Lidja Marianna de Jong knew her young son Gerrit was intellectually gifted and was destined for greater things than working in the family’s fabric store in Amsterdam. She was a praying woman and entreated the Lord for years about what to do with her brilliant son.
When their store burned down one night in 1906, she accepted that as her answer: they weren’t going to rebuild. They were going to America, headed to Salt Lake City to see her sister Marie, the only person they knew in the United States.
Gerrit de Jong Jr. blossomed as new opportunities arose, perfecting his music, language, artistic and academic skills. In time he earned degrees in three languages and studied at universities in five foreign countries. He became the first dean of Brigham Young University’s College of Fine Arts and simultaneously taught a full load as a professor of modern languages. When the Harris Fine Arts Center was built in 1965, the concert hall was named after him, and the building was dedicated with his grand oratorio, “We Bring Thee Offering,” sung by 625 singers on the de Jong Concert Hall stage.
BYU will honor de Jong during Homecoming as its 2011 Founder. He will be recognized Tuesday, Oct. 4, at the opening ceremonies at 11:05 a.m. in the Marriott Center. The opener will launch a week of celebration featuring Homecoming Spectacular, the Homecoming parade, a football game with San Jose State, a free pancake breakfast, road races, lectures, dances, a hike to the Y, noonday activities and more. Details are available at homecoming.byu.edu.
In honoring de Jong, the university recognizes a man whose commitment to scholarship made him a distinguished university educator and accomplished administrator for more than half a century.
“Gerrit de Jong had a voracious hunger for learning, whatever the subject,” said John C. Lewis, associate advancement vice president and executive director of Homecoming. “He was a true Renaissance man, immersing himself in science, linguistics and the arts. As the consummate scholar, de Jong pursued a lifetime of learning that included an unwavering devotion to excellence.”
Because de Jong’s interests spanned so many areas, it would be easy to suggest he followed the adage “Jack of all trades, master of none.” But his professional colleague, John B. Harris, asserted that de Jong proved the old saying wrong, “for he is a master of many.”
As a youth in Amsterdam, de Jong studied drawing, and his work was exhibited in Vienna and other centers of culture throughout Europe. His grandfather would take him to the Rijksmuseum where they studied many of the great masters.
He was also well-known as a musician. He studied organ under Mormon Tabernacle organist Tracy Y. Cannon, sang in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, directed a 42-piece orchestra and led a male chorus — all prior to accepting an invitation to be BYU’s first dean of the College of Fine Arts in 1925, a post he filled for 34 years.
Additionally, de Jong distinguished himself in linguistics. “No one in our college would quarrel with the fact that Dean de Jong has demonstrated a rather staggering comprehension, not only of a language, but of languages and of language itself,” Harris said.
In 1942 de Jong accompanied nine other linguists to Vermont for 10 weeks to learn Portuguese from Brazilians, and in 1947 the U.S. State Department asked de Jong to direct its cultural center in Santos, Brazil. Among his major publications was an anthology of Brazilian literature, and in 1972 Portuguese scholars worldwide honored him at a seminar at UCLA. To many, de Jong was known as Mr. Portuguese. As significant as these honors were, however, he considered his work translating the LDS temple ceremony into Portuguese the most important assignment of his life.
For more information on BYU Homecoming 2011 events, visit homecoming.byu.edu.