INTERVIEW WITH MR. TERENCE MULVENNA

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. Here is the first with Terence Mulvenna. The interview took place in 2004.

In my last letter I pointed out that Terence Mulvenna had been through a rough patch health wise and I promised that I'd provide you with an update. I visited him at his home last month and found him in good health, in great spirits, and as mentally sharp as ever. He is in his early eighties.

I might mention that I first met Terry exactly 50 years ago when he was a young teacher at Brooklyn School and I was in Grade 2 at the same school. In fact, the first time that he and I interacted was when one Peter Harper alleged that I had maliciously punctured a young girl's bicycle tyre and he (Terry) had to determine whether I was guilty or not. The allegation was false in the extreme, and fortunately through Terry's better judgement and the pleading of another teacher, Mrs van Wyk, the matter passed. I was otherwise assured the hiding of my life from Terry (or, more precisely, the first of several to come).

Terry taught me maths for four of my five years at Boys High and was my form master for a year. We also shared many memorable moments on the sports field.

We had a marvellous discussion, reflecting on the past, and he very courageously shared various unknown and private life experiences.

How did you get into teaching?
Through my younger brother Charlie, who was about three years younger than me. There was also a 'laat-lammetjie', Patrick, who was a lot younger than us. When I left school I did medicine at Wits but just played the fool and had an easy time. Needless to say, I plugged and my father got me a job as a labourer in the Pretoria West railway good sheds. Boy, was that a fall from grace but it was one of the finest lessons ever in my life. All those poor whites'. You can't imagine what it was like working with those toughs' and thugs'. After two years of this, Charlie said to me: 'Why don't you consider teaching?' You can get a loan and come to Wits. I put it to my Dad and he said, 'Okay, but all that I'm prepared to give you is pocket money, nothing else'. I took the loan, went to Wits, and never looked back.

Were you and Charlie close?
Not really, I was very jealous of him initially. He was well liked at CBC and university (Wits), he was headboy of his house, he excelled at sport, and he generally did very well. He made the first cricket side at school and academically he did a lot better than I did. He also got a much better matric than I did. But eventually we resolved our differences and we became a lot closer.

What was Boys High like when you arrived there in the late fifties?
My introduction to the School was rather strange. When I left College, my contemporaries such as my brother and Burridge Spies said that they were going directly to teach at the School. I said that I wanted to teach at a primary school first to learn my trade, and that's how I landed up at Brooklyn. I spent two years each teaching standards 3, 4 and 5. The others kept asking, 'When are you coming to Boys High?' I replied, 'When I have done my apprenticeship'. Then, when I indicated to them that I was ready to go to Boys High, they wasted no time in telling Abernethy, and he didn't waste time getting hold of me. I received a telegram saying that I had been accepted as member of staff and that I was to report to the School.

Was maths your teaching subject of preference?
No, not at all. At university I majored in the history of art and geography, and art would have been my preference. I didn't have a hope in hell of getting into any of these. Art was blocked to me because of Battiss, Scully and even Harrop-Allen, and geography was blocked to me because of my brother, Charlie, Tim Hill, and I think others. My dream always was to teach art. So with little alternative I went into teaching maths and commerce.

As an outsider, a pupil, I often wondered what the dynamics of the Staff Common Room were. How did the Headmaster interact? Who dominated? How did the odd balls fare? Any comments?
Yes, there was a hierarchy of kinds. There were the senior people who interacted a lot among themselves, such as Abernethy, Brooks, Fair, Moerdyk, Hofmeyr and Jones. In another corner were the 'elder statesmen' such as Matheson, Pollock, Gevers and Logie. The women tended to keep together. Then there were the religious, political or other interest groups. In another corner were those who weren't quite making it. And in our corner were the younger sports-orientated types such as my brother, Burridge Spies, Tim Hill and myself. Hugo Ackermann also joined us on occasions.

How did your superiors treat you?
Mixed. I can't praise Abernethy enough - he was the most kind, human, person you could ever wish to meet. There were also one or two bullies and there were one or two who were only interested in themselves. Matheson was a short recluse man - they called him 'Baldy' - but he took a great interest in me because of the car that I'd built. If he called you by your second name, you'd really made it. Never in my life have I experienced such a wise individual as Matheson. I told him about a row I'd had with Miss Solomon at Brooklyn School. He said to me: 'Mulvenna, that problem will never be resolved until the sun rises'. That was Matheson.

Who in your opinion were the most outstanding teachers at Boys High?
Very difficult to say. One, however, who sticks out was Burridge Spies. I had great respect for him individually and as a teacher. Not only because of his cricketing ability - he was a superb cricketer - but he was a decent, dignified man, talked a lot of sense, and quietly earned your respect.

Would you rate him greater than some of the 'big names' of your time?
Yes.

You had the reputation of being the hardest 'backside hitter' in the School with your iron-filled blackboard compass. Your only serious competitor perhaps was Joe Starker with his 'catalyst' (rubber pipe). Do you reckon that your approach was a worthy one?
Indeed. It was the only language some boys understood. They knew exactly how far they could go with me, and it was always to their good.

Any unusual or amusing incidents?
There was a kid who always tried to push me too far. He was extremely arrogant and generally tried to be too smart for his own good. I always listened to him but on one occasion warned him: 'You're pushing me to the limit - one day you're going to go too far and then I'm going to beat the daylights out of you'. He looked at me and laughed. I'd heard elsewhere that his father, a specialist physician in town, was also pretty obnoxious. Anyway, I was late to come to class one day (I'd been held up by the Headmaster) and there was an enormous racket in the room. When the boy's saw me, they quietened down. I looked at them and said: 'Will those responsible please stick up their hands, and if they do, I won't take any further action on the rest'. There was no response. So I said, 'I want you all to come back after school, you're to sit here quietly and do your homework, and if you don't, I'll smack you'. After about 10 minutes this kid put up his hand and said, 'Sir, how can you prove that we made a noise?' I jumped off the platform and said, 'Now your time has come'. I grabbed him out of his school bench, hit him with mighty force in his ribs, shoved him against the wall, hit him again, grabbed him again, and threw him to the ground. I then picked him up and slammed him back into his bench. He was winded and his eyes were popping. I said to him, 'If you've had enough, you can now go and report me'. I then dismissed the class. As he walked past, he asked, 'Is the Headmaster in his Study?' I replied, 'Yes, please go and report me'. As he walked past, I kicked him in the backside yet again. The same afternoon while I was taking sport, Abernethy walked past and I walked up to him and said: 'Sir, I have to report to you that I have assaulted a pupil today'. 'Oh, who is it and what were the circumstances', he asked. I explained to him what had happened. He replied: 'Terence, I know his father, forget about it!' I have never heard another thing, though that certainly enhanced my reputation.

Any other experiences?
I was teaching form II maths and there was a jerk whose parents had gone overseas and he stayed with his uncle. He did no work and his cycle marks dropped to almost zero. His parents were furious when they got back. One day he put up his hand and asked, 'Sir, is there a better maths class that I could attend?' I ordered him out the class. So he went off to Jones with a big story that I had unjustifiably kicked him out. Jones said to him, 'I'll put you in another class, but it will have to be in the 'B stream'. That was terrible in the boy's view. Next thing, the parents were at the School, and when I was called I knew what was coming. I insisted that the boy be called into the meeting too. His father spoke first, outlining how badly his son had been done by. When the discussion turned to me, I said to the boy: 'Now you tell us what really happened, what is the real story?' His father then turned to me and said: 'Would you please reconsider taking my boy back into your class?' I said on one condition: 'He will knock on my door when I have a maths class, he will apologize, and he will beg me to have him back'. His father said: 'Fine, that's fair'. The boy never came - he stayed in the B stream.

Can you single out any of the brightest kids that you came across?
I was involved in IQ tests - the normal score was 100 to 120, bright over 130, but there was one kid who scored over 150. When I marked this, I couldn't believe it. He was so bright that you didn't even need to explain maths to him. The tragedy though is that however mentally bright he was, he was a disaster as a personality. He had no friends and had almost nothing to say for himself. It would seem that his terrific mental prowess was his greatest handicap.

Who was the most astute boy that you ever came across?
I would say Keith Clarence (his younger brother was seriously injured in the Pretoria bomb explosion in 1983). In matric Keith would invariably disagree with me, but I never got annoyed because I came to appreciate that there was considerable depth to him. I used to say, 'Right, let's hear your viewpoint'. One thing about Keith - he was never your man, he was his own man. He had enormous power of personality and stood out as a leader. He was captain of the first hockey team. On one occasion we were playing KES which had quite a few South African Schools players and they were one up. A penalty flick arose. I said to Keith, 'You take the penalty'. But before the flick was taken, the KES goalie took off his pads, retied his laces, and generally took his time to disorientate Keith. When he had finished, Keith took off his pads, retied his laces, called for another stick or two, looked at them and sent them back, slowly put down the ball, looked around, and then flicked the ball into the net. That levelled the score. That was the kind of person Keith was. It was evident in his attitude, his behaviour and the way he digested anything you taught him. His father was of the same ilk. A whole lot of gatecrashers turned up at a party at their home on one occasion, his father pulled out a revolver and gave them three minutes to scat. They vanished.

Let's turn to your beautiful homemade car, built in the mid-fifties, that became the intrigue of so many. The background story?
The idea originated out of a beautifully home-made two-seater Fiat that I had seen. It was owned by a Pretoria architect who had got an Italian panel-beater to bend aluminium into shape. I contacted him (the architect) and we had arranged to meet one Sunday to talk about what I had in mind. Sadly, the day before, he went to watch a motor race at Grand Central (Kyalami's predecessor), a wheel broke off, hit him on the head, and he died instantly. Dreadful. However, I subsequently found the name of the Italian, Tony Paretti, an ex PoW at Sonderwater prison. He worked for Excelsior Bakery near the old Tech, we were introduced, but he wasn't interested in working for me. Subsequently, while teaching at Brooklyn School, I taught a kid whose father was one of the bosses at Excelsior and suggested to the kid that the father persuade Tony to assist me. A long story. But after much 'sukkel' I got Tony to agree that he assist me over weekends and that he be paid the normal over-time rate.

Did you get on with him?
He warmed quite considerably to me because he had been captured in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and I knew quite a bit about it.

What next?
Fortunately, my father-in-law owned a garage in Voortrekker Road, near the General Hospital and called the Hospital Garage, and that helped a lot. Through him I bought a Chrysler crock and reworked the chassis, wheels, steering etc. The engine was a Chrysler Six. I then made a scaled drawing of the body and did the body welding myself. Tony came and looked at it, and when he was satisfied, he told me to go and buy about four 6' x 3' aluminium sheets and vinegar acid to wash it. He then took the first sheet, bent it over the front mudguard, and started cutting strips just as a tailor does. And that's the way he worked. The entire process took about a year. The hood fitted beautifully and was totally weatherproof.

Were you satisfied with the car's performance?
Oh yes, it was extremely quick, but it didn't have the revs that a Ferrari has. It had power to weight. It was very light, low, with the result that when you travelled at about 100 mph (160km/h) you had to place a bag of sand in the boot to stabilize the car. Otherwise you moved around quite a bit. On the way to Durban a guy on a motorbike took me on, he drove as a hard as he could, and when I passed him he was so disgusted. At traffic lights people were always wanting to take me on.

What sort of mileage did you run up?
At least 40 000 to 50 000 kms. I went to Durban twice and Louis Trichardt three times.

What ultimately happened to the car?
It had an overdrive and that started to give trouble. I parked it, covered it, with the intention of fixing it up one day. It stayed under cover for about five years. My younger brother said he knew of someone who'd like it, this person made me a reasonable offer, and I said goodbye to it. I never saw the car again but I heard subsequently that a V8 engine had been put into it.

You also owned several motorbikes. Would you like to tell us about your famous Durban to Johannesburg motorbike rally?
Yes, I was a very keen motor cyclist and participated in the 'DJ' (Durban to Johannesburg rally). Until 1936 it had been a race, but it was then converted to a commemorative rally because it had became quite dangerous to public safety. The race, of course, was across dirt and tar roads, and was completed in about six hours. Unbelievable. However, in the rally only bikes prior to 1936 were eligible. I had a friend who had a '35 model who offered me the use of his bike. He was riding another bike. I said I'd love to enter. We started at Dick King's statute on the embankment, drove up, spent the night at Newcastle, and finished the next day at City Deep (Johannesburg). The bike had been abused by a bloody fool in Durban and it didn't have a proper fourth gear. It had three gears and revved a lot, resulting in the kick-start falling off when I was 20 miles from Johannesburg. I knew I would have difficulty starting the bike again if it stopped, because of the high compression. This meant that as I got into Johannesburg I had to be careful, riding around in circles at robots, for example, to keep the bike going. I succeeded, but just as I got to Crown Mines somebody backed out and I had to stop. There I was stuck. Everybody shouted, 'Push the bike', which I did. It was eligible and I was awarded my medal.

You are very proud of your children. Where are they today?
My son, Gavin, is a very successful labour consultant/lawyer in Durban. He started at Tukkies, but moved on to Natal University where he graduated with a B Com. Later he graduated with a law degree as well. My daughter, Gillian, who was always extremely bright, heads the pharmaceutical faculty at the Technikon and is currently completing her PhD.

Would you like to convey a message to the 'Class of 64'?
Yes, I'd love to. I had the great pleasure last year of meeting with the '62 group, and boy what a fine group of individuals they have become. I would like to believe that the '64 group has emulated that class, achieved what they have achieved. Unfortunately, I couldn't make it to the '63 reunion. With very few exceptions, those of the '62 group have succeeded wonderfully. This can be put down to many factors, but I'd like to believe that Boys High provided the groundwork. The School provided the basis for them to realize their full potential. They were well-directed, motivated, and at times even bullied. The values of the School, it's fine character, and the numerous people who dedicated themselves to their welfare. I said to myself that if they were the benchmark of what we produced in the sixties, then we have really triumphed.

Finally, given that the School is the real hero, what would you regard as the its finest qualities?
It's progressiveness and balance, but more than anything, 'tolerance'. I'm in no doubt of that. It was also the theme that I adopted in my address to the School on my retirement. The School has always been very liberal, going back to the first Hofmeyr. If you're not willing to be tolerant, you won't make it there. That applies to both teachers and boys.

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