Written 1 June 2014
Have you ever asked yourself who – apart from your immediate family: parents, spouse and children – have been the most influential people in your life? Of course, we learn something from everyone we meet along the way, but there are those who stand out, those one has known for more than say 10 years and who’s influence has changed the way in which you have actually lived your life. When considering the question I come up with eight names; and in reading about my thinking on this topic, it is useful to know that for all my life I have wanted an education. So, my choices have focussed on those long-standing friends who have contributed to what I have learned.
In their youth, almost everyone has had an inspiring teacher or two, but for me there was no-one from my schooldays I ever wanted to emulate. On the contrary, if I learned anything from my Witbank teachers, it was what not to become. In short, my schooling was an abysmal failure and my army days were no better. By the time I had reached the age of 19, and was about to launch into the wide world, it was as if I had spent the first part of my life in a social and an educational wilderness. So it was as a naive bumpkin that I met Giles Tayelor, who was to become a life-long friend. When we met on board the Safmarine ship, SA Vergelegen, early in 1971, we were most unlikely to get along. I was a complete prude who had never ever been out on a real date, he was already something of a rake. Giles wore a red scarf jauntily tied to one side while every item of clothing I owned was a piece of a uniform of some sort. Giles had been schooled at SACS, I had been nowhere. How I admired the way in which he could recite poetry, chat up the girls and order wine with aplomb; meeting him, and learning from him, was the start of what I could call having a social life.
In the mid-1970s Jill and I moved to Cape Town where three people were to play a significant role in shaping my early adult life. In the Marine Automation Department at Globe Engineering, Frans Spit and Louw Smit were a pair of technical geniuses in their own right. In my mind’s eye I can still the way Frans would push his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he would point out whatever was wrong with some or other control system, always explaining his reasoning with an astonishing clarity. And I remember the way in which Louw could make adjustments to controllers that were ‘just so’; and how he could fabricate intricate bits of machinery with such precision that left me breathless on occasion. The two of them were generous with their knowledge and one way and another, taught me the bulk of whatever technical skills I have today. At the same time, away from work, my cousin Fred Hebbert introduced me to music, art and literature. Everyone should have a ‘Fred’ in their lives. He introduced me to opera, the world of drama, and rugby. Fred’s general knowledge is as varied as it is entertaining and with it all he is as unassuming as one can be. His company is always easy-going and enlightening. So, for more than 40 years, much of what I have read has been at his recommendation, and much of what I have thought about, has been at his prompting.
To say that my career in the early 1980s was in the doldrums would be a kindness, but then, as luck would have it, I met two engineers who gave me the direction I lacked. The first was Ralph Rosenstein, the factory engineer in charge of African Products in Belleville. Ralph was larger than life in every way and to a rudderless 30-something year-old he was what I decided I should become. It was not just that Ralph was a superb factory engineer, but he had a clear sense of what he wanted to achieve and could communicate his expectations to those who worked for him. He inspired everyone and with it all he had a wry sense of humour. I well remember him speaking to a contractor on the phone while scrunching up a piece of scrap paper near the handset, “do your hear zis?”, he would say in his heavy German accent as he winked at me, “zis iss your invoice…, you haf sold me a shree-veeled car!” I set out to be like Ralph and in some ways succeeded. The other engineer was Bryan Mulligan. We met when I took a job with Murray & Roberts where Bryan had just been appointed as the group’s youngest engineering manager. He is, without doubt, the sharpest person with whom I ever worked. His solutions to technical and business problems were often astounding in their scope and execution, and it would be safe to say that it was his originality that makes him such an outstanding character. We subsequently entered into a business relationship which lasted a number of years and in that time I learned a great deal from him about money and business. My approach was simply to support him in every way I could in the belief that all would turn out for the best in the end, but sadly, our partnership did not reach its full potential. Nevertheless, we kept contact and I still hear myself saying things I know Bryan would have said.
As has been noted, my schooling was a miserable experience and I remember thinking in 1969, as I walked out of the schoolhouse for the last time, that if these were supposed to be the best years of my life, then I did not want the rest of them. Having been through such a hopeless system I have a great deal of sympathy for students who arrive at a university from what is described as an underprivileged school, but I have always been encouraged by the view that it is never too late to have a happy childhood. The opportunity to make up for lost time arose when our sons went to Wynberg Boys High School. As the chairman of the Governing Body it was my good fortune to meet and befriend Keith Richardson, the school’s headmaster. I have often said that Keith has probably forgotten more about educating boys than most parents will ever learn, so it has been a privilege to have had the opportunity, through our friendship, to have been part of a great school, even though I was not actually a product of that school. In a strange way I have been able to put the misery of my own schooling behind me and to replace it with an association that makes me proud. More importantly, Keith has taught me about the things we needed to have learned as young people, the things that schools are supposed to teach; things like “playing up, and playing the game.”
And finally, in 2003, when my appetite for managing projects and running factories had come to an end, and our sons were on their own path in life, it was time for me to attend to that nagging problem of getting an education. In February of that year I found myself sitting in lecture theatre ‘C’ in the R W James Building at UCT, having enrolled for the 2nd-year physics course in electromagnetism. I had not done any mathematics for 28 years and it was not unreasonable to expect that the odds of my coming to terms with the calculus of Grad, Div and Curl were slim, but the punters would not have accounted for the inspiration of Professor David Aschman. David, to my mind, is everything a professor of physics should be; erudite, unconventional, a bit intimidating, irascible on occasions, and (although always well hidden) never taking himself too seriously. Many was the day I walked out of an Aschman lecture with the bewildering sense that I had understood very little of the complexities of what was said, but I knew I had enjoyed every moment of it. He, more than any, represented being educated simply for the sake of being educated. He presented an image of an academic to which one could aspire. He, more than anyone I know, could get you to ask yourself a good question every day.
In retrospect, these eight long-standing ‘characters of influence’ have provided me with an interlocking framework within which I interact with the outside world. Each of them has offered some unique skill and particular role model upon which I rely to figure out what I should do in whatever situation I find myself. I am grateful for all of them.
Perhaps you also have such a list?