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Life Story / Obituary
With a strong character and unwavering faith, Janna Van Kempen lived a long life rich in tradition and firmly rooted in family. Janna’s feisty spirit fueled her days and kept her busy. She never shied from hard work, discipline, or sharing her gifts and strong opinions. Always proud of her Dutch heritage, Janna devoted herself to caring for her beautiful family. She raised her family with treasured traditions of her youth while also encouraging them to pursue new possibilities. An inspiration to all who spent time with her, Janna was cherished by many. She will long be remembered and so very missed.
Born on November 10, 1921, in Zwijndrecht, Netherlands, to Cornelis and Pieterje (Bras) de Waard, Janna was the oldest of five children. While her father worked as a vegetable gardener, her mother was a homemaker. Sadly, her father died in 1930, when Janna was just nine years old and her youngest sibling was under one. Though she attended local schools, she left to help care for her siblings.
As a child, Janna knew Pieter Van Kempen and his family from the neighborhood where they both lived. He was five years older than her and began dating when she was 17. They met ice skating on the canals and were soon envisioning a future together. Janna’s mother didn’t want her to marry until she was twenty, so they waited. Janna worked cleaning houses. Because of the War, finding available homes to live in was difficult. While working, Janna learned of such a place, so she and Pieter quickly married on November 20, 1941, so they could secure the house for themselves.
Janna became a loving homemaker, took care of her widowed mother and Pieter worked as a gardener on his famiy farm. In 1942, their son Cornelius “Case” was born, followed by daughter Johanna in 1944. During the War, the family was forced to make room for German soldiers to live in their house. Despite the invasion of their home and the additional violation of the soldiers stealing all the food, Janna and Pieter did their best to provide for their family. Janna insisted the soldiers take off their shoes before coming into the house, and Pieter grew vegetables under their noses in the cellar and shed. Eventually, Janna’s mother, sister, and brother also moved in with them as it was cheaper and Janna and Pieter had food.
After the War, Janna and Pieter wanted to buy a farm, but land was not available. Instead, they made plans to immigrate. Though they first set their eyes on going to South Africa or Australia, they found a sponsor in America. Reverend Zyderveld of the Free Reformed Church found the Arie Verhey family in Grand Rapids to sponsor them. In 1949, the family of four set sail for the United States. A ten-day journey, they were lucky to secure a room on the old ship hauler. Case remembers there was a tub with water in it, but he refused to get in because he thought it went into the sea. After they arrived in the US, the ship returned to the Netherlands and was scrapped.
For six months, they lived with the Verhey family, and Pieter worked at Keeler Brass. Then, with the Verhey family’s help, they purchase an 80-acre farm on 68th Avenue in Coopersville. On January 1, 1950, the family moved to their new home and started a 17-year dairy farm career. In 1952, daughter Nella was born.
They didn’t know any English, so Janna decided to work at Air Control in Coopersville as a way to earn money but mostly to learn English. She was also very good at math and managed all the books for the farm. Faith was always important to Janna and the cornerstone of daily life. The family became members of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation, later called Heritage Reformed Congregation. She loved her church. And, even while milking 35 cows every day at 6 AM and 6 PM made it difficult, they often attended three church services on Sundays.
A strong farmer’s wife, Janna helped make the farm one of the top dairy farms in Michigan. She milked cows, drove tractors, and when there was a lot of work to be done on the farm, she made sure there was a huge stack of Dutch pancakes for the family and volunteers to eat. Her children fondly remember that she always had breakfast ready for them before school, and drop in guests were always welcome to stay for dinner. She loved company! Janna kept a very clean and orderly home, and Friday was always cleaning day. Weekends also focused on baking bread. Playtime was softball or badminton in the front yard, and later playing Uno with the grandchild and great-grandchildren became a tradition.
In 1967, Janna and Pieter sold the farm and moved to the Walker area, where they had a large garden and fruit trees. They traveled some to see family in the Netherlands and their daughter, Johanna, in Colorado, and in quieter times, Janna enjoyed reading her Bible. Chocolates with tea, herring, and Dutch licorice were long favorites. Always busy, she enjoyed working on Dutch crossword puzzles, listening to Dutch Psalms, and knitting or crocheting. Between the ages of 99 and 100, she knitted afghans for all 34 of her great-grandchildren. Counting box tops for West Side Christian School was a great pastime along with working with cash for trash in earlier years.
Sadly, in 1998, Pieter died at the age of 81 as a result of a car accident. With signature resiliency, after 56 years of marriage, Janna faced the challenges of living alone. It was no surprise to those who knew her best that she was able to live independently until 2016, when her daughter Nella moved in with her. Having lived in her home for 55 years, she never let Nella forget whose house it was. It seems fitting that Janna was able to spend her final moments in the comforts of her beloved family and in the home she cherished.
Without a doubt, life feels less certain in the absence of Janna’s steadfast love, faith, and companionship. A woman who embodied the principles she believed in, she was a powerful model for how to live life to the fullest. She met life’s hardships with determination, celebrated its joys fully, willingly gave of herself in service of others, and created a sense of home for many. Surely, Janna’s indomitable spirit and legacy will long live in the hearts of those she loved so deeply.
Janna Van Kempen, age 101, of Grand Rapids and formerly of the Netherlands, passed away peacefully at her home surrounded by her family on December 10, 2022. She was preceded in death by her loving husband of 56 years, Pieter; 3 infant children; grandsons, Michael Maartense and Ed Tudor; two sisters and two brothers. Janna is survived by her children, Cornelius (Sue) Van Kempen, Johanna (Roel) Maartense, and Nella Kosiara; grandchildren, Robert (Trish) Van Kempen, Peter (Kris) Van Kempen, William (Susanna) Van Kempen, Susan (Andy) Baker, Daniel (Carrie) Van Kempen, Deborah (Steve) Wilberding, John Maartense, Pam Maartense, Lisa Tudor, Steve (Michelle) Kosiara, Tim (Tina) Kosiara, and Sarah (Josh) Wabeke; 43 great-grandchildren; 6 great-greatgrandchildren; sister-in-law, Lenie deWaard in the Netherlands; and many nieces and nephews.
The funeral service will be held at 12PM on Tuesday, December 13, 2022, at Heritage Reformed Congregation, 540 Crescent St NE. The family will receive visitors from 11AM until the start of the service. Interment in Washington Park Memorial Gardens. In lieu of flowers, contributions in her memory may be made to Grace Christian Academy or West Side Christian School. Please visit www.heritagelifestory.com to read Janna’s life story, submit a favorite memory or photo, or sign the guestbook.