- A Personal Tribute
My recollection of the exact time and place when I first saw Ken Matier is clear. It was on a very warm early January evening 1983, in the lounge bar of the New Union Hotel, Pretoria. The occasion was the first evening of that year’s biennial national conference of the Classical Association of South Africa. In order to more fully immerse myself in the life of the conference and to attempt to get to know my fellow delegates better, I had decided to stay in Pretoria – its eponymous university was the host that year – rather than return to Johannesburg each night.
Within hours of arriving and registering for the gathering, I was regretting the decision. At first sight a South African classical conference seemed to be utterly alien to the ones that I had come to know and enjoy in Australia over more than half a dozen years as a graduate student, then junior academic in Classical Studies. The Antipodean versions were unfailingly convivial, not to say bibulous, relaxed, and almost devoid of formality in both dress and attitude. By contrast, my first few hours’ experience of the South African counterpart seemed as different as it was possible to get. Colleagues addressed one another not by first names but predominantly by titles. They zealously attended one another’s papers. They mostly spoke to each other in a language (Afrikaans) with which I was barely acquainted. They were preponderantly male, and almost all wore suits.
As I sat in the lounge bar contemplating those few delegates who had consigned themselves to a working week cohabiting with their colleagues, my gaze was drawn to two male figures seated next to each other in large armchairs beside the hotel’s (unlit) main fireplace. The larger of the two, a robust and vivid individual with a parade-ground voice, who was consuming Amstel beers at a pace that even an Australian could admire, I learned was Dr. Ken Matier – senior lecturer in Classics at Rhodes University and shortly to be elected into the first of his two terms as national secretary of the Classical Association. The slighter of the two, a smaller, older, and very elegant individual who was chain smoking French cigarettes, Gitanes, I think, and tossing back snifters of South-African brandy, turned out to be Associate-Professor (W.) Hansel Hewitt – Rhodes departmental colleague and boon companion of Ken Matier, and destined to be chosen as the next national Vice-Chairman of the Classical Association. I introduced myself to them both, was delighted to hear that [End Page 12] they were conversing solely in English, and accepted the offer of a beer. It was to be a long evening – full of entertaining anecdotes and insights, and one that I only hazily recalled the next day. Thus began my more than 30-year friendship with Ken, which ended only with his death on Boxing Day 2017.
It was fitting and prophetic that we met at a national conference. Ken and I were to go on to attend every such meeting including the one at the University of Cape Town in 1991. We also attended most of the Colloquia Didactica which were held in the ‘off years’, the even-numbered years when national conferences were not held. For eight of these years, from 1983 to 1991, Ken continuously and with distinction served the Classical Association executive – first as Secretary (1983–1986); Chairman (1987–1988); and Vice-Chairman (1989–1990). At the 1991 conference it was Ken’s responsibility, as Vice-Chairman, to chaperone the guest of honour – none other than the national Minister for Education, Professor Gerrit Viljoen (himself a Classicist).
There was another facet to the effort that Ken put into making the Classical Association and its activities more accessible and more enjoyable. He served as an invaluable bridge between the Afrikaans- and English-speaking wings of the Association. At the beginning of the 1980s there was a sharp divide between the two. Ken’s written and spoken Afrikaans was excellent, thanks to his grounding at Wynberg Boys’ High. He could handle meetings in either of the then two official languages. An endless flow of official correspondence...