It’s Father’s Day today, which means those of you who have fathers will probably be honouring him in some way. Many dads will be treated to breakfast in bed, often consisting of capsized cups of tea, soggy sandwiches and half-boiled eggs, all lovingly prepared, of course, with the noblest intentions. Which brings me to KLM’s own father: Albert Plesman.
Let me start by saying that the 600 words I have at my disposal are far too limited to tell his life story, let alone explain his significance to aviation in general and KLM in particular. He was simply too special. In 1919, the investors who established KLM approached Albert Plesman to supervise the airline’s day-to-day operations, which he did for more than three decades. When he passed away unexpectedly on 31 December 1953, he left behind a company that employed over 13,000 people, having started out with a staff that consisted of himself and three others.
Plesman was a visionary, whose ideas and predictions often proved to be accurate. It is a well-documented fact that Plesman generated a constant stream of ideas and expected people to pay heed immediately. Not all his ideas were equally realistic, but some were certainly feasible or proved to be feasible in the long-run, when technology caught up. He even envisaged a tunnel under the English Channel, which eventually materialised decades after his death.
Having read various articles, including personal accounts by people who were close to him, one may conclude that Plesman was a somewhat brusque, but also warm-hearted man. The latter applied for KLM, but certainly also for his family. He and his wife Suze had four children: three sons and a daughter, who regularly joined him on his visits to Schiphol and various other places. Tragically, two of his sons died at an early age in aviation-related accidents. His son Jan was killed in a battle between fighter aircraft over France in 1944, and his son Hans died when the KLM Constellation “Roermond” crashed off the coast of Bari, Italy.
In a book about her father, Plesman’s daughter Pia (1924-2000) recounts: “People sometimes ask: was your father very authoritarian at home? But that was never the case, for us. I was raised with a great deal of freedom. He was very idealistic at heart and often said: ‘It’s about the game, not the marbles. You need to give it all you’ve got and there can be only one winner.’ KLM was his child. He devoted his life to his work, but he remained a very cheerful father. He was always singing. Whenever we drove anywhere, we’d all sing along together. The first time my father met my future husband, he immediately asked: ‘Do you sing at all?’ So my husband sang a song, but only knew one line of the lyrics, prompting a further demand from my father: ‘I want to hear the whole song!’
Plesman regularly went abroad to meet business associates, negotiate with suppliers and explore the potential of new destinations. He loved being met at the airport, especially by his grandchildren. “He really was a family man,” according to his daughter. “If he had been away on a trip, he wanted to be picked up at the airport. Schiphol was still relatively small in those days. The customs officials knew the score. Anything was possible. He was crazy about his grandchildren. Maybe because he had lost two of his own children.”
Plesman lives on in street names and a multitude of photos, memorial plaques and busts that were made of him during his life and thereafter. The most important status is that which stands outside the former KLM headquarters in The Hague. His daughter Pia laid the first stone for the headquarters in 1939, and his grandson Jan Leendert laid a memorial stone in the new wing of this building on 4 May 1948. The statue of Plesman was made by Mari Andriessen and unveiled by Plesman’s oldest grandson on 1 October 1959, at a ceremony attended by the entire family as well as a large KLM delegation.
Having said all that, I have recounted only a small portion of the Plesman family history, proving my point that I would need a lot more space to do our (grand)father justice.