Wednesday, July 13, 2022

William Van Bergen Van Dyck

William Van Bergen Van Dyck, age 100. Photo from the Van Dyck Personal Papers, Grems Doolittle Library.


This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Growing up in New Jersey, Billy attended a private school affiliated with Rutgers College. His father, Francis, was an analytical chemistry and physics professor at Rutgers, and was frequently asked to consult on projects by his friend and neighbor, Thomas Edison. As a boy, Billy often accompanied his father to Edison’s laboratory and later remembered being present at an early demonstration of the phonograph. An autographed photo that Edison presented to Billy as a birthday gift was one of his lifelong prized possessions.

Billy circa 1880. Photo from the Van Dyck Personal Papers, Grems Doolittle Library.

After high school, Billy went on to Rutgers, graduating in 1896 with BS in prismatic glass and light reflection. In 1897 he graduated from Columbia with a degree in electrical engineering and then received an MS from Rutgers in 1898. While in college, he was captain of the varsity football team, played second base on the varsity baseball team, was a standout in the 100 yard dash, sang with the glee club, and was a member of Delta Phi, Phi Beta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi.

His first job out of college was with the American Luxfer Prism Company in Chicago where he was in charge of the research laboratory for a year. He then became a sales engineer for the company in Pittsburgh and New York. By 1899 he was back at Rutgers teaching math and electrical engineering. Two years later, he married Frances “Fanny” Johnson, a stage actress, and decided that two couldn’t live on what he made as an instructor so took an engineering and manufacturing position in North Carolina. 

In 1906, his international career began with a new position as an engineer in Santiago, Chile with the W. R. Grace Company, agents of General Electric. His next move was to Brazil in 1911 as a representative of General Electric of New York. He stayed in that position until 1914 when he was appointed Managing Director of Cia General Electric do Brazil. In 1918, he was named President of General Electric South America, a Brazilian corporation. 

Portrait of Billy taken while he was employed by GE in Brazil. Photo from the Van Dyck Personal Papers, Grems Doolittle Library.

During the time he lived and worked in South America, he took on several interesting projects. One of the first was in 1908 when he was still living in Chile. He purchased four electric automobiles, intending to sell them for a profit. He kept one for his own use and sold one to the Ambassador of England, but quickly found that there was no market for the other two. Realizing the cars would depreciate the longer he held on to them, he decided to trade them for a warehouse full of wine. He reasoned the wine might increase in value – and if he couldn’t sell it, he could always drink it.

Billy was proud of his attempt to light the Straits of Magellan. Located in Chile, near the tip of South America, it was a treacherous but essential waterway before the Panama Canal was built. One stretch close to the Pacific was particularly dangerous with high cliffs, a 40 knot current and 40 foot tides. His workers installed a light on a long flexible chain anchored to the bottom. Although successful for a time, the current and tides tangled the chain and the light eventually sank to the bottom. That was the first and only attempt to light the Straights.

Another interesting project was to provide light for the 1923 Brazilian Exposition. Billy was instrumental in achieving locally produced light bulbs. Prior to 1923, parts were made elsewhere and assembled in Brazil. Under his leadership, glass bulbs began to be manufactured in Brazil and other components soon followed. Because of this, he was able to obtain the contract for the design and installation of lighting for the exposition using crystal prisms and electric lights that reflected the light in a spectacular manner. The setup was a huge success.

Billy liked to tell the story of a Brazilian cowboy who rode a horse to his office and dropped $60,000 in cash on his desk for an electrical installation at his remote ranch. When Billy questioned whether he felt uneasy leaving that amount of cash with him the cowboy replied, “Not at all, Señor, after all, I can trust the General Electric Company!”      

While in Brazil, Billy was a founder and director of the American Chamber of Commerce of Brazil, President of the Rio de Janeiro chapter of the American Red Cross, a founder of the Rio de Janeiro Country Club, was the catcher for the American Rio baseball team well into his 40’s, and a director and president of the American Society of Rio de Janeiro. Sadly, Billy’s wife Frances died in 1922. She lived with Billy in Brazil but returned to the United States before her death. Billy also returned to the U.S. on several occasions. One was to attend the 75th birthday party of his old friend and neighbor, Thomas Edison. 

Billy traveled on the SS Western World in 1923 from New York to Buenos Aires. Image from

Pacific Marine Review, v. 19, August 1922, p. 469,

Billy was on board the steamship SS Western World out of New York bound for Buenos Aires in May of 1923 when a telegraphed chess challenge was received from the SS American Legion that had just left Argentina. Three players from each ship participated in what would be the first chess game by wireless. Billy was captain of his team and fifteen moves were made the first night until communications were lost. The match continued the following night as reception was almost non-existent during the day. After four nights and thirty-five moves, each team declared victory when radio reception did not allow them to continue. Not minding that no winner was determined, Billy considered the match great fun and a unique experience.  

 Billy held the position of President of General Electric South America until 1926 when he returned to the United States and in June 1927 became the Manager of the Schenectady office of the International General Electric Company, a title he held until March of 1937 when he became Assistant to the President of IGE. On Valentine’s Day of 1931 Billy married his second wife, Schenectady native Elvira Haight, who had a daughter from a previous marriage.

One of the highlights of his tenure in Schenectady was bringing the King of Siam to meet with General Electric scientists as a guest of IGE. King Prajadhipok, who at that time was one of only two absolute monarchs in the world, was traveling incognito using the alias Prince Sukhodaya. On July 9, 1931, Billy traveled to New York City and joined the King’s party on a private railroad car. When they arrived in Rensselaer the car was disconnected from the train and a special locomotive was attached which brought the group directly to the General Electric plant. A telegraph sent to Billy the next day from the King’s secretary thanked him for the enjoyable day and asked if he could locate and return a vest the King left on the train.

International General Electric hosted many other guests from around the world including the Counsel General of Ecuador and Count Folke Bernadotte, the nephew of King Gustuv of Sweden. The Count sent Billy a letter thanking him for the day he spent in Schenectady meeting with a group of scientist that included Dr. Ernst F. Alexanderson. 

Billy traveled to South America on several occasions while he worked for IGE. On June 10, 1939 he was awarded the “National Order of the Southern Cross,” the highest decoration given by the Brazilian government to a private foreign citizen. The citation noted the award was given for his “distinguished service in the promotion of international good will between the United States and Brazil.”

Billy was very active in community affairs in Schenectady. He was a member of the Schenectady Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, YMCA of Schenectady, Chairman of the Schenectady Community and War Chest during World War II, and President of the Capital District branch of the Holland Club of America. He was also active in the Mohawk Club and the Mohawk Golf Club.

When Billy retired at age of 70 on December 31, 1945, after 34 years with GE, he didn’t slow down. He and Elvira traveled the world collecting art objects that they displayed in their home at 21 Washington Avenue. He was a founding member and Trustee of the Community State Bank for over 35 years, and was never late or missed a meeting, even when he was over 100 years old. At 104 he attended his 85th Rutgers reunion where he was honored as the oldest alumni and last living member of the class of 1895.

Billy at his 85th Rutgers reunion, the last surviving member of his class. Photo from the Van Dyck Personal Papers, Grems Doolittle Library.

Billy never had children but after his wife, Elvira, died in 1974 his niece, Florence Bucher came to live with him as his companion. He walked his dogs, first Firecracker and later Cracker Jack, around the Stockade neighborhood daily, often stopping by Arthur’s Market. He went to the Mohawk Club every day to visit with friends and play backgammon, chess, and cards. At 103, Billy’s started receiving nursing care in his home, but his mind stayed sharp. He said he had a cousin who lived to be 108 and wanted to beat that family record. Unfortunately, Billy passed away on March 18, 1981, at the age of 105, three years short of his goal. After local services at St. George’s Church, he was buried with his Dutch ancestors at Riverside Cemetery in Coxsackie.

During his long life, Billy lived through the administrations of 24 presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to Ronald Reagan. On his 100th birthday, Mayor Frank Duci awarded him the distinction of Patroon, Schenectady’s highest honor. A modest man, he said, at the age of 104, that he never did anything special -- “The only thing I ever did was get old!”



Bishop, John Keith, “Stockade Spy Honors a Favorite Citizen”, The Stockade Spy, May 1974.

“GE’s Third Oldest Pensioner Holds His Own at Milestone Age of 100”, Schenectady GE News, March 12, 1976.

Hart, Larry, “Chess Foes Vie Across Ocean”, Daily Gazette, 1973.

Hayden, Barbara, “100 years young”, Knickerbocker News, Sept. 8, 1975.

Ryan, Buttons, “Former Coxsackian, at 102, Remembers Village History”, Greene County News, January 26, 1978.

Shapiro, Ricki, “104 Year Old Tells Tale of Travel, Achievement”, Daily Gazette, 1980.

“van Dyck: a little Dutch college”, Rutgers Alumni Association News, Winter 1979.

“W.V.B. Van Dyck: GE Brazil’s ‘Grand Old Man’”, General Electric News Worldwide, September 1974.

Van Dyck Personal Papers, Grems-Doolittle Library (2006.009)

No comments:

Post a Comment