Seated in the parlor room of his picturesque two-story home atop a wooded hill in Kingsport, Tenn., soon-to-be 86-year-old Cobus Van Der Merwe - known as “Oupa” to his seven grandchildren - modestly reflects on his life's crowning achievements with the knowing smile of a man who's truly lived.
The seasoned American gentleman of South African heritage has worn many hats in his day including that of an electrical engineer, viticulturist, successful businessman, an internationally-renowned inventor, World traveler, Biblical scholar, evangelist, father of four, husband and author of nine books - attributing his every accomplishment to the Lord God, without whom, he said, he'd be lost body and soul.
Born the second youngest son of seven children (four boys, three girls) to South African farmer Lucas and wife Betty on Oct. 21, 1927, Jacobus Christoffel Van Der Merwe (Cobus for short) has as much dirt of the vineyard in his blood as he has Dutch ancestry.
Admiration for all living things in God's creation was instilled in Van Der Merwe at a very young age. He and his siblings were raised Orthodox Dutch Reformist, and prayer and devotion always preceded their farm chores which ranged from milking cows to slaughtering animals for meat to tending grape vines.
Curious about the operation of electrical devices early on, Van Der Merwe said, “I wanted to be an electrical engineer since I was about 6 years old... fiddling around with electric wires and batteries and bulbs... And I did become an electrical engineer.” Later in life, he'd harness the pressure of a waterfall to generate electricity for the farm.
Van Der Merwe attended high school in Nylstroom. By the age of 17, he had earned a success-worthy education and his pilot's license.
In the 1950s, Van Der Merwe became president of an electrical company and traveled to Germany on business. There, he fell in love with his first exotic sports car which he bought and shipped back to South Africa. “They're all so wonderful... I love motorcars,” he said.
The Good Lord works in mysterious ways, Van Der Merwe added in reflection.
It had been an Italian sports car which caused him to meet his now wife of 51 years, Reta Rood, a school teacher and native of Somerset East in Karoo (nearly 800 miles from where he grew up). The couple married in the early 60s and later moved their family - three sons, Lucas, Andre and Jaco; and one daughter, Elizabeth, whom Van Der Merwe described as “the most beautiful girl in the world”- into a Tudor-style mansion in Westville, Durban, overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Business thrived, but Van Der Merwe said God led him to sell his luxurious Durban mansion in 1965 for a more modest two-bedroom farmhouse. They called their new-found paradise “Bergen,” which means “in the mountains.”
At Bergen, Van Der Merwe, a predisposed viticulturist, began to cultivate new varieties of table grapes by cross-breeding known varieties using an irrigation reticulation system which included overhead sprinklers.
To pick his bountiful, voluptuous grapes, Van Der Merwe invented the first-ever patented pneumatic pruner and, by 1979, he had a small factory on his farm with invitations worldwide for the exportation of his pruning equipment.
He had traveled across Europe, Asia, and North and South America, at different times in his life to vacation or minister as a Gideon. But for the first time, in 1982, Van Der Merwe decided to move overseas to the U.S. to expand the manufacture of his new invention. He, along with Reta and his children (now grown and each successful in their own right) moved to Tennessee in 1983.
Van Der Merwe was met with success and, likewise, difficulty in the business realm over the years, but he never lost faith. He became an American citizen and author in the 1990s, writing about his favorite subject: the Bible. He published the first edition of “82 Sins of the Church” in 1995 and eight more books of varying subject matter and length - from autobiographical short stories to his family's genealogy and preventative medicine - have followed since. All nine of Cobus Van Der Merwe's books are available in bookstores and on Amazon.com.
These days, when he isn't revising his books for re-publication, Van Der Merwe said he likes to garden. And, although he has seven patents for his scientific inventions and is listed in both Who's Who of American Inventors and Worldwide, his favorite inventions continue to be his children.
If someone were to ask Cobus Van Der Merwe if he considers himself more South African or American at this point in his life, he'd likely say neither. He's a man of God.
“I'm 86 years old and I've never had a major surgery or serious illness in my life,” Van Der Merwe said, with a glowing smile. “I love my family, the Ten Commandments and the church. That is my recommendation for a healthy life.”comments powered by Disqus