Hidden gifts: The story of Arie Kamp’s extraordinary legacy
“People need to understand there are gifts in so many ways in almost everyone around us, if we look hard enough.”
The article is written based on an interview with Tom McCauley and Sandra Cruickshanks, who are the co-executors and close friends of Arie.
Arie in a chess club, 2013.
It’s a moment of quiet earnestness when estate co-executor and friends Sandra Cruickshanks and Tom McCauley reflect on Arie Kamp, who made a life-changing gift supporting World Vision Canada and World Food Programme projects improving livelihoods and access to clean water in Angola.
Arie—man of letters, guerrilla gardener and more—was 95 when he passed away in January 2022.
While his final legacy was a bid to make life easier for communities a world away from his own, Arie made his friends and neighbours do a little digging to find the gift in him. He had his quirks but all of them were rooted in a deep, genuine concern for the welfare of others.
He spent almost every day at a Toronto Public Library and at night would take home another nine or 10 books to keep studying. This was how he learned more about the world and the injustice he wanted to fight. In the spring, he would set up shop at community parks to plant red amaryllis, purple cosmos and yellow daisies, sometimes against the rules.
The city’s biggest park, High Park, even banned him for it so he moved on to Dufferin Grove Park. He wasn’t trying to cause trouble—he just wanted to beautify Toronto. He went on to be formally recognized as one of Dufferin Grove Park’s “Unsung Heroes” presented by Ontario’s 26th Lieutenant Governor, Hilary Weston.
In 1997, Arie’s community involvement and commitment to beautifying the city led to this ceremony celebrating Arie as an “Unsung Heroes” of Dufferin Grove Park.
Arie held strong opinions about a variety of issues, but he was modest when it came to himself. “He viewed himself as a peasant right to the end,” says Tom McCauley about Arie’s take on his life and the central Toronto neighbourhood of Dufferin Grove that he called home. His neighbours included a university professor, an actress and a retired school principal whose friendship left him wondering why they “would want to have anything to do with me”.
But they did.
He never married and had no children, though he did become the de facto godfather to a neighbour’s adopted child. When they gave birth to a son, Sam, Arie had the honour of being the first person, after the parents, to hold him. The moment is memorialized in a photo of Arie peering through big glasses as he gingerly cradles Sam.
Arie (right) has a drink with Sandra (left) and Tom(middle) and, June 2012
So, while Arie didn’t speak in terms of children, his outlook was shaped by his own life as a child. Sandra says he didn’t want children to grow up the way he had. He laboured in a farming household in the Netherlands, poor and often hungry, especially during World War II. In his family, there were six boys to feed, clothe and house. His father was a hard man and Sandra says Arie was troubled by the sense his mother “got short shrift of things.” He wanted all of that to change, but he didn’t quite know how, at least not then.
His early twenties saw him conscripted to the Royal Dutch Marines and sent to Indonesia to protect Dutch financial and political interests. He was very much against colonialism and the experience solidified his belief in social justice. His passions later went on to include homelessness, the plight of farm labourers and hunger.
Arie’s new life in Canada began on his 25th birthday in 1951 when he set foot on the dock at Halifax’s famed Pier 21. Twenty-seven years later at the tender age of 52, he retired after a stint as a farm labourer and a couple of decades as a steel mill worker. His final home was already calling him.
Arie at Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands
Toronto’s public library system was the siren song.
It drew Arie to Canada’s largest city, where he took a room—in his trademark austere style—at the West End YMCA. Clad in a tie and a cardigan, he spent his days (and nights) at the Toronto Reference and Bloor-Gladstone libraries. When that wasn’t enough, he took a membership at the University of Toronto’s (U of T) library system. Having read all of the books he wanted to read at U of T’s Robarts Library, for the next few years, he next visited the libraries of all of the affiliated colleges and read everything he was interested in.
He kept notes that testified to his dedication to learning, leaving behind two boxes filled with journals and notebooks. These pages were crammed to the margins with 60 years of melancholy poetry by various writers and musings on countless topics, all written in an impeccable script.
This was how, decades after leaving as the eldest son of a subsistence farm labourer in the Netherlands village of Klundert, he came to understand what he wanted to change and how to do it.
Despite having no formal education beyond Grade 6, he taught himself English, French, and German. Reading and knowledge was “in his control, so he just sucked it up,” says Sandra. “Because I suspect that it took him a while to figure out what had really gone on in the first 20, 25 years of his life and how it had come about that way. And I think the more he learned the more he dug in on a whole range of things.”
He dug in by putting his hands in the soil, like he’d once done under a hot sun and harder winters. At 80, he toiled in a neighbour’s backyard for no payment greater than his favourite dessert: lemon cake, getting rid of goutweed and transforming the garden into a panorama of flowers.
He dug in by studying and arguing the social justice issues that moved him. He left behind 66 journals, the first dated 1963, where he kept a meticulous log of news reporting and essays covering current events.
He dug in by insisting on the simple life, even in death. Regarding burial arrangements, Tom recalls Arie instructing that there be only a pine box. No embalming, no minister at whatever gathering there might be. Arie’s sentiment: “Don’t even have a gathering".
“Which, of course, we ignored,” Tom chuckles. Tom already knew the neighbourhood that called Arie a friend would never let Arie leave them so easily.
Arie was purposeful about making arrangements to donate to World Vision and the Salvation Army—organizations that could pursue the change he wanted to see. In fact, he’d been a loyal annual donor to World Vision Canada since 2004, but his biggest gift was yet to come.
What remained unchanged was that Arie loved in his own way and that Arie was loved. His roots informed his every breath and, when illness and the crushing isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic combined to take it away, he was prepared.
Arie’s final gift to fellow farmers
What few knew was that Arie—who lived frugally, didn’t own a car and made do with a small bachelor apartment—was a millionaire.
That’s how his years of quiet investing in gold and silver had paid off. He made arrangements in his will to include World Vision Canada as a residual beneficiary of his estate. Ultimately, that generous gift of over $500,000 would be directed to help the kind of people Arie knew best.
People like him. Farmers.
From one farmer to many, Arie’s gift will benefit farmer communities in Angola for generations to come
In the years to come through the FRESAN Project in Angola’s Namibe province, 10,000 people, including 5,000 children will be the beneficiaries of Arie’s generosity. Ten thousand people will have access to clean water, improving health in the community for generations to come. Three hundred farmers will be trained in food security initiatives such as community gardening, agricultural conservation, and product transformation to create added value and grow their income. The community will also create savings groups, in particular groups promoting women’s participation—a program pivotal in reaching economic self-sufficiency.
Arie cared for the most vulnerable among us, at home and abroad. He tasked Sandra and Tom with ensuring that his wishes were honoured, and that is exactly what they did.