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Adding Value for Motorists and the Unemployed

Paul Nouwen took a very different path from his famous brother, the devotional writer Henri Nouwen.

Paul Nouwen is well-known in The Netherlands. For 13 years his name was synonymous with the country's largest motorists' organization Koninklijke ANWB (the Royal Dutch Touring Club) with 3.6 million members.

Even though he has retired from the ANWB, Nouwen's name or photograph keep popping up in the media. During the Olympic Games in Sydney there was a meeting to consider whether the games should one day come to The Netherlands. It was chaired by Paul Nouwen. In 2001 Rotterdam is the Cultural Capital of Europe--Paul Nouwen is chairman of the foundation that is coordinating this event.

He is still much in demand but he does not accept every invitation. Taking his time and health into consideration, he also weighs the added value of his participation and the purpose of the undertaking.

One of his 20-plus public appointments is chairman of the working group for 'Business in the Community' (BIC) in The Hague. This group aims to improve social and community relations through better teamwork between government, business and the social services.

The Mayor of The Hague, Wim Deetman, launched BIC in 1998 to tackle social problems in the city, especially high youth unemployment among the immigrant communities. It is modelled on the British programme of the same name.

In a modern office complex near Rotterdam Central Station, where he has based since his retirement, Nouwen explains what 'doing business in the community' means. It is not the same as socially orientated entrepreneurship which has a charitable sound to it. All participants win. The parties involved (government, business and the social services) all gain from an improved social climate. Similarly, the cooperation between business and schools results in a win-win situation. A large publishing firm of daily newspapers and a vocational training school are jointly developing job opportunities for graphic artists who have had little schooling. Similarly the College for Transport and Logistics is working with The Hague Public Transport Corporation.

In such ways countless connections have been made in the last two years between schools, colleges, businesses and local government, with the specific purpose of giving immigrants, handicapped people and ex-criminals the hope of a job. Businessmen and civil servants occasionally teach at schools. And young people gain work experience through internships.

Nouwen does not ask for financial support from the 20 companies who take part in the project but looks for practical and personal involvement. It is too early to talk about results, Nouwen says. He sees it as his task to inspire the working group, find new projects and continue to interest new people.

'Leadership is to inspire' is his experience. 'You could say our work is creating small-scale examples. I must remain enthused, and keep up people's spirits.' For it is not all plain sailing. A removal firm made a date with seven young people. Not one of them turned up on the day.

Nouwen finds a spiritual dimension in this work which is not only added value for himself, but for all participants. People experience the satisfaction of doing something without being focused on profits.

Paul Nouwen compares this work with that of his elder brother, Henri, who died a few years ago. Henri gave up his successful scholarly career to live and work in one of the homes of L'Arche, where handicapped and non-handicapped people form a community together. These homes are also 'small-scale examples'. They show a different kind of community.

Not long before his sudden death, Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest and author of 40 contemplative books, wrote a book whose Dutch title translates as 'Finally Home' (published in English as The return of the prodigal son), with thoughts about Rembrandt's painting of the same name. 'His best book,' says Paul Nouwen, 'because one can so easily identify with what he writes.' In the book the writer puts himself in the position of first the younger son, then the older son and finally the father.

Paul Nouwen identifies with what his brother expresses in the book. 'Sometimes I feel like a father--although not so often, as I have no children. More often I feel like the prodigal son (the lost son, in Dutch) because things don't quite work out the way you hope. But sometimes I can feel like the jealous older son. My brother's book is called "Finally home". What does "finally" mean? What is our final home? To be with God? That is what it was for my mother and also for Henri. On his way to Russia to work on the filming of his book (Rembrandt's painting hangs in the Hermitage in St Petersburg) Henri suddenly died. He was "finally home". But "finally home" can also mean discovering your calling or having peace in your heart.'

Reaching retirement age meant a big adjustment for Paul Nouwen. 'After 40 years of earning a salary you find yourself sitting alone in an office. It takes some getting used to not to be in the spotlight. I now have to buy my own tickets when I want to go somewhere. But it is not that bad--you get confronted with yourself again!'

After his departure from the ANWB he also had to resign as the World President of the AIT, the Alliance Internationale de Tourisme in Geneva, of which all automobile and tourist clubs are members. His farewell took place during the October 1999 meeting in Seville, Spain. He gave a speech, and the 400 people present from around the world applauded. He was made an honorary member and received a decoration. 'But you soon notice that life goes on without you,' says Nouwen. 'I hear people talking about a problem about which I know a great deal, but I am no longer consulted. Or you see people doing things with which you do not agree, but you cannot interfere. Then you need to learn to be the contented son and not the jealous son.'

The ANWB grew enormously under Nouwen's leadership. He listened to the members, spoke with the staff and went out with the rescue service cars. He believed that everyone's contribution was needed and important.

His style of leadership and his way of inspiring others makes one want to know more about his background.

Paul Nouwen comes from a typical Catholic family from the south of the country. His father was a 'self-made' man, sincere and strict, who knew his own mind in regard to both the Church and life in general. His mother was a woman of faith and prayer. The social conscience that is typical of him and the other Nouwens, has its roots in his upbringing. Not money, but how your life could benefit people, was the ultimate good.

As a child Paul wanted to do something with animals, but his father said: 'Why not be normal!' So he studied law in Leiden. Later his father came with a further suggestion. 'You are not cut out for the legal profession. You are more a people person. Why not go to a large company?' So he joined Nationale Nederlanden, a large insurance firm, where he worked for 27 years, becoming the head of its Life Insurance Company at the age of 32. In 1987 he became the President of the ANWB.

Nouwen does not agree with those who sometimes labelled him a car lobby man. 'Yes, the ANWB and I were for improving mobility, but in an environmentally friendly way. We were against tollgates and electronic payment because we did not believe this was the way to reduce car use. We live in a growing economy. People don't let themselves be governed by tollgates. Those extra costs will in the end be borne by the employer. What does work is making more money available for public transport and alternatives to the car.'

The fact that a plan for universal electronic tollgates in The Netherlands has been scaled down to an experiment in the three largest cities is partly due to the ANWB. And those cities only agreed to the plan in exchange for a huge investment in their infrastructure.

'The ANWB is not a car lobby,' he stresses, 'but a service provider for the motorist in need, the cyclist and the Dutch tourist abroad. We are for the improvement of rail transport and for better facilities for handicapped people travelling by train.'

When asked which people or events have influenced him most, he says without hesitation, 'Being in the presence of death. It shows how vulnerable we are and that we must make good use of our time. I see life more as a gift than as something I control.'

Eight years ago his wife Marina San Giorgi died after five years' illness. Nouwen has collected the poems she wrote during that time in a booklet entitled Een glimlach kwam voorbij (A smile passed by). These beautiful, sensitive and honest poems help him to live life with a positive spirit.

Article language

English

Article type
Feature type
Article year
2001