Life Story / Obituary
Whether she was a math student in high school, a competing speed-skater, or a mother and grandma, Hillegonda Zwarensteyn was always a success. She brought her talent, determination, and hard work into every aspect of her life. But her greatest success was as a mother. Gonda raised her children to value hard work and dedication, and she taught them to always reach for their potential. Gonda taught these lessons through her words and, more importantly, through her own example.
In the year 1918 Europe was eagerly approaching the end of the First World War. The fighting, which had started in 1914 with a political assassination in Sarajevo, caused hundreds of thousands of casualties throughout Europe. The end of the war was reason to celebrate, but in Ilpendan, Netherlands, Jacobus and his wife Nieske Donker also had another reason to celebrate. On March 2, 1918, they were blessed with the birth of their fifth child Hillegonda. Another child would be born six years later.
With four brothers and one sister, Gonda enjoyed the company of her siblings during her childhood. Her father provided for the family through his work as a doctor, and her mother helped the family practice by running the pharmacy in their small village. At a young age Gonda developed a keen interest in sports. In school she was involved in track, sports car road racing, swimming, cycling, and other sports. She was always more interested in the things that boys typically liked to do. When Gonda was in her late teens, her boyish habits inspired her father to send her to a school on how to become a lady.
But Gonda’s love and devotion for sports paid off. She became a Dutch provincial speed skating champion from 1934-36, and the national champion from 1936 to 1940. She represented the Netherlands at many international competitions and won three world championships, including the 500 meter world title in 1939, in Finland. Gonda was selected to represent the Netherlands in the 1940 Olympics, but when World War II broke out, the Olympics were cancelled, as they were again in 1944. She held three world records, and one that stood until 1954. In 2004, she was recognized for her accomplishments during the 100 year anniversary celebration of the Skating Club of Ilpendam, her hometown. She has appeared in many books and articles as one of the premier women speed skaters of the 20th Century, and a pioneer for womens skaters.
In addition to her athleticism, Gonda was also an extremely bright student. In her high school, she was the first girl to earn perfect marks in math throughout all four years. However, as the Second World War broke out in Europe, academics and athletics took a backseat to more imminent worries. During the war, Gonda and her family were primarily concerned with doing everything just to stay alive. It was a harsh time, but Gonda knew that many people had it worse off than her. She frequently assembled care packages to send to people in the POW and concentration camps.
Despite the adversities of war and the cancelled Olympics, Gonda managed to find a reason to be happy. Her talent as a skater was widely known throughout the Netherlands and Europe, and one day a handsome young man named Hendrik approached her. He asked if she would teach him how to skate. She agreed, and a romance soon blossomed between them. They were married on May 29, 1941.
A few years after the war, in 1947, and again in 1949, Gonda and Hendrik visited the United States together. When they returned to the Netherlands, they agreed that life would be better in America, and they began planning ways to emigrate. In 1950 they returned to the U.S. with their children, and in 1952 their dream came true.
Gonda and her family moved to the West Side of Grand Rapids near John Ball Park, and she and her children met a neighbor woman named Sylvia Castor. They all got along very well, and Sylvia took it upon herself to teach Gonda and the children the ways of American life. Sylvia became the children's "American Grandma." Although Gonda and Hendrik’s marriage would end in divorce after sixteen years, they were blessed with several children together: John, Lodewyk, James, and Nieske. Gonda also gave birth to a son Franz who died as an infant. Gonda was deeply involved in the lives of her children. She did not require many chores at home, but she did demand that they concentrate on their school work. She taught her kids to be independent and hard-working. Money was always tight after the divorce, but Gonda managed wisely as a single parent in her new country.
The family enjoyed many traditions together. In the summer they would go camping, especially to Ludington, and in the winters they would drink hot chocolate after a day of ice-skating. Gonda was known as the woman with the funny skates who was faster than anyone. Gonda prepared regular family dinners, and she also brought the kids together for an evening cup of tea. The family enjoyed the company of many pets over the years. Any dog or cat that followed one of the children home would soon become a member of the household.
Gonda worked as a clerk at the Wurzburg's Department Store located in downtown Grand Rapids. She continued to work there for many years, but when the store closed, she retired. With more free time, she turned her attention over to her many hobbies, which include gardening, knitting, fishing, following sports of all kinds, and keeping her lawnmower running for thirty-some years. She was always interested in current events, and each day read the newspaper and many magazines. She loved to talk politics with everyone. She enjoyed volunteering as an election poll worker, and also helped out with the city census. She was an interpreter, a volunteer driver for the Red Cross, and a regular juror in the Grand Rapids courts. She also volunteered for the PTA, Boy Scouts, Gra-Y, and other school activities. Gonda returned to her homeland twice to visit her friends and family and to see the changes in her childhood village. But her favorite place on Earth remained John Ball Park where she often skated in the winters, and went on frequent relaxing walks. Other favorite places included Ludington State Park and Diamond Lake, where she loved to fish.
In her later years, Gonda was thrilled to see her family grow with the births of several grandchildren. Just as she enjoyed the role of an active mother, she loved to stay active in her grandkids’ lives. She loved each of them deeply, and she treasured all the time that they spent together. She would buy them skates and skis to encourage their love of the outdoors.
Gonda’s children will cherish many memories of their mother, from the hours she spent teaching them mathematics to the many times they all went camping. She would wake them up at five in the morning to take them fishing. Her children will also remember the Sunday tradition of tea and coffee after church. Especially they will treasure their memories of a six week vacation out West in 1954, highlighted by visits to Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore. Gonda believed that travel was the best way to teach geography and American history, and she always said to her children, “An education is something no one can take from you.” She also enjoyed probing the alternative views of history.
For Gonda herself, the day she most often relived took place in 1939, when she won the 500 Meter World Speed Skating Competition in Finland and became a true heroine in her homeland. She was a bright, energetic woman who will be remembered frequently for her accomplishments and for her devotion to her family. Other highlights included paying off her home mortgage in 1981 and watching each of her children graduate from college.
Gonda died on Saturday, February 5, 2005. She was preceded in death by her parents Jacobus and Nieske Donker; her brothers Jan Donker and Henk Donker; an infant son, Franz Hendrik Zwarensteyn. She is survived by her children: John & Beanca Zwarensteyn; Lodewyk & Joanne Zwarensteyn; James & Cathy Zwarensteyn; and Nieske Zabriskie. Also, her grandchildren: Robert Zabriskie, Nieske Zabriskie, Ellen Zwarensteyn, Lena Zwarensteyn, and Jill Zwarensteyn. Also, her brother Nico & Ina Donker, and sister Sien Schuld, of the Netherlands, and a brother, Jacobus & Dina Donker of Grand Rapids. Also several nieces and nephews in the Netherlands and the United States. A celebration of life service will be held at the Heritage Life Story Funeral Home, Alt & Shawmut Hills Chapel, 2120 Lake Michigan Dr. NW, on Wednesday February 9, 2005, at 1:00 PM with Reverend Cathy Rafferty officiating. Relatives and friends may meet Gonda’s family at the funeral home on Monday from 7-9 PM, and Tuesday from 2-4 and 7-9 P.M. Please visit Gonda’s personal web page at www.lifestorynet.com where you can leave your memories of her, or make a contribution to the Emphysema Society or the Alliance for Health. Heritage Life Story Funeral Homes.