AMHERST, MASS. — Jacob “Jack” Van Gelder, 95, died peacefully on March 8 at the Fisher Hospice Home. Jack and Ray Van Gelder ran the Conway House antiques shop for almost 40 years, and they were known by many people in the antiques community.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 19, 1920, he was the son of the late Betsy (Lierens) Van Gelder and Bernard Van Gelder. He spent his childhood in Brooklyn and was a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School. After high school, he attended the City College of New York (CCNY) and studied mechanical engineering for several years.
Jacob was very patriotic and as America came closer to entering the conflicts overseas he suspended his studies at CCNY to work in defense-related industries. Initially he did design/drafting for the conversion of civilian ships to wartime use. His last assignment, shortly after Pearl Harbor and just before his enlistment into the armed services, was at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, where he worked on the refitting and repair of a variety of vessels from submarines to battleships.
In early 1942 he met his future wife, Ray (Gold) Van Gelder at Cox & Stevens in New York City where they had both accepted jobs doing marine design work related to the war effort. As many of their generation did after Pearl Harbor, they married in 1942 just before Jacob enlisted in the US Army Air force. From then on, they shared more than 70 years together. Ray predeceased Jacob on November 12, 2013.
After enlistment, Jacob embarked on an intense training regimen that culminated in his graduation as an aviation cadet (second lieutenant) at Yale University in April 1944. From there he went overseas to North Africa to serve in the 111 Army Airways Communication System Squadron, which was part of the 56th Army Airways Communication System. During this period, as part of the European African Middle Eastern Campaign, Jacob was engaged in activities across North Africa, maintaining the operation of funneling vital supplies further eastward to the Asian theater. This involved everything from keeping air cargos flowing to “The Hump” as part of the India-China Airlift to the movement of B-29s for the Pacific Campaign. After VJ day, Jacob stayed on until early 1946 to dismantle bases. He mustered out honorably in 1946 as a first lieutenant.
After the war, Jacob and Ray first settled in Long Island with their first born, Elizabeth. A couple years the birth of their second child, Robert, they moved to New City, N.Y., where they purchased a small farm. For Jacob, this farm fulfilled a lifelong dream. The family raised chickens to sell eggs, grew vegetable crops and maintained an orchard. By the late 50s, Jacob was drawn back into engineering and went to work for a small startup in Pearl River, N.Y., called Inland Motors. Here he worked on government contracts requiring precision engineering. Most notably, he worked on the design of the small motors that drove the guidance system on the future Mercury space capsule.
In 1959, Inland Motors merged with Kollmorgen Corp in Northampton, Mass. In that year the family moved to Massachusetts. After a search for the old farmhouse Jacob and Ray desired, they found the perfect place in Conway in 1962. While living in Conway he served in various capacities at Kollmorgen Corp, retiring in 1985, and being very civic minded, was active in town affairs, serving on the finance committee, the Conway Historical Society and helped to establish the first zoning regulations. He also had a very active role in launching the Festival of the Hills celebration with the first major event in 1967, which marked the 200th anniversary of the founding of Conway.
Regionally, he was also active as a volunteer board member for the Franklin Community Action Corporation for 25 years, from 1965 to 1990; he was board chairman from 1968 to 1971. After retirement, Jacob was fully engaged in the operations of the Conway House antiques shop, which Ray opened in 1966. Prior to his retirement, they were already active in the antiques show circuit and traveled to England several times a year for their business. After his retirement, they also took the time to travel to many destinations around the world. In addition to the antiques business, Jacob enjoyed the decades-long process of restoring and maintaining a 200-plus-year-old farmhouse. Between spending a lot of time with his family, working on his place in Conway and engaging in the social life that defined the antiques business, Jacob had a very fulfilling retirement.
In 2003 Jacob and Ray moved to the Lathrop Community in Easthampton, Mass., where, with the help of family and friends, they were able to spend the rest of their lives in their beloved Pioneer Valley. Jacob is survived by his son Robert Van Gelder of Conway, his daughter Elizabeth Van Gelder of Groton, Mass., his granddaughter Kiera Van Gelder in California and his daughter-in-law, Elaine Van Gelder of Conway. The family would like to extend their deep appreciation for the compassionate services provided by the Hospice of the Fisher Home in Amherst.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Hospice of the Fisher Home, 1165 North Pleasant Street, Amherst MA 01002 or fisherhome.org.