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Obituary

Gus Van Wielingen a builder in Alberta’s natural gas industry Add to ...

There is much about Gus Van Wielingen’s remarkable life that is well documented – how the Dutch-born engineer became a Calgary energy entrepreneur and one of the builders of the natural gas industry in Western Canada.

And yet there is one aspect about which little is known. In the early 1940s, Mr. Van Wielingen, as a 20-year-old, went underground in the Dutch Resistance to combat the Nazi occupation of his country. He rarely talked about those years and, when he died on April 1 at 92, his family still had very little information to go on.

“He wanted to protect us from all those realities, and he just didn’t want to relive the memories,” says his son Mac Van Wielingen, one of Gus and his wife Betsy’s three children.

What his father did in the Resistance may have been considered necessary and even heroic, Mac says, but it meant being part of exercises that led to the deaths of enemy soldiers. “It takes something away from your own humanity,” Mac says. “I saw how much pain he carried around.”

It is the kind of emotional baggage transported by ma ny immigrants to Canada after the Second World War. And Mr. Van Wielingen’s baggage was particularly complex – he had been an engineering student in the Netherlands; a resistance fighter; a military policeman in turbulent post-war Indonesia; and then an engineer who worked in rebuilding Indonesia’s natural gas plants.

And the wartime experience was equally tumultuous for his future wife. Betsy – then Elizabeth den Hamer – spent four of her teenage years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Indonesia, an experience that left its mark on her health.

“Both my parents had strong survivor instincts,” Mac says.

Those instincts came in handy as Gus built a career in the Canadian oil and gas industry. He had some harrowing moments in the 1980s, when the price of commodities plunged, interest rates soared and government policies blindsided Western Canadian energy companies. Although he paid a large financial cost, he never despaired, perhaps because he knew what real life-and-death danger was all about.

Gus Van Wielingen was born in Stockholm to Dutch parents. He grew up in Amsterdam and was in university when the Nazis invaded on May 10, 1940. The German high command pressed many Dutch people into the war effort and Gus was shipped to Germany to work in an aircraft factory.

His mother was ailing and he asked to be given leave to go home. He never returned to Germany, and instead went underground in the Dutch countryside, where he joined the Resistance as an active combatant. After the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945, he entered the Royal Netherlands Force and was shipped out to Indonesia as the Dutch were trying to re-establish control of their old colony.

In late 1947, he left military service, and worked in the Indonesian energy industry as an engineer, while travelling widely in the region. On his travels, he met Betsy, who in the post-war period had become a KLM flight attendant. The two young people, remaking their lives in the wake of hardship and postwar scattering of their families, married in 1949 in Singapore.

They decided to emigrate and Gus was weighing Australia or Canada, when the Canadian subsidiary of Gulf Oil came through with a job. The couple, with two children at the time, moved to Calgary in 1951.

After a stint with Gulf, he joined petroleum consulting firm Sproule & Associates as a reservoir engineer. But Gus always wanted to do his own thing, and left Sproule – a decision that vexed his employer, Dr. Cam Sproule, who once remarked to a friend that Mr. Van Wielingen was the best gas engineer he had ever seen.

After a couple of early ventures, he saw a big opportunity in Alberta’s natural gas pools, particularly in extracting sulphur as part of the natural gas production process. He founded a company called Sulpetro, which never did much with sulphur but did very well in natural gas.

He was part of the generation that built post-war Alberta. Jim Palmer, the veteran Calgary lawyer who came to Alberta from Prince Edward Island in the early 1950s, puts Mr. Van Wielingen in a league of adventurers like Jack Gallagher, Frank McMahon and J. C. Anderson. “He was one of the guys who really made Calgary what it is,” he says. “He was aggressive and one of those who really made things exciting.”

At the same time, says another friend, financier Richard Bonnycastle, “he was of gentlemanly character, always proper and wanted things done correctly.”

In those days, Canadian investors were averse to taking a bet on Canadian energy ventures, so Mr. Van Wielingen looked to the United States, and particularly New York, for backers. The early supporters did well, many of them cashing out when Sulpetro sold a bunch of its assets to Hudson Bay Oil and Gas in 1976.

Then, in the usual pattern of oil-patch entrepreneurs, he proceeded to rebuild Sulpetro’s asset base, and in the overheated markets of the late 1970s, Mr. Van Wielingen had the vision of creating a Canadian champion. In 1981, Sulpetro went heavily into debt to buy CanDel Oil Ltd. of Calgary for $600-million.

Then it all came crashing down in a confluence of crises – lower gas prices, sky-high borrowing costs, and Ottawa’s widely despised National Energy Program (NEP). As Sulpetro tried to work its way back, new petroleum taxes, that were not deductible from income, formed a roadblock. Sulpetro sought a tax ruling and when that failed, the company was placed in receivership in 1987. It was sold to Imperial Oil Ltd. for $780-million – and Mr. Van Wielingen lost a fair chunk of his net worth.

His career had become a microcosm of Alberta – an extraordinary entrepreneurial saga, which foundered on gyrating price cycles and negative government policies. He was not bitter about his fate, but the arbitrariness of the NEP did anger him, says son Mac, himself a successful energy financier.

Mac says he learned a lot from his father’s resilience, which was fully demonstrated in the early 1990s, when he mounted a comeback with a start-up called NuGas (his children around the kitchen table called it “NuGus.”) It participated in gas plays, including some on the old Sulpetro lands. By the time the company was sold in mid-1997, Mr. Van Wielingen had regained a measure of his lost wealth.

He also gained a lot of friends among Calgary entrepreneurs, including an enterprising lawyer and barley farmer named Ed McNally. The two men travelled together, including on one memorable quest to find Scottish war-story writer Alistair MacLean, who was a tax refugee in Switzerland.

It was not just Mr. MacLean’s spellbinding yarns that inspired the hunt, but also his expertise on beer and pubs, businesses which interested the two Albertans. In the manner of a thriller, they rendezvoused with the great man in the bar of a Geneva hotel – and there was talk of beer, and, no doubt, war stories.

Perhaps inspired, Mr. Van Wielingen became an ardent supporter of Mr. McNally, when the lawyer founded his own beer venture, Big Rock Brewery, in 1985 and went public. Big Rock became an iconic brand in Alberta. “Gus’s sense of fun, enormous energy and enthusiastic response to any challenge was unique,” Mr. McNally says in an e-mail note.

When he retired from active management in his 70s, Mr. Van Wielingen joined partners in pooling their money to invest in gas properties. He remained the consummate engineer with a love of charts and maps. Even in his second home in Palm Desert, Calif., he could be found looking at seismic data and reading up on world affairs – his other great passion.

As he reached his 90s, he and Betsy were residing in an assisted-living centre in Calgary. He aged well until his last six months, when his health progressively declined. At the end, Mac says, “his body shut down and it was peaceful.”

He leaves Betsy, his wife of 63 years, his three children, Mac, Margaret and Robert, and four grandchildren.

 

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