Monadnock Profile: Ted de Winter had led one incredible life

  • Ted de Winter of Greenville has led an extraordinary life. He grew up in Holland, five years of which was under German occupation during World War II, taught at Boston University for more than 50 years and beat cancer. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin

  • Ted de Winter of Greenville has led an extraordinaire life. He grew up in Holland, five years of which was under German occupation during World War II, taught at Boston University for more than 50 years and beat cancer. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Ted de Winter of Greenville has led an extraordinaire life. He grew up in Holland, five years of which was under German occupation during World War II, taught at Boston University for more than 50 years and beat cancer. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Ted de Winter. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 10/16/2019 9:31:35 PM

If Ted de Winter was going to write a book about his life, figuring out where to start might be the hardest part. Having enough to write about would not be difficult at all.

At 87 years old, de Winter, who has lived in Greenville since 1982, has seen a lot and been through even more. He was born in Switzerland, grew up in Holland and eventually moved to Argentina during high school. His adolescent years coincided with World War II, and from the time he was eight until the start of his teenager years, Holland was under German occupation. At the time, de Winter didn’t really know what he was living through in a historical sense, not like he’s learned since the war ended.

He remembers his grandfather being taken by the German police for sheltering Jewish property, and placed in a concentration camp. During his arrest, three Jewish girls were hiding in the attic of the family’s home, only to be snuck out the backdoor by de Winter’s aunt. There were times when his mother would hang a towel out the window to offer their house as a safe place for Jewish people to go. Two brothers frequently stayed with the family, but de Winter, just a young boy, didn’t know why.

“I never knew they were Jewish or we were helping them,” de Winter said. “We never heard after the war whether they made it or not.”

His parents didn’t share anything with him because “there was a constant fear of people saying the wrong thing,” de Winter said.

As the years went on and resources became more scarce, it was a hard way of life. There was no electricity, gas or coal for the final two years of the occupation and finding wood for fires became increasingly difficult, considering the family’s saw was confiscated. de Winter would resort to stealing wood and was almost caught on one occasion by the German police, only to get away.

“Those were tough times,” he said.

At the age of 14, his family moved to Argentina, where he was put into an American school where everyone either spoke English or Spanish. He had to quickly immerse himself in the languages and it led to a lifetime of language acquisition that has translated into being fluent in German, French, Dutch, Spanish and English.

Nearing completion of high school, de Winter had three choices. Stay in Argentina, move back to Holland where he’d have to serve in the military or go to the United States. At the time (1950) there was a two-year wait list for Dutch immigrants, but since he was born in Switzerland, he was allowed to enter the country on a Swiss visa. His first day in America was his 18th birthday and he landed in Brunswick, Maine at Bowdoin College.

“It was really preordained” that he study mechanical engineering. Both his father and grandfather (mother’s side) were in the field, so it was a natural career path. The plan was always to go to MIT for engineering, which he did thanks to a partnership between MIT and Bowdoin.

“When I graduated from MIT, engineering was a top career,” de Winter said.

He had 12 interviews and received 12 job offers, but took the lowest paying one because in the end he felt it offered the best path for advancement. de Winter worked at a number of companies, working in nuclear aircraft propulsion, thermo dynamics, complex piston engines, and super conducting magnets.

But it was in the 60s that his career took a much different turn. He began teaching at Boston University and knew it was something he not only loved – but was good at – specializing in a pair of courses, Engineering Economics and Concurrent Engineering.

“This was before they started the College of Engineering,” de Winter said.

When he retired, de Winter was the most senior member of the College of Engineering’s faculty with more than 50 years in the classroom. He was honored with the creation of the Endowed Theo de Winter Distinguished Faculty Fellowship, given to a faculty member at mid-career who has had an extraordinary impact on students through both teaching and mentoring. The first fellowship was given out last month.

de Winter didn’t want to retire and had no plans for it. But as he put it, 2018 was a year from hell. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the outlook was not good. He underwent two chemotherapy treatments but “they determined the chemotherapy was doing more harm than good.”

“The first treatment was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” he said.

As de Winter put it, he was on his way out. He entered hospice care and came to terms with the fact that the end of his life was coming. Then something happened. More tests and scans revealed his cancer was gone, he got out of hospice and is now enjoying his retirement.

“I can’t put my finger on when that turning point was,” de Winter said.

He’d much rather be back in the classroom, but he still gets down to Boston University once a week, going down with his wife, Stormy Attaway, who is an assistant professor in the College of Engineering. BU is where they met.

He spends his days reading the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and writing.

In his younger days, de Winter was an avid fly fisherman. He has three grown daughters and 10 grandchildren. For nine years, he served as a Greenville selectman, and was also chair of the planning board and a library trustee.

But there are a few elections he didn’t win that de Winter remembers. Facing an up hill battle in the race for the US Senate in 1990, de Winter embarked on a radical approach to his campaign. He walked from his home in Greenville to Pittsburg (and back), totaling 31 days and roughly 550 miles. When the votes came in, de Winter was third out of four, and as he put it, “it was an interesting experience.” Over the next two elections, de Winter ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress.

Its been quite a life for de Winter, who by all accounts is really on his second or maybe third. But it’s not over yet, and the 87-year-old Greenville resident plans to make the most of it.


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