Loet Velmans, 93, longtime resident of Sheffield, Massachusetts, died Friday, November 11, 2016, at his home.
Velmans was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. As a teenager, he helped to commandeer a small boat and narrowly escaped the Nazi invasion of Holland in 1940. From England, he made his way to the Dutch East Indies, enlisted in the Dutch Free Army and was taken prisoner by the Japanese. In prison in Singapore, he started a newspaper for fellow inmates. Later, he was sent to Thailand as a P.O.W. slave laborer on the notorious Burma railroad.
When WWII ended Velmans returned to the Netherlands, pursued a career in journalism, married Edith van Hessen and moved to the U.S. with his young family. A pioneer in the field of international public relations, Velmans worked throughout Europe for Hill & Knowlton, the New York-based public relations and management consulting firm, moving its overseas headquarters from Paris and The Hague to Geneva and London, while opening dozens of satellite offices around the world. Always looking to the future rather than the past, Velmans put aside his horrific experiences as a POW, and worked on improving business relations with post-war Japan, becoming known for his efforts at closing the “communication gap.” In 1974 Velmans was called back to New York and soon became Chairman and CEO of Hill & Knowlton. In that capacity he oversaw the merger of the firm with the advertising giant J. Walter Thompson.
Upon his retirement, Loet and Edith moved full-time to the Berkshires, a place they truly loved. There, Velmans wrote Long Way Back to the River Kwai, a war memoir detailing his adventurous escape from the Nazis and his imprisonment by the Japanese. A second memoir, From P.O.W. to C.E.O., about his post-war life, was published last year. He served on 17 nonprofit boards, including the Lincoln Center Institute, Bennington College, and the Legal Aid Society. He was an overseer of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and founding member of the Netherlands-America Foundation.
He is survived by Edith, his wife of 67 years, the author of the acclaimed Edith’s Story. He is also survived by his daughters Marianne Velmans of London, Hester Velmans of Sheffield, Jessica Velmans of New York City, their spouses, five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Hospice Care in the Berkshires or EmpowerGeneration (www.empowergeneration.org), an organization created by Velmans’s granddaughter.