Special visitor with a love of math books

For students in MetaForum this special visitor is a familiar sight. Seated in his wheelchair and flanked by two women, the elderly Jo Hovens glides through the library. Moments like these have become highlights in the Limburger's life. He comes here to borrow math books that he will take home, to the village of Linne near Roermond, to study.

photo Maud Staassen

Since the age of sixteen Jo Hovens (born in 1932) has known that math is beautiful. “A ship was lying stranded in the port of Roermond and I was allowed on board. I saw the nautical and land maps and was captivated by the math needed to make them,” he says. Speaking isn't easy for him; it takes great effort. Nineteen years ago Mr. Hovens suffered a severe cerebral hemorrhage that left him paralyzed on one side of his body.

But his desire to continue enjoying life remained intact. He especially enjoys books on calculus and linear algebra. “Preferably written in French, because that's another of my hobbies. But there aren't many math books in French here.”

Military service

He was keen to become a surveyor or a teacher, of either math or French, but life had other plans for him. Having completed the HBS (the forerunner of havo and vwo, today's academic streams in high school), Hovens had a stint of military service to do. “I was drafted, but thanks to an eye infection I was sent to the telephone exchange in The Hague. Whenever I had some free time, I went to the city library; I spent eight months there reading French newspapers.”

After doing his military service, Mr. Hovens, the youngest of eight children, returned to the family home in Roermond, living there until he moved to Linne after his marriage in 1961. Unemployment and underpaid jobs prompted him to change direction and he took a short, intensive teacher-training course. “In Amsterdam I could have worked for an insurance company for a monthly wage of only 140 guilders, but I'd have been paying a landlady 110 guilders and a train ticket to my parents cost 25 guilders.”

Geography teacher

By continuing to study while working at a primary school, he was able to get a job at a mulo school (a less academic tier in the prevailing secondary system). “I taught geography and history. I would have preferred math and French, but the teachers in those subjects didn't give me the chance to make the switch.” Once he retired, Hovens thoroughly enjoyed picking up his math books again.

Since the earliest days of THE (as TU/e was called until 1986) in the mid-1950s, as a self-taught man, Hovens had been a keen visitor to the library. Over the years he has seen TU/e undergo tremendous change. “Now it's magnificent.” Until 2010 each department at TU/e held its own books and math was housed in the Main Building (now Atlas). He's missed none of it - including the period when most of the collection was stored at Flight Forum while Atlas was being renovated.

Seated next to him is daughter Angelique, who has been his companion on his library visits ever since he has needed help getting around. Volunteer Geertrui Woltjer provides additional help; he and Mr. Hovens met at the respite home where Mr. Hovens takes a break three times a year. Aside from these periods, each lasting a couple of weeks, Mr. Hovens and his wife - also aged ninety-one and who has been his carer these past two decades - still live independently in Linne.


Angelique Hovens knows how much the library visits mean to her father: “Just the sight of the building moves him. Honestly, my family, the home care staff looking after my father, everyone, he never stops telling us how happy he is to be back here again since lockdown. In his own words to Cursor: “Oh man, I wish I could live to be a hundred so I could carry on coming here.”

Today Mr. Hovens has come to MetaForum with a wish list of math books. He wants to use them “to learn formulas by heart, do differential equations and work out sums step by step.” The trip itself is also source of enjoyment, as is meeting Geraldine Suijkerbuijk, who works for Library and Information Services (LIS). “We've developed a special bond over all these years.”

On his lap Mr. Hovens has one of his own books, a favorite: Problèmes résolus de mathématiques. His private collection is getting on for a hundred books. Some of them are shelved in the guest house, “because there are a couple too many math books at home for my wife's liking.” He'd wink if he still could.

Although his children have not inherited his fascination for math, daughter Angelique can understand his passion for the subject. And she's grateful. “My father's severe disability has done nothing to dent his positive attitude. He gets so much enjoyment out of life, and that's due in no small measure to his math studies.” Her wish for all TU/e students is that they enjoy studying as much as her father does. “Then, as he would say,‘They'll do just fine.’” 

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