In Memoriam Fred Toppen

Fred Toppen

We are deeply saddened that our friend and former colleague Fred Toppen passed away on 1 December, aged just 67. Fred had a big heart for education, students, colleagues and the field of human geography and planning. He was a pioneer in the field of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). He not only taught enthusiastically, but was also one of the founding members of the inter-university master's programme Geographical Information Management and Applications (GIMA). He successfully spearheaded a national GIS minor. He taught passionately, and often much more than his allotted hours and schedules. This was mainly because Fred, with a great sense of responsibility, filled the gaps left by vacancies and colleagues on sick leave. Without grumbling, anticipating, and also a little impatient, he automatically picked up everything that threatened to remain unfinished. With a cheerful disposition, he never sought for acknowledgement of the extra labour for his department.  

In 1998, Fred co-founded AGILE (Association of Geographic Information Laboratories in Europe), a renowned organisation that expanded the horizons of GIS in Europe, thanks to leading conferences organized by Fred, and colleagues , to build a community of GIS specialists.

Many people in the university know Fred as an advocate of employee and student participation. In 2008, he was elected as a member of the University Council, and between 2011-2019 he chaired the U-Council. 'A figurehead for employee participation', as President of the Executive Board Anton Pijpers called him at his farewell. Fred was a non-partisan chairman, who gave ample space to voice a range of issues from all sections of the council. He enthusiastically mentored new council members. The integral cooperation between the employee representation at central level and the faculty and employees' consultative bodies was highly valued by Fred. He worked hard to make the work of the U-council more visible. His attachment and service to the council – and the close bond with the  colleagues of the secretariat, the griffie - was evident when many members of the council and the secretariat participated in his farewell party. Fred chaired and played a key role in the Central Voting Committee (2020-2021 and again in 2022), often taking up additional tasks to fill gaps. In addition to UU, Fred also provided academic service to the University of Applied Sciences-Utrecht: in 2018, he became chairman of the Hogeschoolraad; a position he had to give up this spring due to his illness.

He was also a champion of democracy and collegiality in the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning. Next to his work as a lecturer, he was active for many years in educational management and as coordinator, leading a large group of junior lecturers. No one made an appeal to him in vain, and he made no distinction between students and professors in his efforts on behalf of others. His key values: Honest, upright, and committed, always guided his sense of integrity.

We never saw Fred angry. But he could get very worked up about things not going well, especially when the interests of students and colleagues were compromised. He could not stand injustice, and even recently, while lying heavily ill in bed, he got annoyed about abuses, when he was reading the newspapers. Making the world a better place was in his blood. He was active for the Labour Party in his hometown Houten. On 11 September, Fred received the Silver Pin of Merit for this work from chairman Esther-Mirjam Sent on behalf of the board of the national Labour Party.

In June this year, the University honoured him with the Honorary Medal of the University of Utrecht. The text on the medal: 'Fred Toppen: connector and champion of participation'.

The student appreciation came from the study association V.U.G.S., which appointed him an honorary member this year. Fred's response to this was typical: 'what did I do to deserve that?' His enormous involvement in the association's introduction program, education and social activities were an example to many. Fred was the natural captain of the teachers' team during the association's Staff-Student Football, and he regularly turned up at the Geocafé in the teachers' pub quiz team. These were the things close to Fred’s heart: nurturing good relations within the department and the university, and maintaining a lively community of students, lecturers and support staff.

Mid-2021, Fred retired (after 40 years of service). At his farewell, he mentioned a long list of plans for the future - with time mainly for Gemma, the children and his grandson. Time for cycling, chores, trips with the children, camping with Gemma in France. Time for books and beautiful music. But of course, we could still call on him last year too, to help with GIS teaching when needed. He remained deeply involved and much interested in lives and careers of former colleagues and students.

Since the onset of the illness, in May 2022, Fred and his wife Gemma were very open about his condition. This included thinking of others: open communication made it easy to send a card or visit Houten.

We still cannot believe that our strong, sporty, dear colleague had to lose his last match so soon. We are going to miss Fred tremendously. Gemma, their children Timco, Jasper and Marieke and their partners, grandson Hugo, further family and friends; we are thinking of you in this difficult time. As the obituary card so beautifully states: an amiable person has passed away.

Board and staff of the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning / Faculty Board Geosciences