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News > ODs Around the World > John Brett Gardener - Peerless South African Educational Statesman.

John Brett Gardener - Peerless South African Educational Statesman.

A milestone birthday tribute from Dr Paul Murray, Bishops Archivist and Historian in Residence.


(A phrase used to describe John Gardener by Schools Historian, Neil Veitch). 
[Please see a photo gallery with emerging captions, below the article].

Picture a memorable schoolteacher; one who has shaped you indelibly or guided you gently.  It may be one moment or a whole montage of memories. For many ODs a picture that will surely come to mind, either in sharp focus or as a faded glow, is one of John Gardener;

Gray House - 1947,
Senior Prefect - 1948,
Member of Staff - 1962-70; 1975-92,
Principal - 1988-1992,
Formerly Bishops Council member,
Currently Vice President of the OD Union.


Today, Friday 28 August 2020, John Brett Gardener turns 90; or 90 not out, as he prefers to describe it, never short of a sporting analogy. When I close my eyes and picture Mr Gardener, it is of a person who will seek to leave you with a whole lot to think about, while all the time he has kept you engaged and you depart feeling inspired.  How can I ever forget the sermon he preached in 1992, his final year as Principal, from the pulpit of the War Memorial Chapel, on the topic of what Heaven looks like?  
I would encourage you to do the same – look for the twinkle in the eye as he shares a favourite anecdote, listen for that slight clearing of the throat before he delivers a verdict, remember countless small acts of spoken and unspoken kindness. The ODU would be happy to invite any such recollections of JBG – still the only OD Principal of Bishops and in many important senses, the school’s foremost formal and folk historian. 
In 2011, when John was 81, the school's age stood at 162 – a unique inflexion point, giving a career average of JBG divided by DC of 50 – the benchmark for greatness elsewhere. Today that average has dropped to 47.36 through no fault of the batsman whom we congratulate on an undefeated Bishops innings, unrivalled anywhere.
So now, close your eyes and picture John/John Gardener/Mr Gardener … and then proceed to enjoy reading of a career that started at Bishops 81 years ago when John entered the Prep School in 1939. In September that year, the then DCPS Headmaster, George Charlton, announced from the Assembly stage, ‘Boys, I have to inform you that we are at war with Germany’.  John, aged 9, remembers wondering ‘which school is Germany?’. 
He then proceeded to the College in 1943 and in his Matric year was a prefect in Gray House (1947). He participated widely in sport, playing representative cricket and rugby and competed in inter-House Athletics at the High Jump and hurdles. In that year he passed his Matric in the First Class winning the Edward Ridge Syfret Prize for English, 1st in the White Prize for Classics, the Gorham Prize for Mathematics, the Old Boys’ Prize for Physics, and shared the Old Boys’ Prize for Chemistry with John Hueton (at Bishops, 1939 – 1948, a companion for the duration of their college years and good friend thereafter.)  He won the Alice Scholarship in 1947, awarded to a student returning for a Post-Matric year, for the best results in the Senior Certificate (Matric).  He was the Senior Prefect (Head Prefect) and Head of Gray House in his Post Matric Year (1948).  He was the Secretary of the Ten Club and a member of the Democritus Society, and a Student Warrant Officer in the Cadet Corps. 
In that year he was elected as the Diocesan College Rhodes Scholar, attending Magdalen College, Oxford between 1950-51 reading English Language and Literature, studying under C. S. Lewis amongst other tutors and once defeating Chris Chataway in a College hurdles event. Chastened, Chataway went on to pace Roger Bannister’s epic sub-four-minute mile on the same Iffley Road track a couple of seasons later.
On returning to South Africa he re-enrolled at the University of Cape Town in 1951, completing his BA in 1952, with Distinctions in Classical Culture and English.  This was followed by a one-year MA which overlapped with the first of the two years that led to the BEd.  His MA thesis examined the changing roles of the study of Latin in the South African examination system. 

In January 1955 John was appointed to his first full-time teaching post at Wynberg Boys' High School, having previously been a student teacher there. In the same year, he and Beryl Canning married in Rosebank Methodist Church (where John's father, an auto and aircraft mechanic and carpenter, had renovated every pew in the building including his own in the choir stalls).  Beryl's brother, Geoffrey, had been at Bishops (1946O).

John says the following about his time at WBHS: ‘I loved my time at Wynberg, where I learnt a lot about school-mastering.  Some things I could have done better, but you’re in your prime as a young teacher and learning things as you go along’.  At Wynberg he threw himself into school activities; teaching English and Latin, coaching cricket which included the senior teams; in 1958 he produced ‘Julius Caesar’ together with his colleague Doug Thomson with whom he was to teach later, at Bishops. Neil Veitch writing in ‘Brothers in an Endless Chain’ (the history of Wynberg at 175), says of John’s time teaching there: ‘As a scholar and profound thinker, Gardener had a salutary influence on many Wynberg lives, though still a young teacher himself’.  If you come across anyone taught by John at any stage in his long classroom career, they will invariably say, ‘he inspired me to learn’.  His departure to his alma mater in September 1962 was much regretted at Wynberg, who acknowledged the distinguished career he later had, becoming in Veitch’s phrase, ‘an esteemed South African educational statesman’.
At Bishops he became Housemaster of his old house, Gray, in 1969; and taught English until 1970, contributing wholeheartedly to every aspect of the life of the school.  In 1971 he was appointed as Headmaster of Kingswood College in Grahamstown, today Makanda.  One of the tasks that lay before him was the pioneering work of converting an all-boys school to becoming co-educational, which was reported with great anticipation in the Argus of 14th August 1972.  A very contentious change was handled with great competence and sensitivity.  A former Kingswood student and prefect at the time said of John: ‘Tall, regal, a proper Headmaster, seen for his quality, learnéd, everybody respected him’.  His Deputy Head Prefect at the time adds the following: ‘He pioneered a different style of Head, different to your guns and bombshell Head, he was a deep thinker, he wrote the school hymn which we still sing today’. 

Unfortunately, tragedy struck the family at the time of John's Headship at Kingswood. Richard, their middle son, in the Prep school at Kingswood and just short of his fourteenth birthday, died following an asthma attack.  His asthma had always made it challenging for him to participate in action sports and consequently he volunteered as cricket team scorer – a role he revelled in.  In his memory, the Kingswood Dold Field scoreboard today bears his name. John and Beryl’s other two sons both attended Bishops as boarders, James (1974W) and Andrew (1979W).

A personal story – it was the year after Mr Gardener had appointed me to the staff (1990) when we met on the Avenue at Bishops, and it was my birthday, for which John and Beryl wished me … I was stupefied that they could know my birthday … subsequently, I discovered it was also their son Richard's … Richard (1960-74) would have been 60 in this John's 90th year. 

Of Beryl, there are very many accounts that mention the deep impression she made on those who knew her chiefly as Principal's wife at Kingswood and Bishops.  One never failed to see the genuine interest and special warmth from Beryl, in the very personal and humble way that she interacted with you. Vivienne Mallett still describes Beryl's farewell speech to her in 1982 as one of the finest pieces of public speaking she can recall – amongst the many from which she can choose.

John and Beryl returned to Cape Town soon after the tragedy of Richard’s death, in April 1975, for John to take up a teaching post at his alma mater.  In October 1977 he became Vice-Principal, the post he held, under Anthony Mallett and John Peake, Bishops’ 9th and 10th Principals, respectively.  Little did he know that in 1988 he would become the school’s 11th Principal, the first OD, first South African, and the first grandfather in the Principalship, where he was particularly proud of the last of these three citations. He remained as Principal until his retirement in 1992.  With a great number of building projects completed from the Development Appeal under his predecessor, John nevertheless got several new ones underway; considerable extensions to the Preparatory School; a new Gray House, refurbishing of School House, the building of the Heatlie Pavilion and the Danowski wing in the Molteno Library. 

Looking back at his contributions other than as an English/Latin teacher, Housemaster and Principal, these are significant, in so many different roles: Head of the English Department, External Examiner, Chairman of the Joint Matriculation Board Sub-Committee, Lay Minister in the Chapel, Editor of the Bishops magazine, President of several Societies — Debating, Literary, Foreign Affairs and Philosophical, and of the prestigious Ten Club, of which as mentioned, he had been the Secretary (and not just for one year!) whilst a pupil at school.

The start of my time at Bishops began under his tenure when he kindly approved my appointment in 1990 and subsequent ‘transfer’ to the College, from St John’s College (SJC) in Johannesburg.  There was no interview, just a phone call between him and the Head of SJC Mr Walter Macfarlane.  I was honoured to have Mr Gardener as my Principal, and equally so to teach in the Latin Department with him, 'Gallus Torrens' (Brian de Kock) and 'Dobbo' (Paul Dobson).  From then till now I cannot say how much I enjoy a telephone conversation with Mr Gardener, as the school archivist, in the process of corroborating information, for which he is the oracle, having been the chief editor and author of the 'Bishops 150' history of the school.  In deference, whenever speaking with him, I have never, and will never, address Mr Gardener other than as 'Mr Gardener'!  It was, this morning, an incredible honour to be able to wish Mr Gardener, on reaching this milestone year.        

After John’s retirement as the Principal of Bishops, Beryl and John moved to Fish Hoek where they had many happy family associations. After Beryl’s death on 1st January 2000, John continued with his work as the Chair of the Western Cape branch of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA), in addition to which he became Chair of the Western Cape ISASA branch consisting of representatives of the region’s school governing bodies.  He subsequently became involved in the Independent Quality Assurance Agency (IQAA) established by Sue Rees.

John and Sue married in 2003 and initially lived in Johannesburg where Sue was the IQAA Director. They re-located to Cape Town in 2006 and settled into a home in Claremont which quickly became the IQAA offices and national nerve centre. John describes himself as ‘the office assistant’ during these years of largely voluntary service. John and Sue continue to work in this capacity as mentors, writers and coaches in a specialist professional field where they are highly regarded as a team. John served on the Bishops Council for five years and has for a long time been one of the Vice Presidents of the OD Union. Also, he is in daily demand as an editor, sports reporter, cryptographer, lyricist, reviewer and arbiter of grammatical disputes. One of his extended family, which now runs to four generations, refers to him as ‘Johnopedia’.

Reflecting on his 81 years of association with the school, whilst not an impossible question, it has, for John Gardener been a virtually impossible answer: ‘There have been ups and downs, with some things I certainly could and should have done better. But perhaps high on the OK list has been the number of good friendships there have been with staff members, parents and boys’.  As Sir Richard Luyt (at Bishops 1929 - 1933) himself a mentor to John, was fond of saying, ‘a man should be known by the friends he keeps’.

So now you can see why this is a special day in the school’s 171-year history … John Gardener's life is more than half its existence and his association with it not far short of half.  Writing about John Gardener, 40 years after being taught by him at Wynberg Boys' High, the Head Prefect then said: ‘Sir, I sure hope you’re around, after all these years, to accept my personal thanks …’. That was Ivan Pfeil, Head Prefect in 1952.  Thousands will want to say the same and from us all we would like to wish you a wonderful day, filled with happiness, and the years ahead, with joy. The entire Bishops community sends you smiles for every moment of your special day.

Have a wonderful time and a very happy birthday! 

God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master’.  Aeschylus.



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