Athletics coach with big heart and lust for excellence




13-5-1936 - 28-10-2012

IF EVER there was a larrikin in Australian sport, it was John Theodore Francis Cheffers.

A clue to his larrikin streak is contained 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 teaching program that challenged the very roots of sports education.

Larrikins love to tell colourful stories, tall tales and true, and from an early age Cheffers' four children recognised his talent for enhancing reality. His son Andrew says of his father: "When dad told us a story, he made the most ordinary event sound exciting. He left us kids always wanting to hear more."

Cheffers' daughter Leigh says of her father: "Dad was always positive. For him the glass was always half full. He made us hopeful, against all the odds."

Cheffers was born into a working-class family in Melbourne during the Great Depression. He won a scholarship to Melbourne High School, from where he often walked home to Kew because he had no money for the tram fare.

As it turned out, he was not a great student, 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 the age of 18 in 1955 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 his sporting career was brought to an abrupt halt in 1957 when he tore an anterior cruciate ligament at the state athletic championships.

The injury was the first of two turning points that set him on his career path. Unable to compete at the highest level, he turned to coaching track and field athletes.

One day in 1958 he was sent to the Coburg Athletics Club track where he expected to be coaching young male athletes - the club boasted members who had competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. There was no male athlete in sight. He was surrounded by enthusiastic young females. In those days, male and female sport athletics clubs were segregated, and the Coburg Women's Athletic Club needed a coach.

A 14-year-old field-event athlete at the track, Jean Roberts, went home that night and was asked by her father what her new coach was like. "He's terrific!" she replied. "He made me feel that I mattered!"

Under Cheffers' coaching, Roberts went on to represent Australia at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico and at four Commonwealth Games, also winning Australian and US national titles.

As a teacher, Cheffers' empathy for students was evident from the start. In 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 who was fond of using a leather strap to terrorise the class. Striding up to the teacher in the classroom, he seized the leather weapon and refused to hand it back. The teacher complained to the school headmaster, was sacked instantly, and Cheffers was installed for the rest of the three weeks as the class teacher.

In later years, the larrikin in Cheffers surfaced whenever he was asked to recount the incident. He would grin and declare: "It helped that the headmaster was a Carlton supporter!"

As a young teacher he was picked to teach at Preston East High School, where the housing commission kids of struggling World War II veterans mixed with impoverished migrant kids displaced from war-torn Europe. He would coach the school footy team at 7am, then get the female students to help make breakfast so the kids could get through their school day.

Cheffers' son Mark says of his father: "Dad was a sports psychologist long before the two words were used together. He was able to put himself in the shoes of the kids he taught and coached. He could get into their minds."

Mark tells the story of a schoolboy high jumper who was unable to clear the bar when it was set at six feet (1.83 metres), yet could clear the bar at 5 feet 11 inches with several inches to spare. Cheffers set the bar at 5 feet 11 inches but secretly placed wooden blocks under the supports so that the bar was actually 6 feet 2 inches above the ground. The athlete sailed over at the next attempt.

A spark had ignited, and Cheffers began his teaching quest to help students and athletes from all backgrounds, especially the disadvantaged, overcome adversity in sport.

In 1958 Cheffers married Margaret, his childhood sweetheart, beginning a partnership of love and loyalty that was to endure a lifetime.

The second turning point in his career was in 1968 when he was appointed to raise athletic standards in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and to be head coach of Rhodesia's athletics team for the Mexico Olympics.

He took his passion and his coaching psychology to the towns, schools and the poorest villages throughout the country, promoting excellence in sport and making many friends.

Together with master photographer Dave Paynter in the capital Salisbury (now Harare), he initiated a sports photo that went worldwide as photo of the month for Associated Press in June 1968. The idea was to promote the Olympic team, and the photo depicted the team's marathon athlete, Mathias Kanda, running against a steam train known as the Gwelo to Selukwe Flyer.

Another distance runner, Bernard Dzoma, said recently of Cheffers: "Coach John inspired Mathias and me. He made us realise what we could achieve. We all owe him a lot in Zimbabwe."

However, Kanda and Dzoma, the two members of the athletics team, never made it to the Olympics. Rhodesia was banned from competition in Mexico because of the world protest against apartheid, despite the country having a multi-racial Olympic selection policy.

The ban on his athletes affected Cheffers deeply. He believed he had failed them and he returned to Australia fired up to write a book about the injustice. A Wilderness of Spite or Rhodesia Denied, his first book, tells the story of Rhodesia's Olympic ban from the viewpoint of the two black athletes and their coach. He eventually had it published privately in the US.

In 1969 Cheffers coached the Papua New Guinea national athletics team at the third South Pacific Games, then early the following year 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.

In Boston the Cheffers philosophy of teaching blossomed. His unconventional methods reached out to everyone, from disadvantaged kids in the public school system to the most serious of academics, and became one of Boston University's longest-running community service initiatives for the city of Boston.

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. Those who popped in for conviviality and refreshments were invariably greeted with a hearty "G'day, ya rotten bastard!"

In 1984 he was lured back to Australia as the second director of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. He had a vision that sporting excellence at the AIS should not be confined to the winning of Olympic medals.

He fought hard for two years to develop the teaching of the institute's standards in all states and territories, at all levels of ability, across all the barriers of disadvantage in the Australian community. In the process, he incorporated his philosophy of support for indigenous athletes, women and the disabled within the institute's objectives.

In 1984 he was also appointed president of AIESEP (Association Internationale des Ecoles Superieures d'Education Physique) and in 1986 he went back to academia in Boston where he stayed until his retirement in 2002. Returning to Australia, he spent a productive retirement in Murrumbateman, a town north of Canberra.

In July this year, on a final visit to see Mark and Leigh in the US, he became seriously ill. On the return on October 28, flying first class somewhere high over the Pacific just a few hours from home, he fell asleep for the last time. He was 76.

Associates and former students at Boston University hail him as a visionary, a great teacher who taught them all to really care about what they do and have passion for it.

A prolific author, Cheffers wrote 16 books on sport and education and produced many published articles. His final publication, last year, Only the Educated Are Free, summed up his teaching philosophy.

Cheffers would recite Banjo Paterson's Clancy of the Overflow at every opportunity. Like Clancy, he saw a vision splendid and pulled out all stops to live that vision throughout his life. He aspired to excellence and he made people believe they could achieve whatever they reached for. Through it all he was a loyal friend who never forgot his working-class roots.

Cheffers is survived by Margaret, their children Paul, Mark, Leigh and Andrew, and 17 grandchildren.

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