Master of a gentler school approach
Rex Pennington’s career embraced Bishops, Michaelhouse and St Peter’s
REX Pennington, 93, a Rhodes scholar who also fought in Italy with the Natal Carbineers is no more.
When Pennington took his last breath last Saturday, his wife of 68 years, Sarah, was at his side.
Pennington was passionate about education as he had been born into a family of renowned teachers. He was the son of Ken Pennington, the “Mr Chips of Michaelhouse” who was also fondly known as KMP.
Ken was one of five brothers written about in a widely published article in the 1980s titled “The Famous Five”. It read “The Pennington brothers made an enormous contribution to the fields of education and sport, and to the Anglican Church in Natal – a contribution that extended over 50 years of sustained effort”.
Pennington continued that legacy and enriched it and he was also blessed with an abundance of talent both as a Christian, a leader, a teacher and a sportsman.
He attended Michaelhouse where he completed his matric at age 16 with distinctions. He was head boy, vice-captain of Natal Schools rugby, and in the first teams of cricket, tennis, squash and athletics.
He spent a year at Rhodes University, then joined the Natal Carbineers in Italy the following year. He was posted to the intelligence section of The Royal Natal Carbineers in Italy under Colonel Francis, a Michaelhouse old boy.
In 1946 he was awarded the Natal Rhodes Scholarship. He read PPE, won Blues for both squash and badminton, captained Oxford squash and graduated with an MA (Oxon). In 1949 he married Sarah, the daughter of Sir Arnold Wilson DSO, who his father had met during World War I in Mesopotamia.
The newly married couple was then offered a three-year assignment to set up the English department at Casady School in Oklahoma City in the US.
In 1953 he joined the staff of Bishops Diocesan College in Cape Town where he was until 1968. He was appointed house master of White House, one of three boarding houses at Bishops. He also headed the Latin department, was in charge of drama, was the U16 rugby coach, school tennis coach and the senior officer of the Bishop’s Cadet Corps. During this time he won the Western Province Squash Championships five times. He was then appointed as vice-principal under Anthony Mallett (the father of Nick, the former Springboks coach) in 1965.
Four years later Pennington was appointed rector at Michaelhouse. He had a specific mandate: to make the school into a gentler place. He delivered on his mandate by stopping the caning of the boys, fundamentally changing initiation and expanding the awarding of honours to achievements on the sports field, the classroom and extramural activities.
One of his speeches that he delivered in response to a 1972 government report on “Differentiated Education in South Africa” was certainly rousing. He said: “No liberation is so great – and I speak here from deep personal experience – as the gift of seeing every human being simply as a human being, not as a member of any race or group. There are signs of hope and optimism – the pessimists would have us believe that the writing is on the wall. My earnest hope is that no such pessimist will ever walk out from here, that no boys will leave Michaelhouse, through ignorance or unawareness, or worst of all, unconcern.”
After nine years at the helm, Pennington resigned from Michaelhouse at the end of 1977. Anson Lloyd, then chairman of the board said in his speech day delivery when Pennington left that: “1977 must undoubtedly go down in history as Pennington Year, and the naming of the Pennington Quad in tribute to the whole Family Pennington”. Pennington was back to teaching as he found himself at St Peter’s Preparatory school in Johannesburg under one of his former pupils, Richard Todd.
Three years later he was appointed headmaster of Pace Commercial College in Orlando West, Soweto. He leaves his wife Sarah, five children, Steuart, Kathryn, Miles, Jervis and Ruth as well as 12 grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at Michaelhouse on Thursday at 2.30pm and he will be buried in the Michaelhouse cemetery.
… seeing every human being simply as a human being
DEDICATED: Rex Pennington used his talents in the service of humanity as a teacher, house master, principal and Christian.