‘Unsung hero’ passes away

Robert Vance Gow-Kleinschmidt

The education fraternity in the Western Cape mourns the loss of an unsung hero whose lifelong dedication to teaching was highlighted at a Catholic requiem mass funeral service in Strandfontein.

Strandfontein resident Robert Vance Gow-Kleinschmidt, 62, was laid to rest after a six-year battle with bone cancer, which saw him travelling to India in search of cancer medication.

Robert, born on September 21 1955 in Cape Town, passed away peacefully on Thursday January 4.

He was the sixth child of 11 siblings born to MacGowan and Grace Kleinschmidt and delivered by his grandmother, midwife, Ella Gow-Kleinschmidt in Athlone.

Because of his blood condition, he was rushed to the Red Cross Children’s Memorial Hospital, fighting for his infant life. During his emergency medical treatment and not expected to live, it was the hospital officials who inadvertently registered him Gow-Kleinschmidt. Hence the double barrel surname, and this twist of fate resulting in him being the first generation of Gow-Kleinschmidts.

Robert attended the Alicedale and Central primary schools in Athlone and Diep River respectively, and matriculated from Heathfield High School, where he excelled at long distance running.

He ran his first marathon at the tender age of 17, and trained with star track sprinter Terrence Smith. Both were trained by the late Andrew October.

Bishop Ivan Abrahams of the International Methodist Church, also an alumni of Heathfield High, was also Robert’s athletics training buddy and applauded his fighting spirit and tenacity.

While at Heathfield High he was exposed to the Black Consciousness Movement and mentored by his elder brother Mackie and inspired by the work of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko.

His political consciousness grew exponentially while studying towards a teaching diploma at the Hewat Teachers’ Training College, where he served with distinction on the Student Representative Council with ex-Spine Road High School principal, Riyaad Najaar.

His elder brother, Mackie an ex-regional chief curriculum adviser for the Western Cape Education Department, said: “The education profession has lost a humble giant, who dedicated his life, even while battling cancer, to educating the marginalised sectors of our communities. He commenced his teaching career at Grassy Park High School where he taught mathematics and general science for six years, a short spell at Woodlands High, and then taking up a promotion post at Duneside Primary School in Westridge, Mitchells Plain, where he went on to become principal.”

Another sibling, Olwill, quoted the following biblical verses about his brother: “Robert has fought the good fight of faith physically and spiritually” as Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy 6 verse 12, and from Hebrews 12 :1 : “and let us run with endurance (like Robert) the race set before us.”

After retiring from Duneside Primary School to embark on a teaching career in New Zealand, Robert shortly returned to South Africa, where he took up the post of director of the maths and science educational organisation SALI (South African Leadership Institute). His excellent work in township schools and success in obtaining donor funding for the projects, saw him being head hunted by ASSET Education Trust, another educational NGO.

Having taught alongside my “big” brother at Duneside Primary for 12 years, his encouragement was abounding and his positive influence on my career spurred me on to become principal of Die Duine Primary in Lotus River. He was my role model and mentor.

Robbie, as he was affectionately known to his colleagues, was a former chairperson of the South Peninsula Athletics Club during the South African Council on Sports (SACOS) era, a member of the South Peninsula High School Governing Body, serving with ex-principal Brian Isaacs, and served on various educational bursary funds and organisations.

Robbie’s contribution to education is incalculable and his humility and shying away from the limelight earned him the respect of many of his peers. His lifelong fight to uplifting the lives of his charges is a victory superseding his losing the battle against cancer.

Robbie had a wry sense of humour, loved jazz music and cricket, and was proud of the achievements of his four sons Grant, Alex, Erle and Robin. His wife Cheryl of 39 years remarked: “I am proud and it was a privilege to share Robbie with the various schools and educational institutions he served. His passion for teaching, and his love for his work and family was enormous.”

She added: “Robbie was a loyal and loving husband and father, and an exemplary role model to our boys. He never shied away from helping others and as a catechist in the local Catholic church, he loved teaching his confirmation students, often challenging them on moral issues.”

Former University of the Free State vice-chancellor, Professor Jonathan Jansen, said: “It is with great sadness that we bid farewell to this remarkable educationist who dedicated his life to fostering a culture of learning and teaching during his tenure.

“He leaves behind a rich legacy we all can learn from, and importantly, implement to honour his memory and dedication to education.”

Robbie is survived by his wife, Cheryl, and sons Grant, Alex, Erle, Robin and grandson, Luca.

A Requiem Mass was held on Wednesday January 10 at St Philips Catholic Church, Strandfontein.

Mark Kleinschmidt is the ward councillor for Ward 60 (Lansdowne, Rondebosch East, parts of Athlone, Crawford, Mowbray and Sybrand Park).