'The people around us knew much earlier than we did that we belong together'
Many loves have their origins on campus, though not all of them last. Some campus couples are still together to this day. Towards the university's 100th anniversary, we collect their love stories. For example, the story of Vera Hoorens and Gijs Dekkers. Their first meeting – on the campus of the Catholic University of Brabant, now Tilburg University – ended up in a heated verbal battle. Witnesses would probably have called it a row. But Vera and Gijs enjoyed it enormously. This summer they have been married for 25 years.
It all began in the spring of 1994, in the coffee corner of building P. “At the time, I was an associate professor at the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences”, says Vera. “A student had treated me to a coffee because I had helped her with her graduation research project. Gijs was also in the canteen and the student knew that he was Belgian – as I am – so she decided to introduce us to each other.”
Rowing in front of an audience
Gijs is an economist and at that time was a research assistant at Tilburg University. “Economists used to look down on the ‘rabble’ in the soft sciences. That generally didn’t go down well. When Vera was introduced to me I was a bit cranky. I thought she looked really cute but I mumbled something patronizing about psychologists. And then all of a sudden that cute girl was giving me a serious verbal barrage. We went at it hammer and tongs, a real verbal battle. Vera’s student broke out in a sweat”, Gijs recalls with a smile. “But we had a load of fun! We still have some lively discussions. We love them.”
A good match
They continued seeing one another after that first meeting, but just as friends. “But even that friendship raised a few eyebrows, because she was an associate professor and I was a research assistant”, says Gijs. “And we weren’t even in the same discipline.”
We wanted to avoid gossip and awkward reactions
That it was ‘meant to be’ between Gijs and Vera was apparent a lot earlier to many of their associates than to the couple themselves. Vera remembers an occasion when her parents visited the campus and by chance they came across Gijs. “My mother noticed the spark between us immediately. She was even rather indignant that I hadn’t told her I was having a relationship with that nice young man with the ginger beard. There were many other examples too. We found it all highly amusing because we weren’t having a relationship at all.”
Worst kept secret
When in 1995 the two did start a relationship, they initially tried to keep it under wraps. “A university is a bit of a pressure cooker”, in Gijs’s view. “It’s not that we expected problems with our employers, because there was no hierarchical relation between us and we weren’t working in the same faculty. But we wanted to avoid gossip and awkward reactions. Nowadays our relationship would probably have caused more of a stir.” Vera believes that if it had been the other way round – if he had been the associate professor and she the research assistant – there would have been a lot less of a fuss.
In fact, they were not very good at keeping their ‘secret’. Despite frantic attempts to go on dates unnoticed, they couldn’t stop it leaking out. “I once came to the university wearing one of Gijs’s sweaters,” says Vera, grinning. The first of my colleagues I came across that day – Karel Soudijn – said straight off, ‘wow, Gijs Dekkers’s sweater really suits you!’. That was totally unexpected!”
Back to Belgium
The couple carried on working ‘together’ for a while at the university. But Vera knew that she really wanted to go back to Belgium for a professorship at the Catholic University of Leuven, where her former PhD thesis supervisor was also working. “I discussed it at length with Gijs. When his contract expired he began applying for a job in Belgium. In the end, he started work in Belgium before I did.” The couple were still living in Tilburg in 1997 when they got married. “We had a civil marriage ceremony in Tilburg and then had a church wedding in Wevelgem, in Belgium. In 1998 we moved to Leuven, where we live to this day.”
In 2004, the arrival of Liza and Puja completed the family of Gijs and Vera. The twins are originally from India; they will turn 20 in 2022.
Gijs and Vera celebrate 25 years of marriage this summer. A thorny topic; Vera wants a big party but that isn’t so important to Gijs. “Of course I will lose again”, he grumbles, winking. “Well I’m not really a big party person myself,” says Vera, “but my family is counting on one.” Gijs has no objection to going back to Tilburg at around the time of their anniversary. “We haven’t been there for a long time but we really enjoyed living there. Perhaps we ought to revisit that great campus, have a discussion in building P – just like old times – and take a walk in the woods of the Warandebos. And drink coffee and thumb through newspapers at Anvers cafe or one of the other cozy little restaurants with a reading table. Soon, maybe!”
Date of publication: 29 July 2022