There is an old Irish saying that the men who would have enjoyed a wake most are the only ones who couldn’t be there. The ones for whom the celebration was organised.
And so it was for Hylton Ackermann at Newlands on Tuesday. Over 400 people packed into the Oaks Room at Hylt’s famous old stamping ground and there wasn’t a dry eye amongst them by the time the Memorial Service ended – although most tears were caused by laughter rather than sadness.
Trevor Quirk displayed an extraordinary touch as Master of Ceremonies, hiding nothing of the emotion of the occasion but avoiding none of the humour and good grace which characterised Ackermann’s life.
His talent was celebrated and rejoiced, but almost in passing because it was the character of the man which everybody preferred to remember. He was selected in five successive years for SA Schools XI and scored a century for Border against England in the last of them, a record which will almost certainly never be broken. Or even sniffed.
Yet his feats on the field, as fine as they were, were overshadowed by the brightness of his personality, the sharpness of his humour and the depth of his compassion.
Cally Barlow, Eddies’s widow, sent a message from her home in north Wales. It concluded with the following tale: “After Eddie had his stroke in Bangladesh in 2000 he was hospitalised at about the same time Hylton was hospitalised for the first time. Eddie phoned Hylton from his hospital ward to share their stories and told him: ‘Hylt, I’m learning how to walk again.’ To which Hylton replied: ‘You, walk?! Eddie, you never walked once in your entire life!’
The tears hadn’t even stopped, let alone dried, when the next story was delivered. The one about how he and Mike Procter paid their overdue rent in Durban when they were in their early 20s (involving a landlady in her mid-40s), about his inheritant compulsion to make fun of himself, and his ability to bat all day – even weeks – in order not to lose his spot at the crease on the Dale College junior school playground.
The penultimate word went to Hylton’s greatest and longest friend, which is quite a moniker given how many friends he made – the great HO de Villiers. The man was awash with emotion, yet he shared it with his audience rather than hid it which made the 400+ unable to control their tears. Even though HO, unexpectedly, managed to control his.
“A lot of friends offered me advice about how to control my emotions today,” he said. “My wife told me to keep a glass of water close by…but I’m too worried about filling it up! Another man offered me a pill. I said ‘what’s this?’ He said it was viagra. I said ‘How will that help with my nervousness?’ He replied: ‘It won’t, but it will give you something to hold onto when you’re delivering your speech’.”
HO de Villiers described, in stunning and real-life terms, what genuine friendship meant. Finally, Hylton’s son, the incomparable HD, had the final word. Inexplicably, his voice barely wavered. Tempting as it may be to declare his courage, his manful determination not to let his father down at the last hurdle and his strength of character, it must be said that few ‘first sons’ could ever hope to bid farewell to their father in front of a larger, fonder or more appreciative audience than Hylton junior enjoyed.
Special people flew in from all over the country, and the world – notably Holland – to be at the Memorial service, some who were friends for most of Hylton’s life and some who were recent but close acquantiances from various hospitals around the country where Hylton had dialysis on a near daily basis for the last five years of his life.
Just as the service of celebration was beginning, three or four more late visitors arrived and stood at the back of the room – no seats available. Cameramen and sound engineers, unknown and anonymous to all there, but not to Hylton Ackermann who befriended everyone and anyone with whom he worked. They may have been late, but they sure as hell weren’t going to miss the chance to say goodbye to ‘Dutchie’.
Rest in Peace, Hylton, and I promise I won’t tell the story about the fire-axe. Not for a while, anyway. xxx
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