Wilfred van Soldt: An Appreciation

At the Rencontre in Philadelphia last year, Wilfred van Soldt officially stepped back as Secretary of the IAA. Van Soldt is a co-founder and veteran board member of the association, and played a crucial role in shepherding the IAA through its first decade and a half. IAA presidents emeriti, Piotr Michalowski and Jack Sasson, give us a glimpse of their time working with Wilfred.

By Piotr Michalowski

No one is ever prepared to become president of the IAA. Modern organizations of this type exist in the clouds—or even in “the” cloud—as virtual structures with no permanent abode. The organization is postmodern and dependent on electronic communication, but the membership consists of people who spend most of their days suspended in time, mucking about in a world that ceased to exist millennia ago, often following fragmentary threads of evidence that oftentimes lead to dead ends. This can be exhilarating work, but it takes a particular sort of person to embrace such a life, investing much early despite uncertain futures. Such things did not bother me as we all have our quirks; indeed, given the world we live in, the somewhat bizarre nature of our quest and of the kind of people who pursue it was something I have always cherished, with few illusions about my own normality. But then I stepped into a different role, one that sometimes seemed like a kaleidoscopic NABU note universe.

When I entered office in this Monty Pythonesque environment, I had little preparation or guidance for what awaited me.  At first, nothing much seemed to change—I was still in my university office—and the only organizational center was an ocean away, in another university town, Leiden. That is where the short institutional memory of IAA resided and that is where I turned for guidance.  That is when I discovered that the organization did have a gravitational center, embodied in the person of Wilfred van Soldt.

We had known each other casually from meetings, mostly from Rencontres, and of course I was well aware of his important contributions to many different aspects of Assyriology.  His work on western transmission of the lexical series Ura was of interest to me at the time and I was grateful for his assistance concerning the early tablets of Ura from Ugarit.  Now, quite rapidly, indeed, we became colleagues, co-conspirators and, most importantly, friends rather than just acquaintances.  I discovered that in his very systematic way, he knew every detail of the organization, including things I would have been quite happy not knowing about. Within a day some minor crisis arose, as one member or another expressed their unhappiness about some issue.  Wilfred would inform me of the issue with a marvelous calm, often with a quote from The Life of Brian. This was the key: Wilfred is truly European, Dutch to the core but imbued with an old fashioned British stiff upper lip and a clipped sense of humor. I soon discovered that in this job no matter was too small, no proposal too trivial to pass without some acrimony or objection. But Wilfred’s tranquil sense of humor made all the difference and we somehow blundered through it all and in prevailed in the long run.

Most of our interaction took place on Skype and I became quite fond of his office in the background. Once I called him and found him in a different room but he asked where I was first, since my image of my background was likewise CAD-less. I happily told him that I was in Canada on Lake Huron, far from my own office. Wilfred, with great relish, informed me that he was in a hotel room in Kurdistan. Never a dull moment when on duty for IAA! I now miss our regular Skyping.

When I look back at our time together the one thing that strikes me is how dedicated he was to the organization. There were moments when we worried that the IAA sometimes lacked direction and was not attractive enough for young scholars, the very people it should serve the most. Many of them, especially in Europe, were hard to track, as they moved from one university to another under various EU programs.  Our biggest problem was money, because one could only dream about providing help to younger scholars without proper funding.  Wilfred kept a steady hand on the purse, made every effort to fill the till and did his best to expand the reach of the IAA and to grow its membership.

All of us owe much to Wilfred; indeed, I sometimes think that the organization would not have survived without him. He truly enjoyed working daily on IAA membership, budget and various new initiatives, not to mention preparing the annual reports and board meetings while teaching and conducting his own research.  And all the while he had to delicately and skillfully prod three presidents, saving them from their own foolish instincts, all for the good of an organization he loves.

Blessed are the cheesemakers!

 

By Jack M. Sasson

I cannot improve on the plaudits Piotr has showered on our esteemed colleague, Wilfred van Soldt; but I can add these brief lines of reminiscences, if only to evoke memory of the founding years of the IAA.

I came to be—heaven knows why—the second President of this august body; but, together with other visionaries, Wilfred had already been months at work to make it happen, culminating in the drafting of a sophisticated Constitution. Until then, Wilfred had accepted the double role of President and Secretary. Leavening for the IAA took place at the Chicago RAI (2005). I confess that my election only compounded self-doubts about my role and my ignorance of what must happen before the IAA could find even keel. In those days, membership was modest (120, rising from 23 in 2003) and yet to be tested were the IAA’s capacity to enlarge the base and the tools with which to mesh goals with those of the RAI. Shaping administrative and communication organs for the infant organization had yet to progress or secure adequate funding. So much uncharted territory loomed ahead…

Yet Wilfred was there to settle the nerves and to direct me as well as a hard-working Board on where we must go and what to present before the membership. His tactics were hardly brutal; yet they were effective nonetheless. Wilfred spoke softly and wielded a steadying but insistent pen (or bytes). In those days, Skype was not yet mastered, so email flew across continents. Over the years in which we were members of the Board, some structural and operational components of the IAA took root while some ventures (remember eTACT?) simply failed to jell. In one case, when efforts to develop a logo were floundering, Wilfred simply took charge and presented us all with our elegant symbol. Wilfred was at his most effective at the business meetings. He would parry many jibes, gently and with humor. Controlled, gritty, tenacious, yet deeply committed to fulfill the will of the membership, Wilfred kept focus on the goal at hand, which was to progressively achieve a more effective union of archeologists, scholars and researchers at all stages of achievement.

Among my most cherished memories of those years were the many occasions in which we gathered, à table, often with his wonderful wife Dina Katz, to mull over future directions for the IAA, but mostly also to gossip and schmooze. I partook then of moments of true friendship and collegiality and I hope that the future will give us many more occasions to renew them.

To Wilfred and Dina:  cad me’ah *k*e’esrim!

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