DU Alumni

Alumnus Bob van der Linden oversees Smithsonian’s aeronautic treasures

Bob van der Linden (BA history ’77) likes to say history is in his blood and that he couldn’t have escaped a career involving the subject even if he wanted to.

Van der Linden grew up in Washington, D.C., where his father was a newspaper reporter for 50 years and wrote history books on the side. Van der Linden remembers that politics and history were standard subjects discussed at the dinner table growing up, and that his family’s favorite pastime was visiting the Smithsonian.

“It’s still a favorite pastime, except now it’s from the inside,” says van der Linden, chair of the aeronautics division at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM). He came to the institution in 1975 as a volunteer while studying at DU. He got a job as a library technician at the museum after graduation and became a curator after earning master’s and doctoral degrees in American history from George Washington University.

Van der Linden’s love for his work persists, even after 30 years. He says working in the aeronautics division is his dream job because it combines his professional interest in history with his personal interest in aviation. The job entails researching and writing books and articles, creating exhibits using objects and images from the museum’s collections, collecting aircraft and aviation-related artifacts, and performing outreach activities such as lectures, interviews and teaching.

During his career at the Smithsonian, van der Linden has met many aviation and space pioneers, including World War I and World War II aces from both sides of the conflicts, aviation legend Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, many of America’s early astronauts, several Soviet cosmonauts and Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins, who was director of NASM when it opened in 1976.

As a student, van der Linden was impressed and motivated by DU professors John Livingston, Allen Breck and George Barany.

“As cliché as it may sound, I learned the value of hard work and the joy of learning from them,” he says. “They made college a challenge, but one worth taking.”

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