The spirit of one


The spirit of oneMr.George Mackay

By Bernard VanCuylenburg


Rather late on the road of an Antonian journey, I take my place in line, pen in hand as I endeavour to pay tribute to a gentleman whose name now dwells in the realms of legend in the Antonian community and beyond. I am at a distinct disadvantage because, although I was a student of that venerable institution St Anthony’s College, I did not study under the great man and in my entire 11 years of life as an Antonian never had any conversations with him particularly about the things that matter in life.

We crossed each other’s paths many times and, apart from the customary greeting, went our separate ways – one of the disadvantages of being an “Arts’ student! However, his second son Louis and I were classmates from the second standard in 1951 right up to the senior form, until I left college in January 1962 and I think Louis left at the end of 1963.

Friendships forged in childhood run deep and through Louis I came to know and virtually had some insight into the Macky family and his iconic dad. Disadvantage No.3 is that over the years many articles have been written about Mr George Macky, and I feel I am only trying to gild the lily, concerning the high standard of literary ornamentation in the brilliant tributes that have been paid to him over the years.

The initials in his name GM seem to signify the mettle and spirit of the man. The “Great Man” who was George Macky. My impressions of George Macky are not first hand, but those fragrant petals that I have treasured in memory’s chain are from having watched him from afar. I also recollect what many of his students told me when I was in college, and even after I left those marbled halls.

George Macky was not a magic teacher, but a realist who made most of the realities at hand. He was of a rare breed that had the power to discover enduring truths, making him popular with his students who succumbed to a beguiling vision, of a world unmoored from reality’s restraints. So why did he shine and excel in the challenging task of teaching?

St.Anthony's College Football 1930

It was not just his reputation and the aura about him, but his strength of character that drove him on. He had a total Joie de Teaching. It oozed from every pore and his showcase was the many students he taught and nurtured. He commanded the class as a teacher who never gave less than his all. And his students never gave him less than the best results in their exams, and their unconditional love. He also brought a magic realism into the mainstream. He loved his students. By love, I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encouraged one to develop courage and build bridges. And then, to trust those bridges and cross them in an attempt to reach other human beings – which is exactly what he did by his teaching.

He also had the rare ability to cross the social spectrum with equal insight and empathy – a trait that endeared him to many. To quote one of his past students, “He did not believe in the “professional pattern’ that invariably left the less capable to manage the best way they could…” And, always impeccably turned out, his sartorial elegance added to the Macky mystique.

This same student emphasised the fact that although he did not tolerate careless mistakes, never in living memory did he use the cane or hands by way of punishment. All his past pupils will vouch for this. I personally remember an incident where he refused to enter the classroom, until the cane which was left on the desk by the teacher who had taught the class in the preceding period was removed. This student paid a very humble but “straight from the heart” tribute to his old teacher when he told me: “I will remember him as a great teacher, a good man and most importantly, a great human being…..”

Another past student of my vintage paid this classic tribute to his old teacher when he told me: “He made me fall in love with mathematics! To this day, I can take ‘short cuts’ in this complex field and surprise my accountant friends. What he taught me paid rich dividends in my professional life which included wage fixing and negotiations. I would rate Mr George Macky as world class.” Tributes do not come better than this.

This student also was appointed a prefect. On the day of his appointment Mr Macky congratulated him with these words, “I must congratulate you, but I voted against your appointment because your father and I are friends!” That was typical of the man. He was true to rigid codes of conduct and intolerant of cronyism. This student who was with me in boarding school and later played cricket for college, recalls an incident where his father (also an old Antonian) presented him with an expensive Swiss watch as a reward for doing well in a cricket match. He wore the watch with pride and the next day chanced to meet Mr Macky along the corridor in the quadrangle.

Noticing the expensive watch Mr Macky told him: “Tell your father not to buy you expensive watches. Instead, tell him to buy you things which will improve your mind.” To the credit of this particular student, he never resented what some would perceive to be sarcasm, reflecting that Mr GM only wanted him to rethink his priorities and in the greater scheme of things, learn what to value most in life. He also added, “To me, Mr George Macky was the oracle. When he told you anything, you took it seriously. A stern and uncompromising disciplinarian at first glance, once you really knew him, you had the confidence to go to him with any problem, personal or otherwise. I looked upon him as a father-figure and the perfect gentleman: dignified decorous and always predictable in his ways.”

That is one of the most glowing tributes from a student to his teacher that I have ever read.

There are several layers to the George Macky story, but there is one that shines like a beacon to anybody who loses hope in a sometimes dark world. He was successful in the London BA Examination in the classics, securing a pass in Latin, Greek, English and Pure Mathematics. What is laudable about this success is that he achieved it by sheer dint of self-study, without a teacher. And, life was not always kind to GM. He recalled that at the time he had no desk and a light. As he said, “My desk was a box, and for light all I had was a bottle lamp.” In the vernacular, that would be a pakkis pettiya and a bothal lampu.

One particular incident laced with humour is worth mentioning. Mr. Macky was taking an English Language class where the subject under study was a poem titled Mrs Reece Laughs, taken from the book, All Poetry. The principal character in this poem, Mrs Reece had a dimple. Mr Macky came to a line in the poem which read “Laughter with Mrs Reece is much less simple. It generates, it spreads, dimple by dimple…” Stopping the lesson for a while, he asked the class if anybody knew what a dimple was. One student, brimming with enthusiasm, promptly arose and, facing the rest of the class, pointed to the large pimple on his face. He had confused the “dim” and the “pim”. Loud laughter followed this display, with Mr Macky joining in heartily.

I am grateful to Tom Deen for informing me of this anecdote.

His talents and ability were not confined to the halls of academia. They were on display for all to see on the playing fields of St Anthony’s and beyond. His prowess in cricket, soccer, and athletics was dream material for any sports journalist, and an inspiration to a lover of sport. He captained the college cricket, soccer and hockey teams, winning the coveted Eagle in cricket. It did not end there because he also excelled in tennis and billiards.

George Macky later captained that All Star soccer team known as “The Invincibles”. Included is a photo of this team shown to me by another Antonian Orville Selliah, whose dad Vincent Selliah also was a member of this formidable side. In the same team and also in the picture is his brother, Charlie Macky, whose son is old Antonian Desmond, another Antonian great, Robert Wright and Alec Guneratne, another old Antonian whose sons Freddy, Paddy, Gerry and Merry, are old Antonians. Watching his artistry on the soccer field another prominent old boy of Mr Macky’s vintage observed “He could head a ball into the goal without disturbing his hair!” Now that is sartorial elegance on a hitherto unimaginable level.

He had a sense of humour, which was predictable and unpredictable at the same time. One of his best students was seated under the landmark poinciana tree when Mr GM passing by, asked him what position he had achieved in class. The student said that he had come first. To which Mr. Macky replied, “But that is useless because you cannot hold a bat.”

This same student later became a neurosurgeon, and today practices in England.

As a finale, I have to part the curtain of memory and time travel back to the year 1865, to a land far, far, from the sacred grounds of St Anthony’s College. We are now in the White House a day after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. His formidable Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, and other officials are standing round the coffin of the late President, the silence of the room broken only by muffled sobs. Mr Stanton was asked to say a few words. Tears streaming down his face he began a speech which ended with these immortal words “And now he belongs to the ages…”

Fast forward to the present day, and 150 years later, his words echo the sentiments of all Antonians who with one voice would say in an Antonian context, when the legends, lore and stories about that great college on the hill are told and retold, for generations to come, “George Macky too belongs to the ages.”

I am grateful to the old Antonians who provided me with information for this article. One was a contemporary of mine, and the others belonged to an older generation of Antonians.

And I penned this tribute “To Sir with love…”

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