Most students have heard of the de Jong concert hall. Maybe they attended a lecture or concert or event in the largest hall on campus, which seats 1,485 people.
But perhaps not many have stopped to think about the hall’s namesake, Gerrit de Jong.
De Jong, who passed away in 1978, is being recognized as an honored founder for Homecoming events this year. He is an example of excellence, preparation, dedication and faith. He was known for his many talents and interests: language, music, scholarship, leadership and carpentry.
“He was known for his consummate scholarship and unwavering devotion to ethics,” said President Cecil O. Samuelson at the Homecoming opening ceremonies Tuesday.
De Jong liked to say that language was his business but music was his profession.
“I don’t know exactly [how many languages I speak], but I speak one more when I’m angry,” de Jong said.
According to a news release, Gerrit de Jong Jr. was born in 1892 in Amsterdam. While other children received bicycles for their 11th birthdays, young Gerrit got a piano. Three years later, when his family’s fabric store burned down, the de Jongs left Amsterdam and moved to Salt Lake City to live with the only people they knew in America. At this time they were not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though the family was still welcomed into the community. De Jong accepted many church callings even though he was not yet a church member. He eventually joined the Church at age 15.
The release continued with a story about de Jong as a young man. As a teenager, de Jong was asked to play the piano at a church meeting. He asked for permission to practice at the building. The bishop told him that there was no need for him to practice, because he was talented enough that it wasn’t necessary. Determined to be prepared, de Jong sneaked down an opening in the coal chute of the building and practiced until he felt ready. After the performance several people complimented him, including the bishop, who still didn’t know that he hadn’t practiced and applauded him for his skill.
He was the dean of the College of Fine Arts at BYU for 34 years. After his appointment, he insisted he be more educated. He studied in Munich, Germany and earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University. His relationship with the professors there had a positive influence on the image of BYU, according to the release.
He showed dedication to his music and furthering his education. He believed it was important to never stop learning.
“He was never one to wait for an assignment,” said Alyssa Herzinger, a senior from Sagle, Idaho, majoring in French studies, who won this year’s Brimhall essay contest about de Jong. “He learned by the ever burning flame of his own curiosity.”
He learned something new every day as he strove for excellence.
“Nothing short of excellence was acceptable,” said Nola Sullivan, de Jong’s second daughter, in a news release.
The de Jong family suffered a tragedy in 1940. Rosabelle, de Jong’s wife, died in a car accident at age 50. De Jong was distraught, but used music as a way through the pain.
“Daddy was heartbroken,” Sullivan said. “Our parents were mad about each other, and after she died, daddy was so distraught. He would pound out Bach on the piano all night and weep.”
He was also a talented composer. At the April 1978 General Conference, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang “Come Sing to the Lord,” a hymn composed by de Jong.
“The choir didn’t know he was dying of cancer and wouldn’t live to see another conference,” said Carma de Jong Anderson, de Jong’s youngest daughter, in a news release. “We found it incredibly touching. We still do.”
Proof of his legacy, the Homecoming theme this year is “Hold High the Torch,” taken from a talk given by de Jong in 1966 to the graduates of the College of Humanities.
“And now I hand the torch to you,” de Jong said. “Be a living example, not just a theoretical advocate of enduring human values. Hold high the torch. Act, not just talk, as one who has discovered some of the best of man’s thoughts and creations.”
While the talk was given to students of the College of Humanities, the message applies to all students and alumni.
“This year’s Homecoming theme challenges each of us to develop our God-given talents and divine nature to light the world around us,” said John Lewis, associate vice president of advancement and executive director of Homecoming, in an email. “Ours is the opportunity and responsibility to be torch-bearers of knowledge, excellence, strength and goodness in every walk of life.”
We can use our education from BYU to help flood the world with hope and light, Lewis said.
“We are given so much with our BYU education,” President Samuelson said. “Let us use it to light the world.”
And we need to do more than simply hold the torch. We need to make it brighter.
“[We should live our lives] so when it is our turn to pass it on, it is burning brighter than ever before,” Herzinger said.