Lighting Up a Falls Church Senior Center

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grandfather playing basketball in falls church VA recreation senior centerWith a giant smile and an endless array of fascinating stories, John Van der Zanden literally lights up the Falls Church Senior Center. Born and raised in Holland, Mr. Van der Zanden joined the Dutch Navy at age 18 to fight against Hitler and the Nazi Regime. He was selected to be transferred to the U.S. Marine base at Camp Lejeune, where he completed basic training with U.S. forces.

During the Nazi occupation of Holland, he and his comrades risked their lives hiding out in basements and maintaining contact with the Dutch government, which was exiled in London. After returning to the United States, Mr. Van der Zanden was promoted to Staff Sergeant in order to qualify for a position at the Pentagon. He was assigned to the Dutch Mission with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He says, “It’s very unusual for a Dutch boy to have received training at Camp Lejeune and then to have risen through the ranks to such a prestigious position. I’m really proud of that, and thankful for the opportunities I had.” Mr. Van der Zanden’s dedication to the American ideals of freedom and democracy was rewarded with a Certificate of Nomination from the U.S. Congress granting him an official membership to the American Legion.

When the war ended, Van der Zanden returned to his native Holland only to find it in shambles. He decided to come back to the U.S., and his first stop was the U.S. Employment office. Two days later, he was hired as an Administrative Officer by the International Cotton Advisory Committee. Mr. Van der Zanden became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1955 and continued to work for the Cotton Advisory. He retired after 32 years of service and embarked on a very different kind of career.

“Anywhere I could find ice, I was there,” says Mr. Van der Zanden of his career as a professional figure skater. He started skating as young man in Holland and received professional training in the U.S. after WWII. Mr. Van der Zanden went on to teach figure skating under the auspices of the United States Figure Skating Association at the University of Virginia and at several local rinks.

Teaching, he says, was “hard work, especially with the youngest age groups, but it was so much fun.” For his hard work and dedication to the sport, Mr. Van der Zanden received two President’s Sports Awards. After retiring, he managed three skating rings in Northern Virginia, and although he stopped skating several years ago, he is still interested and involved in the sport.

Having accomplished so much, Mr. Van der Zanden realized “around 82 or 83” that it was time to truly retire and relax. He has not slowed down though. Mr. Van der Zanden still lives in the home he bought in 1965. Active and independent, he does all his own landscaping and home maintenance. In addition to his various other talents, Mr. Van der Zanden is also a skilled photographer and continues to enjoy his hobby. His favorite subjects are beautiful flowers.

Now an active member and participant at the Falls Church Senior Center, Mr. Van der Zanden enjoys playing cards and attending events. Most of all, he likes to chat with his peers and the staff at the center.

He admits, “I talk a lot at the senior center. People seem interested in my background, and I love telling them stories about having my bicycle stolen by the S.S. or training at Camp Lejeune and just watching their mouths fall open.” Mr. Van der Zanden goes to the senior center at least three times a week. “I’ve never been one to just stay at home, and it’s really nice that we are all so close. If I don’t show up, they all say, ‘Where is John?'”

John Van der Zanden is likely at the Falls Church Senior Center, but if you cannot find him there, check the nearest ice rink or WWII memorial. Reliving his remarkable experiences could keep him busy for days.

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