A larrikin in life who brought sport to the masses
If ever there was a larrikin in Australian sport, it was John Cheffers. A clue to this is in the 2012 Wikipedia reference to his life: “In 1972, Dr Cheffers, Professor Emeritus, founded the Boston University School of Education’s Tuesday-Thursday Physical Education Program. The program is recognised internationally for its unconventional teaching and learning environment.”
Only an Aussie larrikin would descend on such a prestigious learning institution in a foreign land with a new teaching program that challenged the roots of sports education. His office on campus was the only one to boast a well-stocked green fridge and it was a focus for Friday afternoon social gatherings.
Cheffers loved colourful shirts and was also passionate about classical music, especially Mozart. He would recite Banjo Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow at every and any opportunity.
Larrikins love to tell colourful stories, tall tales and true, and Cheffers’s children recognised this talent in their father from an earliest age. His son Andrew said, ”When dad told us a story, he made the most ordinary event sound exciting.”
John Theodore Francis Cheffers was born on May 13, 1936 into a struggling working class family in Melbourne. His family battled hard to give him the finest possible schooling and he won a scholarship to the prestigious Melbourne High School. He often walked the 10 kilometres from the city school home to Kew because he had no money for the tram fare.
He wasn’t a great student, as it turned out, but he put himself through night school to achieve his matriculation (year 12) certificate while working full-time.
He was a gifted sportsman, excelling at Australian Rules football and at 18 began a promising first grade career with Carlton. He was also talented in the high jump, long jump and pole vault and held Olympic team aspirations until a competition accident, a torn anterior cruciate ligament, in the State Athletic Championships in 1957 abruptly ended his sporting career.
This injury was the first of two major turning points that set him on his life’s career path. Unable to compete at the highest level, he turned to coaching track and field athletes.
The Coburg Athletics Club in Melbourne at the time boasted male Olympians in the 1956 Melbourne Games and he was sent to the club track one day by his former coach in 1958, thinking he was to coach young male athletes.
However, in those days, male and female sport athletics clubs were segregated, and he had been sent to the Coburg Women’s Athletic Club.
A 14-year-old teenager athlete at the track, Jean Roberts, went home that night and was asked by her father what her new coach was like. She replied ”He’s terrific! He made me feel that I mattered!”
Under Cheffers’s coaching, Roberts went on to represent Australia at the 1968 Olympic Games and four Commonwealth Games, also winning Australian and US national titles.
As a teacher, his ability to empathise with students in his classes was also evident from the beginning. During his final year as a student teacher in 1957, he was sent to a suburban primary school in Melbourne on a three-week placement. There he confronted a teacher in a class who was fond of using a leather strap on the children. Striding determinedly up to the teacher in the class room, Cheffers seized the leather weapon, refusing to hand it over. The teacher complained to the headmaster, was sacked instantly, and Cheffers was installed for the remainder of his three weeks as the class teacher.
As a young teacher, Cheffers was picked to teach in Melbourne’s Preston East High School, where the housing commission children of struggling World War II veterans mixed with impoverished migrant children living in tough transition camps.
He developed a reputation as a teacher with passion, in the classroom and on the sports field.
In 1958, Cheffers married Margaret Bingham, his childhood sweetheart. Then came the second turning point in Cheffers’s career. In 1968, he was appointed to develop standards of sporting excellence in athletics in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and to be head coach of the Rhodesian Olympic athletics team for the Mexico Games.
Together with photographer Dave Paynter, he initiated a sports photo that went world wide in June 1968, depicting the team’s marathon athlete Mathias Kanda running against a steam train known as The Gwelo to Selukwe Flyer.
Rhodesia was banned from competition in Mexico because of the world protest against apartheid, despite the country having a multi-racial Olympic selection policy. Believing that politics had no place in sport, Cheffers strongly disagreed with the black power salute by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico Games.
He also believed he had failed the athletes of Rhodesia and returned to Australia to write a book about the injustice done to his athletes. A Wilderness of Spite or Rhodesia Denied tells the story of Rhodesia’s Olympic ban from the point of view of two black athletes and their coach.
Cheffers had no money to get the book published, but nevertheless, he dictated it at the kitchen table, transcribed in longhand and typed up. He eventually took the manuscript with him to America, took out a loan and published it privately in 1972.
In 1969, Cheffers coached the Papua New Guinea national athletics team at the third South Pacific Games, then, in the early 1970s, took his family and his passion to the US to pursue his academic career. A doctorate in education at Temple University in 1973 was followed by tenure at Boston University in 1974.
It was in Boston the Cheffers philosophy of teaching blossomed. His unconventional methods reached out to everyone, from disadvantaged kids in the public school system to academics and became one of Boston University’s longest-running community service initiatives.
In 1984, Cheffers was appointed president of AIESEP (the Association Internationale des Ecoles Superieures d’Education Physique) and in 1986, returned to academia in Boston until his retirement in 2002, when he was made a professor emeritus. He spent a productive retirement in Murrumbateman near Canberra.
During his academic career, Cheffers wrote 16 books on sport and education. His final publication, in 2011, Only the Educated are Free summed up his life’s teaching philosophy.
John Cheffers is survived by Margaret, their children Paul, Mark, Leigh and Andrew and 17 grandchildren.