý nuwe dinge geleer het. Hoeveel kennis! Ek het myself altyd verbaas, dat iemand so baie kan weet. Nie net van wiskunde nie - maar van álles. Daar was natuurlik die ure-lange wiskunde sessies - ek het maar soms gebars om te probeer byhou. Maar elke dan en wan, onverwags, het ek vir 'n flietende oomblik insig gekry, 'n klein deeltjie van die abstrakte wêreld in jou kop kon uitmaak. Hoe fantasties, inspirerend was dit nie! Jy het alles in terme van prentjies gesien. Dit, dink ek, is hoe ek jou moet onthou: deur prentjies, beelde, wat oomblikke vasvat. Jy agter jou lessenaar, espresso in die hand. Kop gebuig oor papier, pen in die hand, steeds geduldig na soveeel ure se verduidelik. Ek sien jou, hande in die lug, klouend aan daardie abstrakte konsepte, oë blink. Ek sien jou stap by Berg-en-Dal, rooi gebrand en moeg. Ek sien jou by Nuweland, gefasineer met die draai van die bal. Ek sien jou in Papa Lukes terwyl jy stories vertel, van kinderjare, weermag, selfs Breytenbach se hofsaak (hoe jaloers was ek nie!). Soveel oomblikke! Soveel tyd saam! Japie, jy het my baie só baie gegee. Dankie. Jy was 'n wonderlike onderwyser. 'n Mentor. En 'n baie goeie vriend.
Mariette de Meillon Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
It is with disbelief and shock that I read your mail. I didn't know Japie Vermeulen personally but I can still see him vividly before me. To die in those circumstances when there are still so many things that life may have to offer and so many great things he could have done is terrible.
Please accept my and Eva's most sincere condolences and convey these also to Japie's family and friends.
Bob Lowen University of Antwerp
Hierdie is 'n klein huldeblyk van 'n heelwat ouer kollega en vriend van Japie Vermeulen, nog ontredderd oor die onherstelbaarheid en enormiteit van ons almal se verlies.
Hoe treur ek dat ek hom nie goed genoeg geken het nie, nie tyd gemáák het om meer van hom te leer, meer gedagtes met hom te deel nie. Gedink daar sou later tyd wees; geweet hy het 'n ontsettende groot werklading, en gehoop èk sou weldra meer tyd hê. Wat 'n ydele en verkeerde hoop. 'n Mens moet meer leer van die tyd, van jou medemens, van dier en plant en skepping, van die werke van die gees. Japie se heengaan, al die verbystering van die afgelope week, word vir my 'n waterskeiding in my opvatting van hoe om te lewe en te werk. Met die agternakyk na die verdwynende gestalte van hierdie groot denker, werker en mens, is dit asof ek meer en skerper kan onderskei wie hy was en wat hy vir ons gegee het en wat hy vir ons nagelaat het. Anderkant ywer en anderkant berusting, anderkant beskeidenheid en anderkant trots, anderkant vreugde en pyn, anderkant hoop en vrees, anderkant iets wees en niks wees, dáár moet ons aanhou soek en vra.
Geken het ons hom goed genoeg om te weet van sy groot mensliewendheid, sy eindelose hulpvaardigheid, (sy verstommende vaardigheid met die rekenaar is nogal uitgebuit - soms had mens geen ander keuse nie, al het jy geweet jy moet hom nie pla nie). Die genot het ons gehad van sy skitterende verstand en sy sprankelende humor. Geweet van sy beskeidenheid, vasberadenheid, hartstogtelike belangstellings in wiskunde, wetenskappe, filosofie, musiek, lettere en kuns. Jare lank het ons hom sien ryp word vir sy taak, en geweet iemand so besonders het bogemiddeld tyd nodig om ryp te word. Jare al weet ons hoe hoog hy onder sy navorsingsmakkers gereken word, veral in die buiteland. Maar nou het die konkrete erkenning begin inkom: van pragtige navorsingsartikels wat in druk verskyn het, van 'n groeiende skare navorsingstudente om hom heen, en die stempel van goedkeuring deur die Nasionale Navorsingstigting. Alles het so mooi reg gekom, sy stadium van groot produktiwiteit het goed op dreef gekom - en toe, stop, weg, punt. Nee, nie punt nie; dit mag nie, die werk moet voortgesit word. Hoe dankbaar kan ons wees dat sy briljante "Proper maps of toposes" saam met Moerdijk van Utrecht al in November 2000 in die Memoir-reeks van die American Mathematical Society verskyn het. Die boeiende resultate daarin - baie diepsinnig - sal my dwing om eindelik behoorlik iets van toposteorie te leer. Dis 'n ontsettend veeleisende, hoogontwikkelde vakgebied, abstrak, fundamenteel; naby aan die wortels van denke, taal, ruimte, tyd. Dit kon so maklik gewees het as ek vroegtydig begin het. Nou, treur oor die jong wakker gees wat weg is, nie treur oor wat 'n ou man versuim het nie. Wees dankbaar vir die waterskeiding en vir die nalatenskap. Vir die uitsig. Vir die ruimte geskep deur 'n universele gees, Japie.
Dat u almal troos, krag en opwekking mag vind. Dis die bede ook van my vrou, Laetitia, wat deur die jare al vir Japie goed leer waardeer het. Selfs haar moeder, Sarie Conradie (weduwee van Ds Willie Conradie van Stellenbosch, nou 91 jaar oud), al het sy Japie nie geken nie, het dwarsdeur hierdie week so meegeleef met u.
Groetnis. Guillaume Brümmer Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
Naskrif: Gevra om ook aan u oor te dra die droefheid van Dr Mark Sioen
(Antwerpen), Prof Eraldo Giuli (L'Aquila, Italië), en die sprakelose
verslaenheid van Renate Petry (Würzburg).
My sincerest condolencies to Japie's colleagues and family in South Africa.
His death is a great loss.
Steve Vickers Faculty of Maths and Computing
It is so difficult to think of our Japie not being on this earth any more. He was one of the truly good people for whose sake the world keeps turning. The most gentle soul in the world, never mean, always ready to help - and it seemed everyone wanted his help with something. He did everything he could for everyone and NEVER asked for recognition. I'll never forget some of the times he cheered me up with a surprising twist of humor.
Martha O'Kennon University of Albion
It is hard to take it that Japie is gone. His sudden death at the prime of his life is heartbreaking. It is hard to believe that someone so gentle and modest is now gone. The mathematics community has been robbed of one of the finest mathematical minds. Japie gave so generously of his time and resources in helping others. He shared his profound mathematical talent and insight with whomsoever cared to talk to him. One could almost always anticipate his favourite question when discussing mathematics: Is the proof of this or that constructive? Ever so humble and unassuming, Japie has touched our lives in a very special and unique way. We have lost a true friend and an admirable colleague.
Japie, your memory will last for many years to come. It has been an honour and privilege to have known and worked with you. You have enriched our lives in many ways. May your soul rest in peace. Lala ngoxolo mfowethu!
Sizwe and Phethiwe Mabizela Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
(Sizwe's wife Phethiwe, who was a student here, is now lecturing at
Ieke Moerdijk passed on to me the tragic news about Japie. Please accept my sincere condolences to you and your colleagues at UCT - and please pass them on to his family if you get the chance. I'm unable to express properly how I feel about the loss: it's as if I were stumbling around in the dark after the sudden extinction of a very bright light.
Peter Johnstone Cambridge University
I shall remember Japie Vermeulen above all as a gentle person, and a helper.
When I try to picture him, it is the gentle smile I remember. When I try to recall his voice, it is a soft and gentle voice I hear. When I think about the way he interacted with others, it is the gentle way he dealt with people that comes back.
Even though Japie was most unassuming, almost giving the impression that he was trying his best to be inconspicuous, his gentleness and genuineness attracted others. When one went to him for help, there was always a good chance that you would find him helping someone else already. He gave freely from his vast knowledge and insight. It is no wonder that he attracted so many graduate students, and advised not only his own students, but also others'. His help was not confined to academic matters; I recall many a problem with my computer solved with Japie's help. And one always went away with the feeling that the help was gladly offered, with no reserve.
What makes this so much more remarkable is that Japie was acknowledged by all as a leader in his field. The breadth and depth of his knowledge was outstanding, and extended over a wide range. It is rare for greatness to come in such a quiet and unassuming form.
His gentleness and quietness did not mean that Japie had no passions. And these passions were not confined to mathematics. It was a joy to hear him talk about music, and cricket, and coffee!
And all this was infused with his wonderful wry sense of humour. As postgraduate co-ordinator I often had to trouble him with administrative matters, and his quiet quips lightened for us both what was certainly to him the unacceptable face of academic life.
I count it as one of the greatest privileges of my career to have known Japie, not only as a colleague, but also as a friend. And it will remain a great sadness that this privilege was cut short so tragically. The sadness is lightened only by memories that are so unequivocally good..
Jurie Conradie Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics
I have only known Japie through you, and have had very brief conversations with him. I didn't find him a boisterous, talkative person, but rather person who was content enough to be silent. He never hid behind a noisy facade, his calm and stoic nature revealed his kindness truthfully.
Nick Roux Cape Town
As I remember him he was a quiet, most sincere and throughly nice person, a talented musician who played regularly with members of the ACMP in quartets, and other groups. We will all miss this gentle person.
Nanette Mills Cape Town
Although we were all very close, seeing each other usually at least once a week for music practice, and I should be devasted, I feel quite numb and emotionless. Maybe the realization is yet to come ?
One thing for sure, my life has been immeasurably enriched by knowing Japie. He always knew a piece when we didn't - we'd sing or play him a bit of a tune that we didn't know and he'd be able to come up with the composer's name, title, and often other interesting details. He was our walking dictionary. It was he who recommended we go to Italy rather than emigrate to NZ or Aus. Because of him, I bought my harspichord last year.
I am no longer numbed. Have just been crying freely for hours.
We didn't know the Vermeulens and they never knew us and they didn't know Japie-with-us. I want to express appreciation for everything Japie has done for me and for our music-group(s)... for my pupils, the wine auction, other performances, helping us with computer problems, buying music for us as individuals as well as for the group.
We were asked at the funeral to feel appreciation for his life - and indeed - we are blessed to have known him.
Penny Roux Cape Town
I miss you terribly. I didn't know how much you formed a part of my life, didn't realize how much you meant to me, never told you.
I still remember the day I first met you in the department; your mathematical reputation preceded your arrival; I was expecting a very intimidating person indeed. Instead I met the most humble and gentle person I have yet known. With an enthusiasm for your mathematics that quite swept me away, you combined a brilliance and humour that was unknown to me.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that you shared almost exactly my musical tastes too. With your encouragement, I began to play music once again after a bitter period of withdrawal and illness. Your quiet, but unquenchable joy in music making brought me back to my joy as well. Your funny and subtle ways of letting us know that we should do better and make more of the music were part of the pleasure of meeting so often.
I feel that now that you are gone, there is a part of me that I will not get back; I can never again think "Oh, I wonder if Japie has heard this new piece of music, read this article about music, seen this mathematical paper. I wonder what he thinks. He'll have the right idea!" I find myself asking these questions still; I don't think I'll stop.
Dearest friend, your presence is lost to me now, but I am glad, so glad to have known you for the short, all too short time that I was allowed.
John Frith Dept. of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics