Grabbing life by the horns

Video created by Madelyn Willoughby, Pictures provided by Nel Kerlen

by Madelyn Willoughby, Staff Writer

Nel Kerlen boarded a Holland-American Line boat at 26. Little did she know, this fateful voyage would not just permanently take her from one continent to another, she would also meet her future husband during the journey. With her daring and positive outlook she built a life, family, and career in Glen Rock. While others see Kerlen’s experience as remarkable, she believes it was just what she had to do. For example, she focuses on the fact that her experience as an immigrant was easier than others.

Kerlen was born in 1932 in Hillegersberg, Holland, and when she was ten years old German soldiers landed in a field near her house and claimed her town. During World War II, Kerlen’s family had to find ways to survive. Her father worked at a clothing factory where he obtained buttons, threads, and other materials that were traded by Kerlen’s family for food at nearby farms.

While growing up in Holland, Kerlen went to a high school equivalent for three years and it was a rough time for her. She had to complete so much work in such a short amount of time. “I never had time to do anything.” Kerlen said.

After she left that school they extended it to four years. A requirement she needed to fulfill was to learn English, French, and German, which was difficult after speaking Dutch her whole life. When learning English, it took hours to figure out how to speak from the front rather than the back of her throat. A final exam was to read books in all the languages she had learned and to answer questions about them in English.

After completing a one year university program, she went into the job market. Her first jobs were mainly secretarial. Her language skills helped her throughout her career because she spoke four in total: Dutch, French, German, and English.

At 26 the idea to move to Canada emerged when Kerlen was dating a boy her father was not fond of. He told her that it might be a good idea for her to move to her aunt’s house in Canada. This was a change, but Kerlen said she felt like it was an easier experience than more traditional immigrants because she had connections there. At the time, many people in Canada rented out rooms in their homes to earn money, and many nontraditional immigrants such as herself moved in. She began as more of a visitor than an immigrant.

She briefly returned to Holland and realized it wasn’t working out, and so decided to return to Canada. She had a job as soon as she moved, and it was easier for her to adjust than other immigrants. “I am not your typical immigrant.” Kerlen said.

On her second trip to Canada, she came via a boat where she met her husband, Otto. Soon she was married and settled in Toronto, and she had a child. Michael Kerlen, her son, was born in December of 1960. He was given a name that Kerlen knew would work in Holland, Germany, the U.S., and Canada to give them the option to go back to their previous homes.

One of her jobs that utilized her language skills was for the Holland-American Line. Eventually, it became a cruise ship company but at the time it moved immigrants, and many young people who lived in Canada at the time wanted their parents to visit them. Part of Kerlen’s job was to help them communicate and arrange the visit.

Kerlen’s husband eventually applied to jobs in New York, after jobs in Toronto didn’t work out. The family then made the decision to move to Westchester, New York to be closer to his new job. They only decided to move to Glen Rock, NJ when Kerlen was talking with a friend who told her about the town and its schools.

In Holland, Kerlen said no school was better than another, there were Christian, Catholic, and public schools that were all equal and they never had to pay for them. She learned that in the U.S. some schools are better than others, and her friend told her that the Glen Rock school system was great. The family moved to a house in Glen Rock where Kerlen still lives today.

The decision to move to Glen Rock was also based on the town. In Holland, Kerlen said people used to walk or bike wherever. However, in Westchester, it was hard to get used to driving everywhere. Glen Rock was a good fit for them because her husband could walk to the train station to commute to New York City, and her kids could walk to school.

Once in Glen Rock, Kerlen started looking for a job. When talking to a friend, Kerlen mentioned that she had always liked to travel but didn’t have the opportunity anymore. Her friend recommended she check out the travel agencies in town to see if she could work there. This started Kerlen’s career in travel, she wrote brochures and organized different trips for people living in Glen Rock. She even went on some trips as a guide.

Kerlen loves Glen Rock. When her kids were growing up, she enjoyed organizing different activities for her kids and neighbors. Kerlen also loves the Glen Rock pool, she always goes to the morning lap swims and she is friends with all the people in one of their classes. Though she is a hard working person, Kerlen also believes in making the most out of life and enjoying as much as you can.

“Do as much as you can in your life because you never get to do it again,” Kerlen said.