The True Story of Mr. Duykaerts

The stern voice of the heavily accented, heavily bearded-Belgian rings out across the Gymkhana Field.

“Pepper!”

Heads turn in the direction of the shout, only to see a smaller-than-average dog jumping twice its body length trying to bite at the swishing tails of trotting horses.

Pepper examining horse manure. Pepper is a regular at the barns and on the gymkhana field. Photo Credit: Colly Smith '16

Pepper examining horse manure. Pepper is a regular sight for riders. Photo Credit: Colly Smith ’16

“Stop that!” He calls out at her again, but the dog elicits no response.

To most Thacher students, that is what Rene Duykaerts is known for: lots of games of horse-ball, and public displays of anger directed at his raucous dog.

Away from the barns, uninformed jokes are made about his exploits in the Congo. Tales of him killing five, ten, or even upwards of twenty men are playfully thrown around during munch-outs. But who is the real Mr. Duykaerts? Which, if any, of these stories bear any truth?

Growing up splitting time both in Zaire (what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Belgium, he was raised in a very violent and turbulent time.

“I grew up in a very difficult condition, I mean not very stable conditions because we were living in Africa,” he said, discussing the uprisings in the Congo. “There were some wars around us…not really wars but rebellions.”

Through his experiences as a young boy growing up in a warring nation, Mr. Duykaerts understood that not all countries were that chaotic and disorganized. In fact, most were civilized and industrious. He soon realized the overpopulation and undereducation of the Congo were the main sources of its instability.

Rene Duykaerts dishes advice and words of wisdom about education, avoiding a midlife crisis, and mostly horses. Photo Credit: Colly Smith '16

Mr. Duykaerts gives advice about education, architecture, and horses. Photo Credit: Colly Smith ’16

“The way to solve the world’s problems is education,” he said. He believes that a country will succeed only through educated leaders and workers.

For his education, Mr. Duykaerts constantly attended different schools  between Zaire and Belgium, all the while attempting to bypass the violence in his home country.

“I went to a lot of different schools, sharing two types of culture. I came out alive.”

He eventually finished his education in Belgium, practicing architecture in a school there. He began his architectural education in Zaire, but had to leave the country. After his education, he moved on to a career in architecture.

“I had to do two years of training. Then I practiced architecture for ten years in Belgium, France, a little bit in England, and mainly for Middle East projects: Saudi Arabia.”

In Saudi Arabia, which was the majority of his work, he built mostly army encampments for the Saudi government, or, as he described them, “training bases for the Liberation Army.” That wasn’t all he built for the Saudis though. Mr. Duykaerts had a magnificent career in architecture, building enormous buildings for Middle Eastern royalty.

“I ended up designing [a] Mosque, schools for Saudis…I worked on palaces project[s] for Prince Sultan Abdul Aziz.”

The Palace grounds, still alive and well today, dominate the majority of Riyadh, the city it was built in.  The Aziz Palace “was 540,00 square foot for a family of twelve and four-hundred servants.” He added that he built an ammunition factory lab in the country as well.

He was becoming an increasingly popular architect, but soon his morals caught up with him.

“I was called to go in Libya too for Gaddafi, but I refused that one…Not that what I was doing for the Saudis was more moral or something, but Libya was sort of too much.”

Eventually, he realized that he wasn’t living the life he had always dreamed of. When asked why he moved to America, he chuckled, “Midlife Crisis! I didn’t have time to ride horseback while I was doing [architecture].”

So he left it all behind. He left the glamorous architecture life and moved to the Nevada Desert, where he was paid to gather cattle. Although he worked for  less money, he was happy. He became a cowboy because he believes “it’s good for the soul. It’s a philosophical experience.”

Rene Duykaerts prepares for his daily afternoon riding session with freshmen. Photo Credit: Colly Smith '16

Mr. Duykaerts prepares for his daily riding session with freshmen. Photo Credit: Colly Smith ’16

He also felt that the meaning of what a true cowboy is has been skewed by American culture.

“Cowboy isn’t because you’ve been watching too many western movies, it’s too know the horse a little bit better.”

Sooner or later however, every cowboy must learn that it’s not a good way to earn a living. He found himself running low on money.

That’s when, by a stroke of luck, he met Carol Schryver at an event for Equine Experience in Paso Robles.

“She talked about me to Mr. Schryver. He one day asked me if I wanted to work here.”

Mr. Duykaerts realized what an opportunity it was to work at Thacher, but the job was given to a Thacher alumni instead. However, after a few years, the alumni left the school and the job was available again. But when he was offered the position again, Mr. Duykaerts had just recently broken his leg.

He told Mr. Schryver, “I had an accident; I broke my leg.”

Mr. Schryver said, “That’s okay. When I came over here I had a broken foot. Mr. Swan had a broken leg. It’s kind of a predisposition to work here.”

Mr. Duykaerts was given the title of Riding Instructor and Director of Horse Camping, and the rest is history.