30 August 2018 – After four decades of outstanding service to Saint Andrew's, Pierre Grobler has reached the age of retirement and the day has come to step away from his role as a teacher and mentor, a role that he has performed so well to the benefit of thousands of Saints' boys. He epitomises the type of gentleman we strive to develop at the school.
We sat down with Pierre for a chat after services were held in the junior and senior schools on the morning of Wednesday, 29 August, to thank him . Here is that Q & A, word for word.
SA: Pierre, you started at Saint Andrew’s in 1979. Where did you come from?
PG: I taught for a year at Brebner, in both the primary and high school. I taught PT from Sub A to matric, so I had the whole school for PT. That was in 1978, and it was also the year that I started studying part-time at the University [of the Orange Free State], so it was quite a busy year, because I had no free periods, teaching the whole school. Then, I would have sport in the afternoons, and, then, I would have to run from Brebner to a flat that I shared with my sister in Andries Pretorius Street, catch a lift with her to Varsity, and attend Varsity classes until after ten at night.
I did that for a year and then I started teaching here, at Saint Andrew’s, in 1979, but I had to work a term’s notice at Brebner, so that happened in the first term of 1979. I started at Saints in the second term of 1979.
A teacher, a mentor, and a gentleman: Pierre Grobler
SA: How did the move to Saints come about?
PG: A friend of mine, Louis Klopper, was teaching here at the time, and he said a standard four (grade six) post was going vacant. Why don’t I apply for it? I thought definitely.
I was pretty tired of PT at that stage as well, which was, funnily enough, the reason why I went into teaching. I was a PT instructor in the Army and the major that I worked for asked what I was going to do one day. I said I had absolutely no idea, so he said I was a good sportsman, so why don’t I become a PT teacher, being involved with what I was good at? That’s the original reason why I went into teaching! But a year of it cured me of it. It was a good move to come here.
SA: When did you marry?
PG: 1981. I met Adelene at Varsity in the evening classes in 1978. She was a full-time student, but she had maths and English, which clashed during the day. She had to attend evening English classes. They don’t do maths in the evening. That’s where we became acquainted, but there was never anything between us. We knew of each other and we had English tutorial classes together, funnily enough with Ria de Villiers, who taught here at Saints. She was our lecturer.
Then, in 1979 we bumped into each other in town, and our first date was the matric farewell at Saints in 1979. I have got a lot to thank the school for!
SA: When did Adelene become involved with Saints?
PG: In my early years, I was still playing provincial cricket, so I would often have to leave because first-class games lasted three days. I would be gone for three or four days and Adelene would stand in for me. It worked out perfectly.
Pierre's wife Adelene with one of the couple's grandchildren
SA: It must have created a bit of an issue, because, according to many of the former Saint Andrew’s boys we have spoken with, they all fell in love with her!
PG: I have heard from quite a number of them, amongst others Dermot Jewell, who told me they quite looked forward to me going away!
SA: We heard that from a lot more boys!
PG: (laughing) I can understand that. She was and is a lovely woman. She is a gorgeous and a fantastic person. It is quite easy to understand why they fell in love with her!
They kept asking me: “Sir, when are you going away for cricket?”
SA: How different was Saint Andrew’s when you started from what it is now?
PG: The buildings have changed. In the mid-80s, they broke down the old hostels and built the new ones that we have today, and the classrooms were renovated. My first classroom, I started teaching in the toilets, in these bathrooms on the western side of the library and the southern part of the Bailey Hall. Those bathrooms are where my first classroom was!
Physically, it has changed a lot, but I think the heart of it is still the same.
SA: Tell us about teaching with your brothers [Anton and Etienne] here. What was it like having so much family on campus?
PG: I think it was a privilege to have them here. In fact, at one stage we had four Groblers teaching here: the three brothers, Etienne, Anton and me, and Anton’s wife, Ann, taught here at the same time too. That was quite special.
(Laughing) If you wanted to confuse a junior school boy you just had to ask him to take something to Mr Grobler! He would stare at you with this blank look, not knowing where to go.
SA: And then you had both sons attend Saints.
PG: That was special as well. Both of my sons spent their whole school career from sub A to matric here. I taught both of them in grade six, which was a privilege.
Björn was Head Boy of the junior school and Deputy Head Boy in the High School. He was also the Head Chorister. He left his mark here too. Matthew was a Monitor in the junior school and a prefect in the senior school. That was special.
Pierre delivering a speech at Remembrance Day 2017
SA: You were here with your brothers, but you three also played a lot of sport together. You played hockey together for Old Greys, but then you ended up playing for Old Andreans, and you also played cricket together for Municipals [there was no Old Andreans Cricket Club at that time].
PG: We had Saints’ schoolboys playing in our men’s league. Those were special days too.
SA: Interestingly, one of my memories of those times invariably involves Anton running out Etienne, or Etienne running out Anton.
PG: (Laughing) They were famous for that!
SA: But they had usually scored enough runs by that time.
PG: They opened the batting together and, invariably, if you look at the scorebooks, one of them would have been run out.
SA: Would that lead to a lot of grumbling in the staff room?
PG: Not really, more jokes than anything else.
SA: Is that maybe why you stuck to the bowling side of things?
PG: Look, I batted as well, but I was more the bowler.
SA: How did you manage playing such serious sport, because you also played provincial hockey, with everything that was required of you at Saints? Anybody who has paid attention to teaching will know that it not just a 09:00 to 17:00 job.
PG: Luckily one does that when one is young, so you’ve got more energy, and I appreciate that now that I am older. You realise that the energy levels aren’t what they used to be.
I was busy, but somehow managed. It was time-consuming and my days were full. I think when one is healthy and able one should do these things. A lot of people don’t have those opportunities. It wasn’t easy, but those were fun days.
It was a very emotional time after Pierre's final speech as his grade sixes thanked him and exited the Chapel, many of them in tears
SA: The most important things that you, as a teacher and a human being, have wanted to instil in Saint Andrew’s boys to make them, in your mind, what a Saint Andrew’s boy is all about, what are those?
PG: I think through sport you have a tremendous influence on boys, and I have always played my sport valuing things like sportsmanship and fairness. I have played my sport like that all my life. Winning is nice and important for boys, but it is not everything.
I have tried to instil that you play as hard as you can, but you play as fairly as you can, and display sportsmanship at all times. Those are very valuable lessons.
SA: In terms of the education we are giving the boys here at Saint Andrew’s, do we have the balance right?
PG: (Pausing) Yes. I think if you look at the product that the school produces… You look at the old boys, but who perhaps weren’t the best model pupils at school. If you meet them afterwards, they are different to the others. Comments from people who have had Saints’ boys for interviews for jobs and so forth have mentioned that it stands out and it is quite obvious that manners and the way they deport themselves makes them different from other guys.
I think we are doing the right thing. We are trying to instil those values. It is more difficult these days with the discipline structures changing, but we have to not give up, and keep insisting on things like manners and neatness. Roy Gordon [the former Saint Andrew’s Headmaster] always used to say 'look after the small things and the big things will look after themselves', and that is so true. We mustn’t lose sight of that. We should keep on insisting on those values. Even though it might seem as if we don’t succeed with that, somewhere the pin drops, and those values are instilled in the boys.
SA: Roy Gordon was the Headmaster for a great deal of your time at the school. What influence did he have on you?
PG: He was a big influence. When I started teaching here, Ian Paterson was still the Headmaster, and Roy started in 1985. I had become Head of Department in 1984.
He was passionate about the school. He supported his teachers. He worked hard and, I think, made a tremendous difference to the school at a time when many changes came about, like the building of the new hostels and the renovation of the school.
He was a man I could look up to and he was a big influence in my life.
Two cornerstones of the Saint Andrew's community: Colin Hickling and Pierre Grobler
SA: Coming back to the Old Boys, what do these relationships mean to you now, so many children that have gone through your classrooms who now have their own families and are grown men?
PG: They mean a lot, a lot. Some of them I don’t recognise any more because I taught them in primary school. An example is Wesley Burmeister, who I bumped into at the golf club a couple of years ago. I had finished playing my round of golf and I was walking to the car, and this guy came and said ‘Hello, Mr Grobler’. I greeted him, but I couldn’t recognise him. I said ‘Sorry, forgive me, who are you?’, and he said ‘Wesley Burmeister’. He looked so different to my vision of him when he was in primary school. Now his son is in my class this year!
Those relationships are special. They remember me, everyone remembers me. I can’t remember all of them, because I taught so many boys and they change. They all seem appreciative of me and that means a lot.
SA: One of your great passions now is golf, and there is a group of guys [old boys] up in Johannesburg, who have had you up as a special guest from time to time. What are those days like?
PG: Very nice. My son [Björn] is part of that group, so it’s nice to be able to play with him, as well. This last time that we played, they presented me with a cap, with PG [on it] and the years that I have been at Saints, 1979 to 2018. That was so special. I really enjoy that. It’s nice to meet up with the Old Boys.
SA: In your latter sporting days, you have embraced golf, and you have also brought it back to the school. That must have given you tremendous pleasure.
PG: Absolutely! Golf is now my passion. I played hockey and cricket and all those kinds of sports when I was younger, but my days of running after a ball are gone, so I walk after a ball and hit it now. I have become passionate about the game and it is nice to be able to introduce it to the boys, because I think it is a fantastic game.
It is a game that can be beneficial to them in their business lives too. A lot of business transactions and deals are made on the golf course. To be able to play is an advantage, I think.
I am glad that the school league was revived this year. We were fortunate to get Carlos Laranja admitted to Saint Andrew’s, because he is a fantastic golfer, and he has spearheaded our league team. We battled a little bit in the beginning, but it was nice to see the steady improvement as the season went on, the boys improving and showing enthusiasm. I think, if they continue, we can develop some good golfers here.
Pierre is looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren in the future
SA: We spoke about cricket and hockey, and you played provincially in a very much amateur era. Do you find now, on the golf course, that it is rekindling those relationships with the guys that played those sports in your time, that you’re now meeting them again through golf?
PG: Absolutely. Having played competitive sport, I missed that and that was when I decided to try and make the senior provincial golf team, which I was able to do. You get to play against people you played cricket against, like Kevin McKenzie and Kenny McEwan, who was actually the first guy I ever bowled out in provincial cricket. (Laughing) I reminded him about that when I saw him at the Nationals in Cape Town. He probably doesn’t remember it, but I remember it specifically, because it was my first wicket for Free State.
It’s nice to renew those old acquaintances and rekindle memories of past days.
SA: You are so used to a routine now. You have been doing this for 40 years! What do you picture your routine becoming? Have you thought about it?
PG: I have! Something I am looking forward to is not having to wake up so early in the morning, for starters, especially in winter. (Laughing) These last couple of weeks, when the alarm has gone off at 05:30, I have thought 14 more days, 13 more days! That’s one of the parts of the routine that I am quite happy about [changing].
I think I am going to miss the routine. As I said in my speech, I am going to miss the people, and miss the kids, miss my friends and my colleagues. It is going to be difficult and it is going to be an adjustment, but I am not going to sit and do nothing. I think one just deteriorates quickly then.
SA: We hope you’re going to pop in to Saints often.
PG: Absolutely. I will definitely. I am going to miss the place.
The boys were so emotional this morning, especially the grade sixes. Adele Verster asked me to come to class because she couldn’t teach maths. They were all balling their eyes out, so I went and gave my last maths lesson to them and had a chat.
I am glad to see that – even though it feels sometimes as if I don’t make a difference – that I have made one, and that it means something to them.
SA: It’s clear you have made a difference in these relationships, and that covers relationships from the grade sixes to the boys you taught way back in ’79. You run into those guys and they are still happy to see you and want to come and speak to you. That is surely one of the definitions of a life well lived.
PG: I’d like to think so. You don’t think whether or not you are making a difference in someone’s life. Sometimes it feels as if you are not. But you are.
You become aware of it through instances like that, when they come back and thank you for things that you have done. One mentions something that you did that meant so much them, so it is nice to know that I have made a difference in someone’s life. I won’t make a difference in all of their lives, but hopefully in most of theirs.
SA: Let’s, firstly, talk about the support of the Grobler family, how it has made this possible for you, and, secondly, what your wife’s support has meant for you.
PG: I come from a large family. I am the eldest of six children. Both of my brothers taught here, as I have said. Family is everything. Your job is, obviously, important, but family is everything.
I have been lucky to have the support of family, particularly my wife. She is my rock. Without her I can’t be me. She is not my better half, she is my better nine-tenths! She is a wonderful woman and I have been so blessed to have met her.
Even before we were married, she came and taught for me [at Saints]. She has been supportive my whole life, and I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now, even, if it wasn’t for her.
Pierre's wife and "rock", Adelene
Then, of course, my children. I have been blessed, also, with three fantastic kids. They weren’t problem children. I suppose it had something to do with us as parents, but especially Adelene. She has been a fantastic mother, and being a psychologist too, she understands the psyche of kids.
I have been totally blessed and I feel honoured to have the family that I have. Now I have four grandchildren and I can spend more time with them, and I am looking forward to enjoying that. I am a lucky man.
SA: As a final comment, we would say you have that family, but there is certainly a much bigger family that you have created over these four decades.
PG: As I said this morning, they speak of the family of Saint Andrew’s, and that is what it is. It is not just another place to work. No! People mean a lot to each other and we are the family of Saint Andrew’s, we are all family. And that is special. You don’t get that all over.
I think that is why we have such long-serving members of staff as well. There isn’t a massive turnover of staff, because we feel we are part of the school and you feel that specialness of it.
I have been lucky and privileged to be here.