PORTRAIT OF A MAN WITH QUALITIES THAT MATTER
By Leon Kok
Hugo Ackermann, who passed away on July 8 this year was a man of many talents. Through his sagacity and leadership, he made major contributions to education in South Africa and the community at large.
A fine person and deeply admired by many, his dedication to serving others was noteworthy and he was arguably one of the country's wisest and ablest educationists.
Said Hugo's daughter, Tracy Symmonds, at his Remembrance Service in Garsfontein, Pretoria: "As a little girl, I could have exploded with pride at being Hugo Ackermann's daughter. He was the best teacher in the world, the best sportsman, the wizard of timetables, the unerringly safe-driver of a kombi of Ackermanns' through the night on the way to our Cape Town holidays. Receiving floods of poignant tributes from his past pupils, I am reminded of how profoundly proud I am of his professional and personal legacy".
The younger son of Lourens (Laurie) and Alpha Ackermann (née Hugo), Hugo was born in Pretoria on 7 November 1936, grew up in the relatively liberal, affluent and dignified suburb of Waterkloof, enrolled at Pretoria Boys' High School in 1949, and matriculated as Head Boy in 1954.
His father Laurie was a prominent dentist in Pretoria and Alpha was a maths and chemistry teacher and later Chairperson of the National Child Welfare Executive.
Their elder son Laurie, also a PBHS product and a Rhodes Scholar, studied law at Stellenbosch and Oxford and was nominated to the newly formed Constitutional Court in 1994 by President Nelson Mandela.
Clearly, Hugo had been weaned in an environment of human responsibility and caring, made conscious of the wider social and cultural problems of his youth, and taught that something could be done about these. To expect problems to solve themselves was unrealistic and ineffectual.
His career was to straddle that of Charles Hope, a foremost architect of the former Transvaal's education in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer war. He was acutely aware of Mr Hope's legacy and at one stage, in his retirement, planned to write a Master's thesis on Mr Hope.
|Hugo and Laurie|
Incredibly, Mr Hope was the founder of Pretoria Boys' High, Jeppe Boys' High and Potchefstroom Boys' High. When Potch Boys' High was opened in 1905, he described his intentions as follows: "To produce well-rounded individuals who can take their place in South African Society. Men who are responsible, self-disciplined, independent in their thinking, and well-mannered".
This became the principal ethos of all the aforementioned schools.
No mean intellectual and historian, Mr Hope graduated with a Master's degree at Oxford and was the author in 1909 of an excellent book, Our Place in History. One of his parting shots was that "the native population in SA is many times greater than the number of white men, and yet tragically it has been left out of the main discussion".
On matriculating, Hugo, perhaps predictably, chose teaching and in 1955 enrolled at UCT for a BA. "My original objective was to do a BA and B Sc. because of my interests in Latin, Greek and maths", he told the writer in an interview several years ago.
Within a short space of time he met his wife-to-be, Ann Parkyns, in their Latin 1 class. She had registered to major in Latin and History.
This was the start of an extremely close and powerful relationship which traversed their careers and bore four bright and talented daughters.
"Our relationship was based on our shared passion for the idea of teaching and that held us together", says Ann. "There was never any random discussion about what we might do. It was always about what we would do."
An only child, she was born in Johannesburg, attended Rosebank Convent, followed by Potch Convent from Standard 7 to matric. Though Methodists, her parents believed strongly that convents produced well-rounded girls.
"I was very happy there. To me the nuns were remarkable. They had given their hearts to God and did what they thought was necessary. Consider that it was also a time in which the ‘Roomse gevaar monster' lived in the minds of the uninformed"
This provided Hugo and Ann some grounding for their future life in Potch.
On completion of their BA's, they graduated with Secondary Teachers Certificates, also at UCT. Hugo subsequently acquired an Academic Diploma in Education from the University of London for which Unisa granted him a B Ed status.
"Hugo and I were keen to get married in 1958, but settled for a one-year engagement", Ann recalls. "My parents felt that it would be good for me to spend a year teaching in Cape Town. I was offered a job at Westerford High School, which I was glad to accept, and Hugo started at PBHS.
"This didn't pose a problem as such. We knew that we were the right person for the other, and met regularly".
Ann joined Hugo in Pretoria following their marriage.
Pretoria Boys' High School
Hugo hadn't initially realised that he had to apply for a teaching post at PBHS. "I assumed that when I had finished my studies, I'd automatically go back and teach at the school. Then in my final year, in the July holiday, the headmaster, Desmond Abernethy called me in (I hadn't met him yet), and he very kindly said, ‘We are all very impressed that you wish to teach at Boys' High', and I replied, ‘Yes, I intend coming next year ‘.
"But we haven't received an application from you', Mr Abernethy said. ‘I didn't realise that I had to apply', I answered. ‘We thought that this is what happened, so we filled in the form for you', he said. It was very 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".
Hugo believed that he had made the right choice at the outset, says Ann. "He was interested in helping people, he gained considerable joy in elevating boys to better places and it was important to him to nurture them into making significant contributions to the world.
" He also became heavily involved in sport, and saw it not only as an end in itself, but as being useful - if not crucial - in the development of young people."
The Ackermanns' had a rare strength of conviction and devoted their lives to others in a single-minded way.
A member of Pretoria Round Table No 19 and later Potchefstroom Rotary Club, Hugo's guiding principles in dealing with others was the Rotary ‘Four Ways Test': Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? And will it be beneficial to all?
His and Ann's generosity and care were perhaps most distinctly highlighted in the case of Edwin Cameron who was to serve as a judge on the Constitutional Court. Judge Cameron's experience is briefly related in his excellent book, Justice, A Personal Account (Tafelberg 2014). But his admiration and respect for Hugo were perhaps most powerfully evoked in a eulogy at his Memorial Service.
Hugo Ackermann has been a towering presence in my life for nearly 50 years. I met him in January 1967. I was not yet 14. I had arrived at Pretoria Boys' High in my second year of high school. It was in many ways a daunting and even terrifying experience.
Hugo was part of the terror. He was the form master for my new home, Form 2A. A tall, imposing figure in his black academic gown, he embodied the traits of scholarliness, earnestness, authority and discipline that the teaching staff at PBHS cultivated.
PBHS was my eighth and last school. My fragmented schooling symbolised so much else in my life - my fractured family, my fragmented confidence and my academic unreadiness for a top-flight school.
Yet Hugo saw something in me. Within a week of my entering his class, he set the class an exercise to keep it busy. Then he called me quietly to one side. He took me on a long walk down the tree-lined avenue that passes before School House.
He asked me about myself. He asked me about my father and my mother. He asked me about my previous schools. He asked me about my living circumstances, which were extremely pinched.
He didn't say much. But that walk on a hot summery January morning in 1967 proved a turning point in my life. It was the start of a 49-year friendship with this extraordinary man and his extraordinary family.
For the next two years, Hugo taught me Maths and Latin. But he taught me so much besides. He took a constant interest, and an increasing pride, in the way I adapted to my new school.
Two years later, Hugo temporarily left teaching. Then, an even more exciting thing happened. He asked me if I could babysit his young family when he and his wife, Ann, went out at night. I now suspect this was a stratagem - he knew my family circumstances had changed for the worse, and that my sister and I both badly needed money. He and Ann wanted to help.
But the experience proved infinitely more valuable than what I was paid. Hugo's family then consisted of Tracy, who was 9, Cathy, who was 6 and Justine, who was 3. For me, babysitting every few weeks was almost suffocatingly exciting. An evening in the Ackermann's home in Groenkloof - the three young girls around until a reluctant bedtime- and then alone with the books and the art in their well-appointed home. What an excitement!
Soon I met Hugo's brother, Laurie, an advocate in Pretoria. As Hugo was my academic mentor, Laurie became my law mentor. Laura, my first official god-child, came later. She was born in February 1973. My close relationship with her strengthened my bonds with the family.
My debt to Hugo is profound and inexhaustible. He shaped my life, my thought, my consciousness, my principles, my work habits and my dealings with other people.
In countless ways he showed me how to be the person I never thought I could ever hope to be.
His own life was lived with a careful, reflective authority. He was a man of profound substance. A man not merely of external dignity, but of internal dignity. He exuded authority. He carried it quietly but unmistakably.
Ann and his children gave me family love and acceptance and joy. (Ann also tutored me informally in English - it was she who, inerasably, taught me how to read a Shakespeare sonnet.) In each of his years at PBHS and at Potchefstroom BHS, he and Ann left countless boys in their debt, just like me.
But it was as a school master, a mentor, a guide, an exemplar that Hugo Ackermann attained his greatest fulfilment as a human being.
For me, the experience of being adopted by him and his family as a special child, one with gifts and possibilities that he saw when few others could, was enriching and expanding and exciting beyond description by words.
What became more and more moving to me, as the years passed, was to discover that, in this, I was not singular. On the contrary, Hugo touched the lives of many thousands of boys and young men and older men - many of them here today - in exactly the same way.
How can one value a legacy as large, as tender, as life-enhancing, as enriching as this? I can describe it only as noble. Hugo Ackermann was, like each of us, a man with flaws. But, more than most of us, his very being and the generosity with which he shared it, gave him a nobility of bearing, a nobility of spirit, and a nobility of being.
I am profoundly grateful to this man and to his family for altering my life so deeply and for making me so richly part of theirs.
I refuse to mourn Hugo's death. In every step of my own life, I will continue to rejoice in his.
Pretoria Boys' High's greatest strengths
Asked in 2004 what he considered PBHS's greatest strengths to be, Hugo replied: "That everybody gets a chance. There is the odd case 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. For the most part pupils are encouraged to challenge ideas, and to expose their opinions within the classroom situation".
He believed that where this was handled properly, English-speaking schools always had an advantage over Afrikaans-speaking schools. "Generally, the Afrikaans culture is much more rigid and disciplinary. I don't think that we must ever under-estimate the importance of that differentiation. We have always said that if a new teacher comes to Boys' High, he will last one year or stay indefinitely".
School discipline, nevertheless, was extremely important to Hugo. "I thought that it was good when I was at school and it probably still is. You always had teachers - and you knew some of them - who achieved their objective with a blackboard compass.
"But by far the majority were very compassionate people. Take Walter Battiss, a tremendous character who could relate to boys in need of attention. Likewise, Larry Scully. I had the real pleasure of being Assistant Housemaster 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 their names, who did no marking whatsoever.But they nevertheless taught you a lot".
Hugo recognised diversity furthermore as an important element of a healthy school environment. He believed that balancing achievement with the development of personal values was ultimately the hallmark of a good education.
He was in no doubt that education was holistic and that management needed to work hard in providing the structures and systems that allowed learners to participate in a balanced, academic and cultural programme. Collaboration between parents, learners and teachers was key.
Hugo maintained no less that academic performance was inextricably linked to the conditions that teachers enjoyed. It was irrational to expect them to produce excellent results when they were stressed by a shortage of resources, parents who were not involved in making schools work, and failure of service delivery.
On whether the high standards in South Africa's leading schools could be sustained well into the future? "I believe so", he replied. "There is sufficient interest across South Africa that children should be given an excellent education. That view is not restricted to the people living in Waterkloof. It's amazing the sacrifice parents are willing 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 their children.
"Besides, the fact that PBHS is so highly regarded throughout the country will be strengthened by that desire. Nor do I think that the School's willingness to assist the less-unfortunate should be under-estimated either. It is a wonderful idea that the School now offers bursaries to students who are willing to study to be teachers. That's something we should support".
Reflecting overall on his time at PBHS, Hugo emphasised that he was extremely grateful for the opportunities that it had afforded him. "I owe a considerable 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 special impact on me."
"If I look back on the time that I spent at the School 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 teaching".
Potch Boys' High
"Hugo was pretty ambitious and Mr Abernethy knew that", Ann recounts. "The Headmaster had a very good talk to him and said, ‘I know that you're ambitious, but you also need to know that there is a long waiting line for my job. It includes many able people, older and more experienced than you, and seeking promotion. I think that it could be a very long wait for you."
"May I suggest that it might be in your interest to see what you can find elsewhere, where you stand a better chance of advancement at a much younger age?"
It so happened shortly after, Ann recalls, that the Vice Headmastership at Potch Boys' High became available. Hugo applied and was given the job.
"We had no qualms about moving to Potch. And the fact that it was a boarding school was interesting for both of us. I had very happy memories of being a boarder at the Potch Convent and Hugo had briefly been Assistant Housemaster at School House.
"For me to go back to a beautiful old school also made considerable sense. It was rich in history. We had every confidence as well that our three elder daughters would adjust too. A ‘Potch surprise', Laura, was still to come!"
Potchefstroom College (Potch Boys' High's original name) was established on what had been a concentration camp for Boer women and children during the 1899-02 Anglo-Boer War. It was part of a plan to bring education to the Platteland. The new school had an initial enrolment of five staff members and 75 schoolboys.
Most of College's initial teachers were Oxford or Cambridge men.
The school's motto, chosen by Mr Hope, was, ‘Justorum semita lux splendens', which translated, read ‘The path of the just is as a shining light'.
The first formal hostel, ‘Granton', was opened in 1909, and named after Mr Hope's home town in Scotland. The House colours were dark blue, aligned with his university, Oxford. A play on his name, the biblical symbol of hope, a rainbow, was selected as the Granton insignia. Besides being Headmaster for 21 years, Mr Hope was its first Housemaster.
Oxford blue was also adopted as the base colour for the school blazer and tie.
Milton House was founded as the second boarding house and was occupied just a few months after Granton. Buxton House was completed in 1937 and occupied the following year. And like Pretoria Boys' High School, each boarding house had its own customs and traditions and unique identities.
The boys were the sons of English and Afrikaans-speaking farmers in the area and of small town merchants and professionals. Following Lord Milner's departure from South Africa in 1906, Transvaal Director of Education, Dr (later Sir) John Adamson fully endorsed Generals Louis Botha and Jan Smuts' plea for conciliation between the language groups and encouraged College to fulfil that spirit.
Of interest, General Botha sent his sons to Bishops in the Cape.
The opening up of the Western Transvaal and Free State goldfields in the late 1940's and early 1950's resulted in even greater numbers of parents clamouring to get their boys into College.
Well-known names that that have graced it include former Pretoria News editor and author Wilf Nussey; former PBHS teachers Maurice Geen and Stuart Jones; DA former chief whip and SA Ambassador to Thailand Douglas Gibson; Springbok cricketer Gary Watson; SA T201 cricketer Eddie Leie; Springbok rugby players Jeremy Nel and Wilf Rosenberg; current assistant coach to the Springbok team, Matt Proudfoot; international rugby referee Vivian Neser; Sharks player/coach Hugh Moore; Beijing Olympic BMX cyclist Sifiso Nhlapo.
Hugo was appointed Senior Housemaster of Granton in 1972.
The Ackermann family was warmly received by the school and made to feel at home from the outset, Ann recalls.
" What made it easier for me that was that the then Headmaster, Wally MacFarlane, mentioned that he needed some assistance in putting together the annual Gilbert & Sullivan production and enquired whether I might be interested.
"I said, yes, but my experience at Pretoria Boys' High had been limited to a backstage role, though I had done drama myself. He said, I'd be very interested if you'd give me a hand'. I agreed to do so.
"Shortly after, Hugo arrived home from a school management meeting and said, ‘I had no idea that you'd been appointed Production Director of the Mikado.'
Ann was delighted, because it meant that she too could connect with the boys. "On reflection, if this hadn't happened, our partnership at the school wouldn't have been as fulfilling as we would have liked and I would have been out on a limb.
" Besides, it enabled me to assist boys who had difficulty making friends, who were lonely, and who were missing their parents and homes".
Ann went on to produce Gilbert & Sullivan productions and many other plays and musicals over the ensuing 15 years and in due course these were combined with Potchefstroom Girls High. In fact, an excellent relationship was forged with Potch Girls' High's Headmistress, Miss Mary Hart.
Hugo and Ann's major priority at Granton, however, was to make it a ‘home from home' for the boys. "I felt that it shouldn't be some ghastly place that makes your life miserable."
" In his interviews with prospective boys of the hostel, Hugo always asked them whether they actually wanted to board at the school. And if the answer was ‘no', he either declined to accept them or reassured them that the hostels weren't nearly as scary as was often thought".
" But they had to come willingly, and Hugo wouldn't allow parents to push them. It was important, we felt, that life-long happy relationships and commitment to the school had to be established".
The Ackermanns' were nevertheless shocked at perverse elements of the ‘fagging' system and levels of bullying when they arrived. "It was a shocker", says Ann. "What seniors got away with doing to juniors was unreasonable"
Hugo felt strongly that there needed to be another way. He conceded that authority and responsibility were not easy things to deal with, but those who entrusted their children to his care had a right to expect that they should not be victims of the free will of others.
His answer to this was a new system of mentoring, recalls Ann. "It meant that the senior boys had to take on a father-like responsibility of leading, guiding, protecting and coaching; they were even encouraged to interact with parents; and issues were often broached as a team. The juniors still had to do some of their skivvy work, but were accorded greater underlying dignity and concern.
"By the time these small boys reached the end of their schooling, they departed as real gentleman who knew how to treat people accordingly, knew how to care for children, and indeed were positioned in their own right to be good fathers".
In 1976 Hugo succeeded Mr MacFarlane as Headmaster. "He inherited a position that had only been filled by four other men in a period of nearly 70 years and he was not found lacking," said his now retired Deputy, Frank Canova.
Frank told the Memorial that Hugo set the tone of the school and the ethos became one of a caring environment. "He was a good friend to all his staff and pupils alike, and was referred to as the ‘Boss', ‘Bear', or ‘Huggy Bear'. He could be counted upon and depended on, always. Whether one needed sound counsel, a sympathetic ear, a shoulder to lean on, or companionable silence, he was always there".
Frank noted that Hugo's main drive was to get as many boys involved in school activities as possible, whether sporting or cultural. "Besides the usual, activities were initiated for those boys who did not make any particular team, like the Coke League cricket, and soccer and cricket matches between staff and a host of different groups".
He improved the finances of the School and was instrumental in having the Jurgen Smith tennis courts built as well as the squash courts and entertainment centre. Today this centre is known as ‘The Ackermann' which is a fitting reminder of Hugo Ackermann.
" On his departure from the School in 1988, which was a great loss, we remained firm friends and he was instrumental in my progress through the teaching profession", said Frank.
" Hugo never lost interest in the doings of his ex-pupils, and was intensely proud of their achievements, but the one thing that disturbed him greatly, was the loss of so much needed talent in the country, when so many young men emigrated".
But with the arrival of the internet, and Facebook in particular, Hugo renewed many long-lost friendships. He connected with well over 1 500 Facebook friends, and each day, without fail, would extend greetings to those with birthdays.
He always reminded them to send ‘news' for the Old Boys newsletter that he had restarted after many years. An important feature was ‘Hugo's Corner'.
Clearly, Hugo made a lasting impression and had a major impact on thousands of young men at Potch Boys' High, Frank pointed out. Hundreds of messages that followed his passing included these:
A man on integrity, man of principle, a great Headmaster.
A gentleman through and through
Sir, your efforts to ensure Potch Boys High remains a great school will never be forgotten
An icon in my life
Thank you for the difference you made in so many lives
A great caring human who had a positive influence on thousands of young men
A man that I admired and taught me a lot about respect and discipline.
Mr A touched our hearts and minds in a remarkable way....and my bum with his cane far too often
A man who spent his life dedicated to youngsters. The country needs more like him
I would not have been me, if it were not for the character building influencing of Mr A
He had a huge positive impact on my life and many of us who had the privilege of being in his care. A huge man with a huge love of College.
May he forever rest in Peace.
Hugo was adamant that ideally no Headmaster should remain in office beyond 15 years. So in 1988 he decided to call it a day; he and Ann returned to Pretoria; and in late-1988 he commenced as General Secretary and Executive Director of the Transvaal Teachers' Association.
He was subsequently appointed Chief Executive of NAPTOSA, the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of South Africa.
|Hugo and Edwin|
" But his real love was revealed to him, and to me, in his last years in professional life", recalls Edwin Cameron. "That was when the Gauteng Department of Education asked him to help with disciplinary enquiries into teacher misconduct. He was the prosecutor in some, defended in others, and presided in yet others.
" These encounters with the law he deeply relished. He would phone me before 6 am to ask me about some obscure point of legal substance or procedure. He would ask for a reference to legal authority to follow up. He was intellectually, morally and emotionally profoundly engaged.
" In his last years, as age started wearing at the edges of his life, he never let go of this yearning for the law. And his powers of intellect remained sharp.
" This year, the year in which he was to turn 80, he registered for an LLB at UNISA. He acquired the books for four courses. He studied them intently, submitting his assignments - the last two, just days before his death.
" The law brought out Hugo's sharp mind, his acute moral sense - as well as his taste for firm and decisive authority, preferably wielded by him".
Whilst still having the highest regard for Potch Boys' Boy, Hugo became concerned more recently with its battle to raise adequate resources, and committed to uplifting its library. He vigorously raised money via Old Boys, other benefactors and, of course, dug deeply into his own pocket. He acquired suitable books wherever he could and delivered them personally to the school.
"The level of teaching at the school was promising, but Hugo surmised that the library needed attention", says Ann. "The school had a very good librarian, very competent, and she was only too glad to receive the books he provided. The Headmaster might have felt that Hugo was a bit pushy, but Hugo persisted in supplying more books".
" I get the impression worldwide that the higher the standard of living, the less important spiritual life becomes', Hugo told the writer.
"But it's wonderful to see the tremendous difference that faith can make to people. Religion is a far bigger thing than we like to admit. God is interested in our work and our play, our skills and our hobbies, our friendship and our vocation. The way in which we spend our lives matter to Him.
"We need to take our beliefs in hand if we are to establish a sense of purpose and give concrete meaning to our lives. That is true of society, as it is true also of education that serves it".
Though not overtly dogmatic, Hugo underpinned the Wesleyan Bible exposition of the dominance of the practical over the theoretical. He explained that he was particularly fond of the famous Wesley aphorism, "Do all good you can, by all the means you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can".
As such, he and Ann became intimately involved with the Glen Methodist Church's ‘Alpha' outreach programmes. This led to their spending considerable time working at the Zonderwater Prison and Citizens' Advice Bureau with people in serious need of spiritual and human upliftment.
"Those were wonderful years at Alpha", recalls Ann. "We had some very tough people to deal with, but the overall response was remarkable, and probably because were we not accusatory. We were an unknown, well-meaning group who cared about them, brought interesting religious material and goodies to eat".
Among Hugo's last very meaningful interventions was to provide a home for a stray mother cat and five kittens facing anguish and hunger. "Her situation was hopeless and Hugo was not going to allow anyone to be hungry and homeless", Ann remarked.
|Hugo and Ann|
Hugo died peacefully in his sitting room in Lynnwood watching rugby. "There was no evidence of pain. It was a godsend. He had increasingly struggled to cope and it was at the right time and the right place", says Ann
A fine Christian apologist, whose personality was as effective as his words, Hugo was a superb example of civility and inspiration to several generations of boys and a delight to many who were privileged to work with him.