Michael Desebrock (1958O) | 1941 - 2018
We are saddened to inform the OD community that Michael Desebrock (O, 1958) passed away in the UK on Tuesday 18th December. To Sue, his wife, go our deepest sympathies
Michael, who died in Oxford at the age of 77, had a notable publishing career that included the production of multi-volume encyclopaedias for publishers such as Oxford University Press, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Readers Digest and Time-Life.
When Michael left UCT, he hoped to enter publishing by gaining experience in London. To try to achieve his goal, in 1964 at the age of 23, he approached the Readers Digest organisation in South Africa, who arranged for him to be interviewed by the UK Editor in London – if he could get there.
The owners of a Norwegian oil tanker kindly agreed to transport him to England – on condition that he worked his passage. Shortly before his departure, Michael broke his ankle while running on the mountain. He was devastated. But then the wholly unexpected happened – the Captain took pity, arranging for Michael to occupy the Owners’ Stateroom suite so that he travelled in luxury all the way to Purfleet-on-Thames!
Michael’s exposure to high living was short-lived. While delighted to pass his interview and be hired on probation for six months as a trainee editor with Readers Digest, he earned only £9 10s a week.
Michael spent three years with Readers Digest, eternally grateful for the experience he gained as an assistant editor of the UK and South African editions.
In 1967, to his great surprise, he was headhunted by a new publishing company, Marshall Cavendish, where at the age of 26, he was responsible for recruiting and managing an editorial team to visualise, design and launch, within 6 months, the Mind Alive Encyclopaedia, an innovative part-publication issued weekly over 120 weeks – the first issue selling one million copies nationwide.
Its success drew attention to Michael. Approached by several London publishers, he was delighted to join Thames and Hudson, where to quote Michael, he “learned how to make books”, and where he stayed for three years until going up to Oxford.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, based in Oxford, he broadened his publishing experience by working successively as Chief Editor for Elsevier International Projects, and then Editorial Director for Elsevier Oxford and Equinox Oxford. He was involved in the planning, editing and packaging of multi-volume encyclopaedias for several leading publishers, as well as producing books for publishers such as Cambridge University Press, Jonathan Cape and Macmillan.
In 1986, with great courage, Michael and his partner Sue, alongside two financial and marketing colleagues, established their own publishing company, Andromeda Oxford, followed over time by two associated companies, International Research Services (IRS) and Andromeda Interactive. They risked everything, obliged to hand over the title deeds to their house in Oxford as security against a £1 million investment by two banks, Barings and Kleinwort Benson.
Employing at its peak staff of 100, the three companies produced a plethora of books and other publications over the next 12 years, including massive encyclopaedias on various themes for leading international publishers. For example Encyclopaedia of Human Nature (12 volumes); Encyclopaedia of Visual Arts (10 volumes); Cultural Atlas Series (20 atlases); Eco-Geography Series (10 volumes).
Another successful project involved IRS producing a series of 60 lessons on the principles of investment. Issued every 2 weeks, over 30 months, it attracted a phenomenal 20,000 subscribers.
The companies prospered, enabling Michael and Sue in 1991 to move to a country estate not far from Oxford.
In 1996, however, when a new management team at Cable & Wireless, a leading UK telecommunications company and 51% owner of Andromeda Oxford, decided to withdraw from publishing and sell Andromeda’s publishing assets to Brown University Press in the US, followed by the sale of IRS to Charterhouse Investments in 1998, Michael retired to the estate.
Bishops, UCT and Oxford
At Bishops, Michael loved running, awarded his athletics colours in cross-country, also winning the school mile. He did well academically, receiving a Jagger university-entrance scholarship. In his view, he benefitted especially from the extra-mural societies on offer at Bishops where members were encouraged to prepare and present long essays on topics that interested them.
At UCT, he obtained a first-class honours degree in philosophy. As a cross-country runner, he represented not only UCT but also Combined South African Universities, one of six students to be awarded national cross-country colours in 1963.
At Oxford, he studied philosophy at Corpus Christi College. When he felt obliged to return to publishing at the end of his first year in 1971, the President of Corpus notified Michael that the College would keep a place open for him for eight years until 1980, a notable endorsement.
Michael was born in South Africa in 1941, the eldest son of Hans and Betty, both born in South Africa during the First World War. His British grandparents hailed from Somerset and Devon, his Continental grandparents from Germany and Norway.
The family will always remember Michael’s reassuring calmness, thoughtfulness, kindness and tolerance, alongside self-reliance and stoicism that allowed him to ride the ups and downs of life so well.
None of the family will ever forget Michael’s extraordinary resilience, refusing to give up after his stroke six years ago, supported by his devoted family.
Michael passed away on 18 December 2018 in Oxford. He leaves behind his wife, Sue, two daughters and a granddaughter.
A Memorial Ceremony was held on 25 January 2019. Peter Wallach (1958) and Richard Hall (1958) gave eulogies, incorporating tributes from Alan Chippington (1958), Christopher Danziger (1958) and Gunnar Horn (1958).
Nigel Desebrock (1964O)