Some lives have a symmetry to them. Long or short, good or bad, sometimes what has come before in a person's life blends seamlessly with what comes at the end.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Josef D'Heygers may be living just that kind of life. In broad strokes, he has been an anonymous man--a Belgian shoemaker for most of the first half of his life, a caretaker at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana for the last half of it.
But to say he was invisible to most of us is not to say he was unimportant. His duties at Mater Dei, the county's preeminent Roman Catholic high school, have put him in contact with thousands of people over the years. He was the man, beginning in 1956 when he came to America, who opened the Mater Dei doors at 5 a.m. for the bakers who brought bread and who closed the gates at night. He was the man who maintained the grounds, cleaned the gym and drove the nuns around.
Unmarried and childless, D'Heygers, now 87, made Mater Dei his family, thankful for the pittance he made when he started and for the modest sums he made down through the years. His first quarters consisted of a cot in an unused school restroom. For many years, it was a trailer on campus, and now the school has provided him with an apartment above the campus ministry center.
And in this fall season of 2002, D'Heygers has put all those years into perspective--for himself and for the school.
He has donated, upon his death, a six-figure contribution that is among the largest in the schools' recent $18.7-million fund-raising drive. Neither D'Heygers nor the school will reveal the amount, but in listing the major donors according to the size of their gift, D'Heygers is among the 10 leading contributors.
The poor man who became a rich man has amazed and delighted school officials and made D'Heygers a bit of a media celebrity. He's done two newspaper interviews and been featured on an L.A. TV broadcast.
"I didn't look to be famous," he says in a Dutch accent still almost impenetrable to American ears. "But, in another way, I like it. I'm getting old and it's a great feeling that I lived a good life."
The school's expansion consists of three new buildings. One of them includes a clock tower that will forever bear D'Heygers' name.
"I think when he started he was making $200 a month," says school spokeswoman Christine DeBaun. "He never asked for raises but he always got them, but he probably never made more than $1,000 a month, because he had free room and board."
D'Heygers says he realized at 65 that he was generating income. With pension income both from America and from Belgium, D'Heygers began investing under a friend's watchful eye.
Over the years, the kindly man who seldom left campus and who seemed never to buy anything except a movie ticket and (once) a car, apparently was saving his money. "His mother always said, save, save, save," DeBaun says. "Mater Dei was his whole world. He lives for the kids--that includes the kids who are now 50 years old and the ones who are here now."
D'Heygers doesn't go to Mater Dei games anymore but can often be seen walking the grounds. He says the students today are as friendly and mannered as those of a generation or two ago.
D'Heygers was 41 when he first laid eyes on Mater Dei, then just a 6-year-old school with tumbleweeds on the grounds. "It seemed small," he recalls. "It needed a lot of work to fix it."
From the closest vantage point of anyone, he has seen it grow to a school of 2,100 students. In a society where people come and go--and often forget where they came from--D'Heygers has left a legacy simply by staying put and not forgetting who first took him in.
"I've lived so long," he says. "My last thought will be of the school."
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.