Remembering Dairyman Jan Ype Osinga

| May 4, 2012

In last issue’s “You Went to Sweet Briar If. … ” the theme repeated again and again included a fond recollections of cows, fresh milk and yogurt. As a community, we mourn the loss of the man who helped make those memories possible. Jan Ype Osinga passed away on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012, at the age of 85. Ask around, and you’ll find plenty of warm recollections of his long legacy.

“Mr. O was bigger than life, he owned the room when he walked in,” says Nancy Herr, who grew up on Dairy Road with the Osinga children. “He was always happy to see you, always asked about people. He was extremely blunt, but that was his upbringing. I can still hear him saying, ‘Vell, Nancy. …’ ”

Jan arrived at Sweet Briar in 1953 with his wife, Douwina, to work as a dairy herdsman. They left five years later, but returned in 1961 and Jan resumed running the dairy. In 1965, he became the Sweet Briar Farm manager until his retirement in 1990. He continued running the dairy part time until it closed in 1994.

Jan loved his work, the land and his herd. He was a consummate dairyman and revered the life of a farmer. It’s what drew him to the U.S. from the Netherlands, where he was born in the town of Woudsend in 1927. After serving in the Dutch army, he graduated from Rykslandbouw Agricultural College and attended the agricultural exchange program at Perdue University.

He pursued his passion at Sweet Briar. In 2007 he released a small memoir called Sweet Briar Dairy 1953-1994: The Best Years of My Life. Although appreciative of Sweet Briar for his 40 years working the farm and dairy, he writes that the day in 1994 when the dairy herd was auctioned was one of the saddest of his life.

It was a full life. He and Douwina — the farm bookkeeper, secretary and sometimes field worker — raised three children, Nelly Martha Branson, Ieke Marie Scully and John Harold Osinga. A daughter, Henrietta Irene, died at the age of 3.

Nelly ’75 and Ieke ’78 both graduated from Sweet Briar, while John earned his degree in dairy science from Virginia Tech. It was Ieke’s idea to expand Jan’s yogurt hobby into Dutch Yoghurt Inc., a company supplying about 100 college dining services, grocers and health food stores. Jan was already making the delicacy for campus and local customers from cultures he’d brought from the Netherlands years before.

The yogurt is now part of Sweet Briar lore. Jan is remembered for it, but not more than for his tenor voice and exuberant singing. He was a member of the Amherst Presbyterian Church Choir, but people heard him sing everywhere, especially in the dairy barns where the acoustics were good.

College grounds superintendent and fellow choir member Donna Meeks says he loved to tell of the time he sucked in a bee while practicing “O Holy Night” on a tractor in the fields.

“That was his signature song. He used to pack the house for the Christmas Eve candlelight service.”

Jan was a storyteller and natural entertainer, who even acted in College plays. He led local school children on field trips to the dairy.

“Dad used to joke with the children and ask them if they knew how milk came from a cow, and he would pump the tail like a water pump, and then say that another cow was capable of producing chocolate milk,” Nelly recalls.

He gave his own children confidence in themselves, Ieke says, remembering a day he told her to drive the tractor home from Girl Scouts. “My dad never told me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl or a woman, not that day nor into the Dutch Yoghurt days. He would put so much trust into us that you had no choice but to live up to it.”

But Nelly says he was like that with everyone. “He took every person as an individual, and recognized that not everyone was given the same opportunities in life. Although working with folks who barely had an elementary school education, and I do mean no education beyond the second or fourth grades, he recognized their ability to think, and respected them for it.”

Jan became an American citizen and proudly flew the flag in front of his Dairy Road home. He was active in the Amherst community and served his profession tirelessly as a member of numerous local, state and regional farm and dairy associations. He was especially proud of his 25 years on the board of the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association and his membership at church and in the Ruritan Club.

He always spoke his mind, and the passing of the farm and dairy saddened him. Jan the farmer simply wanted the land to be used.

Near the end of his memoir, he writes, “ … it is encouraging to see how little by little the academic world is coming to the rescue of the remnants of the Farm.”

In the next sentence, he worries about a fast-spreading weed called Johnson grass, which, no longer contained by grazing, threatens to get a “foothold on the beautiful campus.”

Driving around campus, he writes, “old and former barns are still a silent witness of the past, part of the Sweet Briar Farm History, while the open fields, once planted in hay, corn and small grain will remain a constant reminder of the past.”

It is no wonder that stories about Jan and the dairy quickly caught President Jo Ellen Parker’s ear when she arrived in 2009. She came to know Jan and Douwina.

“From the moment I arrived I was curious to meet him,” Jo Ellen says. “Every time someone spoke to me of Jan Osinga, they did so with a big and affectionate grin. Once I had the chance to know him myself, I could certainly see why. I have rarely met anyone so vividly full of life. Jan Osinga loved the land and the College he served with such distinction, and Sweet Briar is a better place for it.”

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Category: Summer 2012