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News > Passing of friends > Tribute: Rory James Wilson (1966G)

Tribute: Rory James Wilson (1966G)

One of Bishop's remarkable OD's Rory James Wilson passed away on the 28th of December 2020 after a nearly forty year battle with diabetes which brought on a long journey with dementia.
Rory Wilson (1966G)
Rory Wilson (1966G)

RORY JAMES WILSON (1966G)

15 April 1949 – 28 December 2020

One of Bishop’s remarkable OD’s Rory James Wilson passed away on the 28th of December 2020 after a nearly forty year battle with diabetes which brought on a long journey with dementia. Member of the OD Council for eight years.  Survived by his wife Clare and his sons Sean and Myles and their families.

Rory would smile at the fact that this tribute is only being written 18 months after his passing. He was without a doubt one of the humblest people you could ever have the privilege of calling a friend.

Rory’s links to Bishops ran deep. He was the son of Rex Wilson and Mardie Wilson (nee Gearing. Their Family home on Camp Ground Road was a home from home for many an out of town boarder.

Those who were at Bishops with him remember Rory for his natural leadership, his famous sense of humour and his genuine openness.  He had a fierce loyalty to team, house and friends and was always a loving, wise, witty, faithful and kind friend, deserving the popularity that marked him all his life.  As well as his prowess on the rugby field and in the pool, it is the quality of his relationship that people mention the most – in family, in work, in play.

Head of House (Gray) and an enthusiastic member of Doc Brown’s Choir, Rory’s presence would never go unnoticed in any company.

Rory was a wise man with an extremely sharp intellect. Whether it was the wisdom he shared on the numerous boards on which he sat, or the insight he shared with Grant Nupen whilst he was a Council Member on the Bishops Council.

Grant Nupen writes:

“Rory was a visionary leader. We were members of a “Stokvel” together, which included Vince van der Bijl and others. It opened my mind and taught me so much about Africa and South Africa. He was one of the truly transformed South Africans”

“As a Council Member during my time as Principal I needed much support and I found it in Rory as we walked for hours on the paths of Table Mountain”

On matriculating in 1966 conscription to the Army was compulsory for nine months. Having reported to Oudtshoorn as required, he was shortly thereafter called back home to rewrite his Matric in order to improve his marks. After a few months of post-exam revelry he returned to 1 South African Infantry in Oudtshoorn in April 1967, where he was joined by two other OD’s, Phil Kilpin and Gerald Rowe. All of the excess weight Rory had gained in the preceding  months was shed in the following three months of basic training!

Front Row: Gerald Rowe; Rory Wilson; Phil Kilpin

Journalist John Yeld another member of the April army intake, remembers “the warm, funny, clever and thoughtful person behind the Bishops’ façade” who became their “unofficial but uncontested leader”.  John remembers one Saturday evening “… while we were lying on our mattresses under the beds (in order to pass review the next morning with minimum fuss)….bored stiff and trapped in the camp because we still hadn’t been issued with weekend passes  …the conversation turned to dreams and aspirations, plans for life when the s-l-o-w nine months of the army was over.  What would we do with our lives.  What would we most like to achieve?

“Rory’s response came as a complete surprise to me:

 ‘I want’, he declared in his loud voice  ‘ …to wear a dress suit and black tie, and conduct the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra on the stage in the City Hall

Failing to make Officer Status, the three OD’s decided to apply for a Drill and Weapons instructors’ course as it was based in Oudtshoorn. Once they got their commissions, with the help of a Kilpin car, they found a certain amount of freedom.

In Phil Kilpin’s words:

“Rory and I went home for weekends whenever we could get a pass and also regularly visited Alex Hooper at Highgate Ostrich Farm where his parents looked after us really well”

“1968 found Rory and me together again at Rhodes University where most of the stories from there can only be released publically in 100 years’ time!” says John Yeld. It was at Rhodes that he met the love of his life and lifelong partner Clare (nee Cawood) and where he made many lifelong friends including Grant Nupen and Rosemary Selfe (Nupen).

After he graduated from Rhodes in 1970, he returned to Cape Town with Clare and they married that same year.  Their eldest son, Sean, was born the following year. In 1972 Rory began work as a journalist at the Cape Times.  By 1976 he was Chief Sub-Editor, the front page he designed covering the 16 June 1976 Sowetan Uprising remains “one of the most impactful in the paper’s history” said a colleague at the time.  By this time Myles, his youngest son, had arrived.  In 1981 Rory and his young family moved to Johannesburg .  From his last journalism post as the Managing Editor of the Cape Times Rory moved across the big divide into newspaper management.  He joined SAAN’s national management, with significant accountability and subsequent impact on papers in all provinces. At a time when huge changes rocked the SAAN group Rory was recruited across to join the then Argus Group and was appointed Manager of the Sowetan in 1987, a post he held until 1994, an incredible time in South Africa’s history to be so close to the rockface. Tony O’Reilly turned the Argus Group into The Independent and with his proven competence Rory was finally returned to Cape Town to manage the Independent Cape newspaper stable.

Rory became a force in South Africa’s newspaper and publishing industry, to which he brought an inspiring vision and tenacious commitment for nation building.  He was a forceful advocate for transformational diversity, even before the transition to democracy, and argued hard and publicly for the rights of women and the LGBTQI community.  

As a wordsmith on paper and an orator in person, he had a bright, immediate intelligence.  He could draw you into a complex technical debate as easily as into an intimate, friendly chat.  He was adept across a range of subjects about which he remained always well-informed and yet somehow he never appear opinionated, dominant or brash. There is a wonderful picture of a meeting with Nelson Mandela, in which Rory’s passion for some idea (who knows what?) shines forth, his chin lifted, his eyes on a distant vision, with Madiba focused, listening intently, as are all the others around them.

Music remained a fundamental part of Rory’s life, although never professionally.  A boy chorister at St Paul’s, Rondebosch, he was for many years also a member of various men’s choirs in the Cape, co-founding the Quarry Men Choir while at Kommetjie. He was an enthusiastic yet mostly self-taught pianist and he never did make it to the podium in City Hall, not surprising given the packed agenda of his professional life and the multiple social and outreach projects in his life with Clare.

Rory was a seasoned and respected negotiator, famously with the unions in the 1980s for SAAN and The Argus, a skill that appeared managerial, but that was in fact natural to a man with his humanitarian principles: it is his respect for others, for their experience, their values and for what they offer in a team and to a solution, and especially for what they bring with them to a problem requiring solution, that is most frequently mentioned.  Similarly, his leadership was always strong, disciplined and respected, yet it was a reflection of his loving and generous attitude to others.  In some ways his most incisive and powerful management skills were like his sense of humour: keen, quick and to the point, yet always inclusive and immediate.  

Rory came from the heart in all that he did.  He loved being with people and he loved widening the inclusion of a group, inviting others in and welcoming all for who they are, and never for what he expected.  His sense of humour, his gracious accommodation of all others, both as a man and as a manager, and his frequent advocacy for the rights and needs of others, reflected a simple and true heart that recognised always the complementary diversity of human difference.

In this he was a South African truly representative of his time.  “In the early 1990’s”, Mzimkulu Malunga, now Africa Group Executive at Kagiso Media, writes “[o]ne of his biggest contributions was during his tenure as the GM of Sowetan [newspaper]” when Rory and “Bra” Aggrey Klaaste revolutionized the Sowetan from an also-ran newspaper into one of the most influential at the time, changing it from a lossmaking entity to a profit of R1m a month.”  While the measure of his success might have been these bottom-line facts, Rory himself at the time and afterwards was most proud of the Sowetan’s influential Nation Building campaign that he and Aggrey developed and infused with deep, living meaning.  Yes it enabled the business, but more importantly, it contributed to the national project.

Rory left the newspapers at the age of 50 in 1999, disillusioned with the extreme cost-cutting and therefore dire journalistic direction the management above him wished him to lead. Seven months later he was recruited to the Juta family business in 2000 as CEO.  He finally retired in 2006. The two dominant themes of his career, however, those leadership qualities as both a journalist and a manager, brought him as an industry elder to an intensely rewarding and deeply personal period of his work life, as a teacher, mentor and wise counsellor.  This included teaching at the Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership at his old alma mater, Rhodes, inspiring young and old ‘journos’ in the craft, principles and disciplines of their work and industry.

He mentored many in these years, privately and confidentially, influencing careers, families, businesses and people, through that most generous of human relationships, teaching, in which he was ever grateful, as all good teachers are, for what in turn he learned himself.  Mzimkulu Malunga writes:

“when I ran Business Day and the Financial Mail I always kept his tallish frame at the back of mind to keep myself in check.”

Rory seems always to have influenced those around him and always positively. At school he was among the first generation who took to surfing, in the days when one had to make your own board – as Rory did, fashioning a yellow masterpiece called ‘Lulu’ after his grandfather’s WWI RAF bi-plane.

He was an early long-distance runner, albeit a slow one, regularly running marathons for some three decades and, as was his style, establishing along the way running clubs both in the Cape and in Johannesburg, that he might share those runs and the benefits, challenges and camaraderie of those hours on the roads, paths and mountain contours.  As a diabetic, he established groups to support others, to create information and buddy-network resources for those newly diagnosed and their families and advocating for their rights and support as well.  

Rory liked to build social structures of benefit to all, to make organisations reflective of their members and to renew, to rejuvenate those to which he belonged. In this spirit, starting in the 1990s, Rory served on the Bishops council.  He was productive, creative and realistic in what he contributed, yet, as was his nature, he challenged the school and its adaptations in those changing times

Rory and Clare had moved to Kommetjie on retirement where they lived on the beach front able to enjoy regular time with Sean and Myles and their young families growing up.  They continued with the many quietly private passions and causes of their widely productive lives.  Gracious hosts always, they were long the living heart of a web of love and care that extended the powerful companionship and commitment that was their marriage.  On retiring from the press, Rory had made a speech in which he held Clare front and centre of his professional life, arguing that it is the diversity of our relationships in life that makes our society strong and that that diversity is personal, immediate and intimate – not the by-product of corporate or national policy.  Being with Rory and Clare, one knew viscerally that this was immediately true for him, that his home, his work, his family and his society were of a piece, a unity of lived experience and values.  Integrity is the name we give it, yet the word misses the vital meaning it had for Rory as a man in the world.

It is not often that one meets and knows a human whose life is quite so unanimous, singular, whole and complete unto itself.  It was thus particularly grieving to watch Rory, whose keen, quick, incisive and synthesizing intelligence had always been self-evident, fade slowly over the latter years of his life in the shadow of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.  Yet even as he did so, it was as much with humour as with authentic dismay, with the courage and tenacity that marked everything he did.  Clare and the boys took up that spirit on his behalf and held it for him with astonishing persistence and the most gentle care and grace.  

To be closer to the family, Clare and Rory had moved to Claremont to be closer to where Sean and Myles and their families were, and, thanks to Clare’s unwavering faith, Rory was fully cared for at home until the end.  Just over a month after their 50th wedding anniversary, Rory passed away very peacefully in the company of Clare, Sean and Myles, held in the love that had been the evidence of how he had lived his life – and in the room with them, as he died, they listened to a music playlist to which friends and family from all over the world had contributed.  A conductor at the end.

Reading the tributes to him, from work and friends and family, listening to the stories and memories they tell, one is struck by the consistency of a life, by how clear and simply the shared impression is: of love, above all, and of generosity, of integrity, of care, of leadership, and hard-working discipline, of principle and tenacious values and, perhaps most common of all, of fun, friendship and humour: a glinting eye, a ready smile and an often naughty laugh.

Rory “was the best of us, rolled into one …”

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