John O’Brien, (1937 – 2017)

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

It is my sad duty to inform you that John O’Brien, who served Maru-a-Pula for 24 years, beginning in 1976, passed away on Thursday, 23 November 2017 at the age of 80.

John became Second Master in 1978 and served four Maru-a-Pula headmasters in that capacity.

I have excerpted what MaP’s first three headmasters had to say on the occasion of John’s retirement in 1999:

Malcolm McKenzie:
“John has served Maru-a-Pula for a quarter of a century. He has been Deputy Principal to three leaders of the school. People who don’t know schools that well often think that it is the Head or Principal who is the most important person in the institution. Often, however, that is not the case. I have no doubt that much of what has been achieved at Maru-a-Pula since its founding can be directly and indirectly attributes to John O’Brien. I loved working with John and I appreciated his support of me more than even he, with his spacious imagination, can know. I esteem his friendship. I admire his service and commitment to our fine school. OB knows the real MaP better than anyone. He is the custodian of its spirit. Long may he continue to watch over it and guide it, when necessary, through the wisdom of his advice.”

David Matthews:
” I would first like to thank J.O’B. for having taught me how to make compost! … It is thanks to his skill that many members of the BBH have enjoyed the shade of the two olive trees which stand near its entrance. I would then like to thank J.O’B. for The Royal Hunt of the Sun and The Caucasian Chalk Circle which were two magnificent outdoor productions. … I would like to thank him for the excellent work he did in leading and inspiring the A-Level students. I would like to thank him for having been the partner he was to me throughout my years as Head at MaP, the planning of going three-stream, the planning and dreaming we did of what became Maitisong, the planning of what became the upstairs of the Library, the planning of AV and Computer Centre. They were good times. What I would like to thank J. O’B. most for, outside of his friendship of some 55 years, are the MaP gardens, trees and grounds. They are a heritage which every generation will enjoy and will be changed by.”

Deane Yates:
“There are many who say that now in 1999 Maru-a-Pula is one of the best secondary schools in Southern and Central Africa both for what it stands for and for what it has achieved. This position has been bought, not by wealth, but earned by the men and women who have given themselves to it. Most certainly John O’Brien must be ranked among the foremost of these. It is not enough to recall that he has given twenty-four years of his life in its service – and who else can match such a record? – but towering above all else has been the uniqueness of his commitment. During that time he has given himself wholly and completely to the School. Indeed his whole life has been Maru-a-Pula. Hundreds of students, both past and present, must know that John O’Brien has had a great part to play in the moulding of their lives. He has helped to make them what they are. Very much of him and what he stands for has rubbed off on them, and they are very much the richer for it.
Who started the first compost heap at Maru-a-Pula in what was then a school in the desert? And look at the beauty of the School’s landscape today! Who will ever forget the production of Sophocles’ Antigone? John O’Brien in the classroom. John O’Brien the counsellor – the list is endless. But there is one moment to his work which is very special because it is unique.
In the fifth year of the school’s existence, Estella Matthews, the wife of the then Second Master, David Matthews, was found to be suffering from an illness for which the necessary treatment could not then be provided in Botswana. She and her husband had to leave Maru-a-Pula and return to Johannesburg. At one stroke, the School lost its SEcond Master and a very experienced teacher too. The performance of David Matthews’ successor would certainly make the difference between success and failure, survival or death. Surrounded by many detractors and few supporters, with resources which were meagre, to say the least, so very much depended on what the impact of the Second Master would make on this frail, but growing organism. That was 1978. Now it’s 1999! Our message for John must be “si monumentum requiris, circumspice – if you are looking for a monument, take a look around.”

As a young history teacher at MaP from 1980-84 I benefitted from John’s abundant wisdom, inspiration and insight. Similarly, from 2004 until the present, John has been a valued sounding board for many ideas about how to take the school forward. In July, 2013, I was honoured to accompany John as he attended the world premier, in Bregenz Austria, of Andre Tchaikovsky’s opera, The Merchant of Venice, for which John wrote the libretto. It was wonderful to see him take a bow before an audience of over a thousand opera lovers.

But, most of all, I valued John’s friendship. John’s knowledge of plants and trees and his understanding of classical music, art and literature was encyclopedic. He was a compelling conversational companion and over any meal or drink, it was possible to learn a great deal.

I will miss him dearly. John O’Brien served Maru-a-Pula with great distinction, passion and loyalty. May he rest in peace.

All the best,

Andrew S. Taylor
MaP Principal