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Friday, 20 November 2015

R.I.P. FRANCISZEK KIEPIEL, 12.02.1921 - 17.11.2015


On Tuesday this week, two mighty warriors fell.  The first was the legendary New Zealand rugby winger, Jonah Lomu.  The other was the legendary husband, father, uncle, brother, bee-keeper, golfing companion and friend, Franciszek (Frank) Kiepiel.  With some exceptions, the two did not have much in common.  Lomu was a giant of a man, 6ft 6" and weighing 120kg.  Frank was nearly a foot shorter and 50kg lighter.  Lomu lived for rugby whilst Frank despised it, thinking it was a barbaric and stupid game.  Tragically this particular gene was passed on to his daughter, Kazalette.  Jonah Lomu died at the tender age of 40.  Frank outlasted him by 54 years.

Those differences aside, there were some similarities.  Off the field, Lomu’s friends and adversaries alike described him as incredibly humble and a wonderful human being.  For the 35 years that he has known Frank, this son-in-law would, amongst other things, unhesitatingly describe him as incredibly humble and a wonderful human being.  Jonah Lomu would sweep aside with disdainful apparently inhuman strength all who would try to prevent him from scoring tries.  He was unstoppable.  Frank was similarly unstoppable when pursuing a goal, but he did it by sweeping up with him all who might object, persuading them to share in his enthusiasm and determination.  The only meaningful and occasionally successful resistance he ever met came from my equally wonderful mother-in-law, Joan.

Frank’s life story is nothing short of heroic and astounding.  Time doesn’t permit its full re-telling right now and indeed most of the information about the torrid time he spent in a Siberian labour camp during WW II and his trek by foot from that camp through Kazakhstan, Afghanistan to Iran after the Russians joined the allies and freed him and his colleagues have for the most part gone to the grave with him. However, occasionally over a beer (or some more sinister drink with Polish origins), Frank would let slip some of the horrors that he had experienced. 

After reaching Baghdad on foot he somehow made his way to New Delhi and then caught a ship from India which took him around the Cape of Good Hope, a place he noted as a future home.  He arrived in England and joined the Polish RAF to complete his contribution to the war effort.  Then, in a village called North Muskham in the English Midlands, whilst learning English from a local volunteer, his teacher’s pretty young daughter hit on him. Although she knew no Polish and Frank could only speak about two words of English at the time, Joan must have done a pretty good job in chatting him up. Whatever they managed to convey to each other started a love affair which lasted more than 70 years.  Despite the language and cultural barriers, somehow this extraordinary relationship was kindled, caught fire and culminated in an epic congflagration which had no prospect of ever fizzling out. 

Julian was born in England and the family then migrated to South Africa where Kazalette was born 13 years later.  After arriving in South Africa, joined the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (Allen Wilson Shellhole - MOTHS), that noble organisation which supports the soldiers who have fought in the Great Wars, which became a big part of his life.  Frank later started a road construction business. Some of you may not know it, but virtually every road on which you have ever driven in northern, central or southern rural Kwazulu Natal was constructed by Frank.  He had an astounding engineering brain.  No gadget, widget, machine or vehicle could last long without Frank effecting some sort of improvement or long lasting repair.  Even the likes of golf equipment manufacturers like Titleist, TaylorMade and Ping could have saved millions of dollars in R&D costs had they only looked in Frank’s golfbag.  There was barely a club that didn’t have a modification: a piece filed off here, some lead soldered on there, square hand grips designed with metal reinforcing bars and so on.  He never quite managed to tweak one putter he liked sufficiently, collecting a mere 14 of them in his quest for the perfect putt. Admittedly, when he invented or repaired something, aesthetics were not a particularly high priority, with almost everything being finished off with a signature coat of his beloved red anti-oxidising paint.

His generosity knew no bounds and was closely allied to his love and care for the people around him and his ability to see the bigger picture.  This was no better illustrated than by his gift to Joan on an anniversary or birthday some years ago She received a grass-cutting tractor on which she could ride around in the garden.  As with any woman receiving the gift of her dreams, Joan was incredibly grateful and seemed to understand the bigger picture (which was presumably that she would not then have to push a lawnmower around the garden).

Every time his impecunious son-in-law arrived at the farm outside Pietermaritzburg to visit his daughter in a student’s car of dubious reliability, Frank would immediately refill the tank, usually replace the tyres and effect any other necessary running repairs.  For many years I thought this was symptomatic of his generosity, but eventually realised that the bigger purpose was presumably to ensure that his daughter’s ride did not get stuck at the side of the road.

Frank was a wonderful and loyal friend to all who knew him, with his only foible being his occasional need to try and poison people with a toxic bottle of Polish Spiritus drawn from his freezer, a disturbing and on-going habit of mis-directed hospitality shared by all of his countrymen. On the eve of the 1981 rowing Intervarsity and Natal Champs he set about poisoning my rowing crew in this manner. Resistance was futile. However, in the context of the bigger picture, his behaviour facilitated a very good night’s sleep for all of us and somehow our wicked head-aches spurred us on to great heights and famous victories that weekend.

 Frank was incredibly resilient, enjoying more lives than a cat, having endured a near fatal car accident, aortic aneurism, quadruple bypass, prostate cancer, a stroke and numerous other medical bullets which he managed to duck each time. His resilience was always, I suspect, to ensure that he would not have to leave his beloved Joan. 

Emerging from all of his hardship, he was classically a self-made man who doted on his family both in South Africa and Poland and especially his children and grandchildren. 

Frank, whilst the legend of your extraordinary life may not have been as widespread as that of Jonah Lomu, you were a hero, a legend and a precious human being to all who knew you. You were well-loved and will be sorely missed.  Go well.  Hamba kahle! Rest in peace.

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