Obituary: Nicole Hamon
International educator, world traveler, grandmother
Nicole Hamon died peacefully on August 10 at her Claremont home. She was 70 years old and had courageously fought a 20-year battle against breast cancer.
Nicole was born July 7, 1951, in La Guerche de Bretagne in Brittany, a village of 4,000 inhabitants in western France. As a little girl, she had dreams of leaving her small town to become a flight attendant and travel the world.
When she was 12 years old, her mother inquired at her school about the possibility of arranging a student exchange with an English school on the Isle of Jersey, a British island just 14 miles off the coast of France. Plans moved quickly and she then spent part of every summer for the next four years on the Isle of Jersey living with a host family and improving her English. The very first film she ever saw in a movie theater was “The Sound of Music” in English during the summer of 1965 while staying with her host family on Jersey. The movie made a lasting impression on her. Those four summers also set her on a path of learning about other countries and cultures.
After graduating from high school, she spent the summer working as an au pair girl in Barcelona, Spain, where she was responsible for five young children. They all helped her to improve her Spanish pronunciation.
She began her university studies at the University of Haute Bretagne in Rennes, France, preparing to become an English teacher. However, because she could not afford to live in Rennes while taking courses, she actually took a job as a full-time nanny, living with a family in London. While in London for the year, she studied for her college courses back in France, took courses in English, took swimming lessons, and explored London neighborhoods. In June she returned to Rennes, sat for all of her exams and passed all of her courses.
One of the requirements of her English language studies was that she spend a year in an English-speaking country as a French language assistant. Because she had already spent a year in England, she did not apply to go to the United Kingdom, even though most of her classmates were only going across the English Channel for the year. Being very independent and adventurous, she instead applied to go to either Australia or America.
In August of 1973 she arrived in Grinnell, Iowa, to become the language assistant for the department of French at Grinnell College. She lived in a residence hall that had a French language emphasis, helped teach introductory French classes, and took courses in Russian language.
Later that semester she met Richard Vos, who had also just arrived at Grinnell College that year himself and who was working as a counselor and residence hall director. She was introduced to him because she had heard that he would be driving to Los Angeles for Christmas as he was from L.A. originally. She had been invited by a Grinnell College student to spend the holidays with her family in Southern California. After several twists and turns, she, Richard, and two other Grinnell people ended up driving 35 hours straight from Iowa to California. It was during this long cross-country drive that she and Richard began to get to know each other.
The spring semester after that Christmas trip saw her helping teach French for two months at a high school in Shawano, Wisconsin, and then for two months at a high school in Anoka, Minnesota, while living with American host families. She then spent the summer as a French language assistant at Millersville State College in Pennsylvania for a master’s degree program for high school French teachers.
Because the Grinnell College French Department liked her so much, they brought her back for an unusual second time and this time it was for the entire year. She lived in French House, taught introductory French courses, and took more courses in Russian.
When the academic year ended, she returned to France to complete her university degree. She also took a job at the Orly Airport Hilton Hotel as an international operator. When she went back to her home town for Christmas, she learned her parents needed her help. She stayed in La Guerche for six months. During that time, Mr. Vos was in touch with her, trying to find a way to move their relationship along. His efforts worked well enough that she came back to Iowa in July 1976, and married him in October of that year at Rock Creek Lake, just outside of Grinnell.
Upon her return to Iowa, she took a job as a travel agent and continued her studies in Russian. In 1978 she graduated as a non-traditional student with a BA in Russian from Grinnell College.
While she was at Grinnell, she had gotten to know some of the other international students. At that time the program for international students was being run on a part-time basis by a physics professor. As more foreign students were coming to Grinnell at that time, she saw a need for a more robust and full-time program to serve the needs of the international students. She wrote a proposal to create a regular position for a foreign student adviser in the office of student affairs. Her idea was approved and she moved into that newly-created job in August 1979. For the next eight years she helped hundreds of international students.
During this time she also started a family, as Eric was born in 1983 and Carl in 1986. Family was always very important to her. She was very close to her three siblings Danielle, Jean-Paul and Liliane, talking with them by phone weekly. She also enjoyed hosting many members of her family and friends from France here in the United States.
Once while she was living in Iowa and her mother, father, and aunt were visiting her, they asked if they could go see Niagara Falls, not realizing how far away it was. The next day the four of them packed the family van and took a road trip to Niagara Falls.
She went back home to France almost every summer. She stayed very close to her native culture and country, even though she had decided not to live there any longer. The best family times for her, however, were the three different times that her mother came over from France and lived with her and her family for several months at a time.
In 1987 the family moved to Claremont when her husband became the dean of admission and financial aid at Claremont McKenna College. For the first time in her adult life she was not working. She busied herself with settling in after the move and getting to know the community.
Even though she was not even thinking about returning to a job, in 1990 she was asked to apply to become the director of study abroad (later named off-campus study) at Claremont McKenna. For 18 years she advised, assisted, and sent thousands of students from The Claremont Colleges to study abroad programs in many countries around the world, as well as to CMC’s Washington Semester Program. Several times a year she would travel to some of these countries to examine the programs for herself, to learn more about the opportunities, and to meet with her students. During her lifetime she traveled to 57 countries.
Because Mr. Vos’ parents lived in the Sierra foothills of Northern California, the family spent every Thanksgiving and parts of most summers at her in-laws’ home in Lake Wildwood. These trips were always a great opportunity to get away from the suburban sprawl of L.A. In addition, she went on several vacations with his family to Europe, the Caribbean and Mexico. She also enjoyed many camping trips with her family in the Colorado Rockies, Lake Tahoe, Oregon and the Olympic Peninsula.
Along the way cancer arrived and she took early retirement in 2008 for health reasons. During her retirement she was able to spend more time back in France, especially in her favorite place, Saint-Malo on the northern coast of Brittany. She enjoyed vacationing in Hawaii many times and even took up hula dance classes during this time. She took a cruise with old friends from her Grinnell days and another with her two sisters. She went on the Rocky Mountaineer train journey in western Canada. She also was a dutiful caregiver for her beloved father-in-law, William Vos, of Claremont.
She is especially proud of the fact that her two sons speak French, that one son and his wife went into the mental health profession, and her other son and his wife went into the public health profession.
She is survived by her husband Richard Vos of Claremont; son Eric, daughter-in-law Lindsay, and granddaughter Julia of Upland; son Carl, daughter-in-law Kelli, granddaughter Violet, and grandson Caleb of Long Beach; her three siblings, Danielle, Jean-Paul, and Liliane, as well as many other family members all in France.
Details of an eventual celebration of life will be announced when COVID restrictions allow.
Donations in her memory may be made to the Inland Valley Hope Partners food bank at https://inlandvalleyhopepartners.org or to Doctors Without Borders at http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/.