E.L. Cheriton (1957-1976)

Cheri was a prankster. I wasn’t the only one he shoved into trouble. It took me a while to figure out that the set-ups were really lessons, lessons in behaving with grace under pressure. How one is and what one does when “The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead” is a serious measure of one’s worth as a friend. And that friendship was with a man of parts.

Those who saw only the physical Cheriton, the track and field coach, the rugby coach, the softball player, the martial arts practitioner, the sailor, the canoe builder, the gadgets man, the backwoodsman, missed the Renaissance man; the man with two master of arts degrees and a diploma in naturopathy and the man who knew New Zealand geography in minute detail, its towns and hamlets, its mountains, waterways and vegetation. And he knew so much about the rest of the world, too.

Cheri was a man of letters. He was very well read. He had his favourites, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway; but he read much else besides.

This was the character who knew just about every song that came out of New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis and sang them; well-lubricated and well into the next morning. Something else he taught me, so what if it’s 5.30am on a Saturday morning, go home, have a shower and get out there and organise your rugby team.

When Dave Thomson phoned me and said, “Eugene’s dead” it was the first of a couple of days of back and forth “Have-you-heard-that-Cheri’s-dead?” phone calls. And then the stories started. And what stories! This was no ordinary man.

The last time I saw Eugene Cheriton in this lifetime was at the after-match function of Bruce Ashby’s funeral. Bruce had written the valedictory for Cheri in the 1976 The Albertian. He wrote “following Cheri is a trail, labyrinthine of facts, legends, myths and lies that is difficult to follow and complex to read ‘” and “‘ he appeared before the players of the 1960s as Svengali; his presence alone induced trance, once he had fixed the old eye on them as Bernie Allen, Captain in 1967 said ‘We were too scared to lose.’ ”

Cheri and Bruce were iconoclastic, seemingly indestructible brothers-in-arms, yet both were stricken with grave illnesses. Despite this, neither of them lost his sense of the ridiculous or of the marvellous. They had made a pact, a sort of tontine-without-the-money. It concerned a poem; a magical, luminous sound-poem, Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas (who else? There was more than a bit of the boyo in both of them). The agreement was that the survivor would read it in memory of the deceased. Cheri kept the bargain and made a fine fist of it. “Who’s going to read that poem for Cheri?”, I was asked more than once. “Dunno”, I said to Bruce’s widow, Ellen. In the end it came down to me. I was both honoured to do it, and mystified by its meaning; not an easy poem to read or to comprehend on hearing it. But Cheri didn’t do “easy”. Push yourself beyond what you think are your limits was more his style.

His funeral service was wonderful. Speaker after speaker gave elegant testimony to the life and the times of Eugene Leonard Cheriton. Those of us who thought we knew him pretty well learnt more things about him.

Two generations of the Maxwell family sang a lovely gentle song. Yes, Cheri was a civil, courteous, gracious man too. There were enough Old Boys who had made the trip to Taupo to make up a couple of First XVs and a team of them got up and belted out “Leaving on a Jet Plane”. Evocative stuff.

He will live forever in the memory of his old colleagues and friends, of his pupils and players, of those up and down the country who held him in esteem, of the Maxwell family and of Jeanette who loved him.

In words from the ancient prayer for the dead of the faith in which he was raised, “May perpetual light shine upon him.”

Brian Murphy