INTERVIEW WITH MR. HUGO ACKERMANN

ARTICLES

Interview conducted and compiled by Leon Kok School House 1964.

In the run-up to their 40-Years-On reunion a few years ago, Leon Kok - the convenor, compiled a series of interviews, what follows is an interview with Mr. Hugo Ackermann.The interview took place in 2004.

I met with Hugo Ackermann on Wednesday at 'The Place' coffee shop at Menlyn Retail Centre. The pioneer of Boys High reunions, he was Headboy in his year, matriculation top learner (having achieved distinctions across the board), a teacher at the School, and ultimately Headmaster of Potchefstoom Boys High School.

Hugo convened the 50-year Reunion earlier this year.

His wife, Ann, is also a former teacher of the School and salvaged numerous of its 'academic crocks' at Larry Robertson's Capital College, myself and Clive Edkins included. Several of them went on to do exceptionally well at university and today hold top corporate and public office positions. Ann was an extraordinary teacher and compared with the best that I ever came across.

Perhaps surprising, but I never really got to know Hugo, even though he was in charge of the Thirds and Fourths cricket contingent of which I was a member. I regarded him as quietly-spoken, almost shy, an abstract figure in some ways. He seldom showed his emotions.

My nephews, the Travers boys and their father, Walter - all Potch Old Boys on - on the other hand, got to know him particularly well and always spoke highly of him. The meaning of this made sense for the first time in our meeting this week. I was confronted with Hugo's wonderful sense of value, progressive thinking, humour, spirituality and an unbelievable passion for his family, the School and Potch Boys High.

His management approach at Potch, for example, was not as a 'kragdadige' head, but open-minded, a team player, and sensitive to diversity. He pursued a balancing act that gave recognition to different talents and characters, always with fairness, equitable, and recognition of achievement at any level.

Significantly, he said, 'they (some parents) should be willing to applaud a son who gets 50%, because for some children that will be fairly close to their best achievement'.

I might point out that Hugo has not been well in recent months and Ann has been a tower of strength to him.

Your wife Ann, as I have known her, has been an extraordinary wife, mother and teacher. Please define what she has meant to you?
You're right. A fantastic teacher and wife. Don't under-estimate when husband and wife have strong common interests that bind them. A good example is once we moved to Potchefstroom Boys High in about 1972. In those days you had to be 50 plus before you got into a boarding house. At Potch we took over a hostel, not an easy one. The hostels' there were much larger than they were at PBHS. And whereas in Pretoria you were exposed to a more advantaged pupil, we didn't realise that Potch, being fairly remote, had a lot of children with either mining or farming backgrounds. They were not spoilt. That was wonderful. But it was a considerable challenge dealing with 136 children, providing them with more than they might otherwise have had. Ann was marvellous. Her abilities were amazing.

Explain?
Apart from being the best producer of the school productions, she had a tremendous ability to gather around her people in need of attention. She was an incredible help. Years later, when I took over the running of the school, we had a combined production with Potchefstroom Girls High. Some 200 boys came to be auditioned, partly because Girls High was there, and partly because they enjoyed it. First team rugby players even started coming. At the end of the auditions, the basis of which Anne chose her cast, she took the top 10 boys. Of the rest, she gave me a list and asked, 'Which of these need it most?' The result was that several boys who might otherwise have been 'difficult customers' found their niche and ended up thoroughly enjoying it.

The 'Class of 64' would remember your little girls whom accompanied you to various school functions. You were pretty passionate about them. I also remember Anne religiously dropping them every day at their nursery school in Park Street, and then taking the bus to teach at Capital College in town. Where are they today?
Of course, there were four daughters, and I've inherited four sons.

Eldest daughter, Tracy, taught for quite a while. Her main interests were English and French, then proceeded to psychology. A very good mother, she spends an enormous amount of time with her children. Her husband is in the business world, they have two wonderful sons, they live in Johannesburg, and they're very happy.

The second daughter, Catherine, is a clinical psychologist in Cape Town. She has inherited many of her mother's great attributes, especially attracting people to her, those needing understanding and compassion. I was delighted when she chose to do clinical psychology. Catherine also, incidentally, qualified as a teacher. Her life hasn't always been easy, but she is doing exceptionally well. Catherine is the strong one.

Justine, the third daughter, studied at Wits and lives in Cape Town. She is married to a PBHS Old Boy, Dean Hyde. They are happily married, and lead a very full life.

Our baby, Laura, was one of the four who preferred hitting a hockey ball to her academic studies, though she did very well. Laura is a qualified teacher, taught for a year or two, and decided that teachers were grossly underpaid. She developed an interest in advertising and television and currently is a reporter and producer for SABC 3. She married a very nice youngster about a year-and-a-half ago.

Let's now turn to your first exposure to PBHS. What did you find?
I arrived in 1949. Ninety percent of the fellows came to school by bicycle. Today, if you see a bicycle, you ask, 'What has happened?' I recall that there were about two women on the School staff.

What was significant about that?
I believe that the 'father figure' at a school is very important, but I don't necessarily feel that it was an advantage to have an exclusively male staff. Women make a considerable contribution in various ways. Besides, much better that you have enthusiastic women on the staff than have men who don't pull their weight, or are not interested in extra-mural activities

Other differences compared with today?
Another was that we did not have the advantage of a 'non-racial' situation at the School. In the fifties, people didn't recognise the fate of the disadvantaged to the extent that they do today, and nor did they recognise the merits of celebrating diversity.

What about the approach to discipline?
I thought that discipline during my time at the School was very good. You always had teachers - and you know some of them - who achieved their objectives with a blackboard compass. But by far the majority of teachers were very compassionate people. Take Walter Battiss, a tremendous character, who could really relate to boys in need of attention. Likewise, Larry Scully. I had the real pleasure of being assistant house-master at School House with him. And what an exciting person. Tragically, he was killed in a motor accident. You had wonderful people like Piet Moerdyk, who never took books home to mark, but did a tremendous amount of marking at school. Of course, you also had others, and we won't mention names, who did no marking whatsoever. But they nevertheless taught you a lot.

Cultural issues?
Indeed, a big change today is that the School has become considerably more culturally aware. The development of the music department has been quite outstanding. Malcolm Armstrong set that in motion, but Bill Schroder has made an enormous contribution too. He has been one of the finest Headmasters that we have had. He has provided considerable guidance and support to an outstanding facility. Incidentally, it took the breath away of the Fifty-Year On's who visited the School earlier this year.

Academic issues?
The academic standards have improved tremendously. On the whole, academic teachers today are far more conscientious. It was summed up at our Reunion, when the majority of the guys present, said, 'You know, this school is far better off than it was in our time'. It has coped fantastically with the tremendous change in both education and the politics of our country. There is enormous goodwill within the School. And dare I say that the boys have just as much fun today as we had in our day.

You have the reputation of having been an incredible academic performer at school. Apart from having chosen the correct parents (genes), what was your cutting edge?
I think I had the advantage of having that particular kind of intelligence that helped at school, but I also worked very hard. You are very lucky if you can perform without the kind of effort that I put into it.

Yes, but that can be said of a lot of other kids too. There must have been something more to it.
It had much to do with my parents who took tremendous interest in what I did. I think that in itself is a wonderful thing, and something that we should all remember. Whatever level your child is performing in, they should know that they have your support, interest and involvement as a parent. That way, they're destined to perform considerably better.

Let me put it to you that in China kids are intensely academically coached by parents (usually the mother), to an extent that the vast majority of South Africans couldn't hope to understand. Having lived amongst Chinese people, I acquired some idea of what this was all about. In fact, children of Asian origin in Australia constitute an inordinate proportion in that country's top university faculties. Much the same has applied to Jewish families in our country and elsewhere in the world. Your comments?
Having stressed the importance of parental interest, I think that you should leave teaching to the teachers. Parents must be there, but I don't believe that it's their role to take over the teaching job. The parent must somehow get an awareness of what the children are capable of. They should be willing to applaud a son who gets 50%, because for some children that will be fairly close to their best achievement. Others will show the capability of getting 60% or more. Without being too imposing, they should encourage their children not to waste their talents.

PBHS, of course, also has produced an extraordinary, indeed, inordinate number of leaders across the board, not only in SA but internationally. What do you attribute this to?
One thing that I have never really been able to define at Boys High is why boys - whether they left school in 1954 or will leave school in 2004 - have such tremendous passion for the School. There are several other schools that are similar, but the issue is difficult to define. The youngsters at Boys High, however, throughout the School's history, have felt free to challenge ideas and have recognised teachers not as disciplinarians, but as mentors, guiders and mature friends. I think that has a lot to do with it. I think that the notion of not winning at all costs must also have something to do with it. Bill Schroder uses the word 'ethos' a lot, a lovely word, but I'm not quite sure that we always understand the Boys High ethos. Certainly, it has become an understanding that if you're academically gifted, you have an obligation and responsibility to use it. Today, you find that youngsters get six, seven, eight distinctions. But also significant is that youngsters who did exceptionally well in the past, with perhaps fewer distinctions, achieved tremendous heights as well. Edwin Cameron is one example. George Laurence another. In 1954 a youngster by the name of Binden had an average matric mark of 55%, did engineering, and went on to America where his company built part of the 'moon buggy' that landed on the initial flight to the moon. What is it that encourages and drives people to do that kind of thing?

How did Hugo Ackermann land up as a teacher at PBHS?
I went to the University of Cape Town after school. My original objective was to do a BA and B Sc. because of my interests in Latin, Greek and maths. I ended up doing just a BA and Teachers Diploma. As far as the School was concerned, I didn't realise at that stage that one had to apply for teaching posts. I assumed that when I had finished my studies, I'd automatically go back and teach at Boys High. Then in my final year, in the July holiday, Desmond Abernethy called me in (I hadn't met him yet), and he very kindly said, 'We're all very impressed that you wish to come and teach at Boys High', and I replied, 'Yes I intend coming next year'. 'But we haven't yet received an application from you', he said. 'I didn't realise that I had to apply', I said. 'We thought that was what happened, so we filled in the form for you', he said. It was so exciting. I had set my heart on going back to Boys High, which was probably 40% of the reason for going into teaching. I had 10 or 11 very happy years at the School.

How well does PBHS compare with its peers internationally?
Difficult to answer, and partly because of my limited exposure elsewhere. I spent a year studying at London University, which gave me access to some of the schools there. Besides, there are so many things one can't compare in London itself.

What is Boys High's single biggest strength?
That everybody gets a chance. There are the odd cases where a boy is told, 'you're bloody lazy and you'll never make anything of your life'. That answer in itself can trigger great determination. There are a few people who didn't come to our reunion because they begrudged those kinds of charges; one being one of the country's top sociologists and the other a top medical specialist. But ultimately they did benefit. For the most part pupils are encouraged to challenge ideas, and to express their opinions within the classroom situation. I believe, where this has been handled properly, English-speaking schools have always had an advantage over Afrikaans-speaking schools. Generally, the Afrikaans culture is much more rigid and disciplinary. I don't think one must ever under-estimate the importance of that differentiation. We always said that if a new teacher comes to Boys High, he will either last one year or stay indefinitely. One of the wonderful experiences I had in charge of Potch Boys High is that I had the opportunity still of coaching the 1st Cricket XI. It was wonderful to have guys accept me as something other than the 'boss'. We went touring together and generally had a superb relationship.

The School's single biggest weaknesses?
I would find it difficult to really identify serious shortcomings.

On the question of sport, selections at national level have become complex and highly controversial. Differences are invariably politically-based, regionally-based and, of course, also subject to considerable interpretation. Selections were less controversial at school, but how did you manage those boys that were or were not discriminated against, but nevertheless felt put out?
Naturally, you had those who felt bitterly disappointed, who felt that they had been hard-done by. But the other side is that it gave people the opportunity to experience and handle disappointment. The individual coach needs to tell the guys that, 'if there is anything bothering you, you need to come and talk to me'. A lot of the disappointment, unfortunately, is based on, 'he doesn't like me', which essentially is a defence mechanism. It is true, whether teaching or coaching, that there'll be some people whom you like more than others, but you should never show it in front of others. Some handle that better than others.

Having raised the issues of 'strengths' and 'weaknesses', how do you believe that you added value as Headmaster at Potch Boys High?
I was tremendously fortunate that when I took over the running of the school that there were some very fine young guys to support me. It wasn't a case of one person running a school, there were six of us who performed as a wonderful team. A number of things at the time worried me, particularly some academic issues and the lack of cultural appreciation. We had a team that set about putting this right. The boys were passionate about sport, but it was interesting that when you introduced something like 'academic colours' or an 'academic tie', negative attitudes emerged. Very much a case of the big sports ou's looking at it and saying, 'What the hell is this oke doing?' The positive side, however, is that it meant a lot to the people who had academic ability. We went further and introduced what was called 'cultural colours' for boys who excelled in, say, a school production. It gave the boys a broader view of what life is about.

How did you deal with the politically sensitive issue of diversity or the lack thereof?
I'm just sorry that we weren't able to deal with it adequately. The School was ready for it. We discussed it with the parents, teachers and governing body, but when the issue was raised, you were in effect challenging directors of education and senior inspectors. The boys were much more natural about it. I would imagine that the younger you are, the easier it is to adapt.

What are the Milner-type schools going to be like in, say, 2010, 2015 or 2020? What will be different?
I think that unless there is government intervention, schools such as PBHS, Grey College, Rondebosch and those in Natal and the Eastern Cape will remain good. There is sufficient interest both from the wider community that children should be given an excellent education. That view is not restricted to the people living in Waterkloof. It is amazing the sacrifice parents are prepared to make to get their sons into Boys High. I can't see that changing. It's the nature of mankind to seek the best for your children. That was certainly very clear at Potch Boys High. So many of the parents hadn't had the same opportunity and were prepared to sacrifice an enormous amount to ensure that their children had a better chance than they had. The fact that PBHS is so highly regarded throughout the country will be strengthened by that desire. The other thing that we must never under-estimate is the tremendous influence of a person like Bill Schroder. I don't know the top management of the School well, but I did know them in the past, and don't under-estimate that either. It is a wonderful idea that the School now offers bursaries for students who are going to study to be teachers. That is something that we should support.

Do you think that high quality teachers can be sustained?
That's a difficult one to answer. A lot has to do with the economic infrastructure. The question also is whether we have young people who are willing to sacrifice the dollar for service. Even in my day it was difficult for a married person to make ends meet. The School has gone on to create accommodation and that helps a lot.

Peter Good, proposing a toast at the Old Boys Dinner this year, spoke of the enormous need for Boys High to continue providing a robust supply of the country's future leadership going forward. Can that be sustained?
I think that you'd get a more informed answer from people in the School at the moment, or have just left. I had one or two years on the Governing Body some time back, and I can't think of any area that I would single out as being a shortcoming. The academic standards are very good and leadership is certainly nurtured in the extramural activities. I don't know to what extent boys of the School are serving their community. I think they are. The whole notion of making our youngsters aware of conditions in Mamelodi, Eersterus or even the poorer areas of Pretoria is a good one, but I can't say to what extent this is being done.

Do you have a message for the 'Class of 64'?
Thinking of the time that I spent at Boys High, I'm tremendously grateful that I had that opportunity. I owe a considerable debt to people who taught me there. I owe a debt to friends whom I met there. It was very special then and it is very special now. For some indefinable reason it has had a substantial impact on me. If I look back on the time that I spent at Boys High and elsewhere teaching, I think in terms of the wonderful boys that I met. Of the wonderful enthusiasm that was ever present, whether rugby, cricket or other interests. These are things that meant a lot to me. I feel that if I was able to contribute anything, that's a definite plus. If I had a choice again to choose a career, I would go into teaching.

Knowing everything that you know now, and if you had the chance to relive your life, what would be different?
It was always my endeavour to live a life according to certain standards. (But) the one big change I'd make is that I would try to create a meaningful, richer life at an earlier age. Sadly, I only came to understand this late in life, but it has become very, very meaningful. I think I could have helped more people if I had realised it earlier.

Do you think that something is lacking in world spiritually?
I get the impression worldwide that the higher the standard of living, the less important spiritual life becomes. But it's wonderful to see the tremendous difference that faith can make to people.

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