Liesje Maria Antonissen
In memory of Liesje Antonissen (1920-2011)
Article written by Cathy Gush in 2010:
Well-known resident is 90 not out
Liesje Antonissen, well-known Grahamstown resident with strong ties to Rhodes, turned 90 on the 29th of May. Mrs Antonissen is the widow of Prof Rob Antonissen, who died in office as the Vice-Principal of Rhodes University in 1972. She herself lectured French at the University for a number of years and is the honorary patron of Afrikaans and Netherlandic Studies in the School of Languages.
Theirs is a fascinating story. Both of them Belgian-born and educated, they arrived in South Africa in 1950 after some years of behind-the-scenes work and persuasion, and never left Grahamstown again, except to travel overseas for business or personal reasons. “This is quite a town’” she says.
There are many adjectives that spring to mind as I interview this remarkable woman in her flat at Brookshaw Home: charming, intelligent, humble, genuine, a person of deep faith; but what shines through most is an indomitable spirit and a fierce determination to keep abreast of what’s going on at the University, in Grahamstown and the world.
Liesje Antonissen has experienced a great deal of sadness in her life: she lost her only son, a daughter and her husband, all before time. Her son died at the age of 3, while they were on a voyage to Belgium to go and show him off to the family during their first sabbatical. She tells this story without bitterness, but becomes emotional when she recalls the touching occurrence of a Jewish woman, a fellow-traveller, who insisted on giving them the orchids that were in fact destined for her own son’s grave in Rotterdam. The Antonissens buried their son, Derek, in Antwerp and after that visited the grave every two years.
Aside from the son, Antonissen had three daughters, one of whom passed away in 2007 of Primary Progressive Aphasia, a disease that causes loss of speech and understanding. Rike, who was married to the poet Fanie Olivier, held a Masters degree in Afrikaans-Nederlands. Antonissen’s eldest daughter, Helga is a medical doctor and head of the Occupational Health Department at Grootte Schuur Hospital while her other daughter Elsje, who mastered in Microbiology under Dave Woods, lives in Australia. An educated family, where learning was highly prized and dinner-time conversations almost certainly never dull. Antonissen admits that she thrives on friendship and stimulating conversation, and has made a point of not cutting herself off from town or shrinking her world into Brookshaw. “I have survived on the wings of friendship and stimulation here in Grahamstown,” she says.
Although her husband was renowned for his contribution to the Afrikaans language and culture, Liesje Antonissen is herself an accomplished linguist, capable of teaching French, German, Dutch, Italian and English. During her tenure in Grahamstown she has taught mainly French, at most of the schools in Grahamstown West at some or other time, and also at Rhodes. She chuckles as she recalls that the whole Henderson family started calling her “Madame” after Angie Henderson (now Marriner) obtained an A-symbol for French under her tutelage at DSG. Her eyes shine when she talks about her time at the girls’ school: “That was super. I really loved it!” she exclaims.
These days, she reads (mostly poetry), watches television and entertains visitors. “I’m not a knitter,” she admits. Determined to maintain an interest in the world around her, friends and fellowship are what she values most. I certainly felt as if I’d made a new friend.