Senator Alan Eggleston

Speeches

11
  • Honouring Akos Kovacs
Tonight I wish to honour the memory of Akos Kovacs, who was the gym master at Christ Church Grammar School for over 50 years from the mid-1950s. He became a living legend of the school and around the Claremont area of Perth, where he was seen riding his iconic bicycle everywhere. Akos was a symbol of the post-World War II migrants who came to Australia from eastern Europe to make a new life and who contributed so much to Australia and our way of life. Akos famously brought eastern European gymnastics to Christ Church and Perth. Within a few years, the teams from the school were winning the WA gymnastics championships and continued to do so for a long time. I was one of the many students who benefited from his teaching methods with challenges to climb the ropes to the ceiling of the gym and use various kinds of equipment. Believe it or not, I was once, if somewhat reluctantly, quite the gymnast. Akos, literally, as he had lost an eye in the war, and figuratively was one-eyed in his determination to drive his students to extend themselves to achieve physical feats, generated confidence in them to face the challenges of life.

Akos was something of a disciplinarian and any boy who did not perform as well as Akos felt they could was likely to be the beneficiary of an 'Akos special', a hard slap with an open hand as well as some quiet counselling on what needed to be done to improve their performance. He required boys to stand at attention when he spoke to them. That became so ingrained in a school friend of mine, Bill Muntz—who maintained contact with Akos for many years after leaving school—that he could not help but stand at attention whenever Akos called him on the phone. In 1997 at the Sheraton Hotel in Perth, I had the great honour of launching a biography of Akos by an old boy, Mason Jones. This dinner was attended by over 500 old boys and the then much older Peter Moyes, the headmaster who had appointed Akos who had long since retired. Akos's famous bicycle was suspended from the ceiling.

Akos grew up in Hungary, which was an axis power ally of Germany during World War II. As a teenager he was called up to service in the Hungarian army. He lost an eye on the battlefield and was sent to an eye hospital in Berlin where he heard Adolf Hitler give his last public speech at the Brandenburg Gate, from where Akos recounted, 'The Fuhrer spoke of having a secret weapon that would help them win the war'. Akos mused that perhaps Hitler was talking about some kind of nuclear device.

Soon afterwards, Akos was in a troop train above Dresden where he witnessed the allied carpet bombing of that old city, thereby concluding that Germany would lose the war having faced such intense bombing. At war's end, Akos returned to Hungary where he became a school sports master. But Hungary was not the country he grew up in, for the Iron Curtain across had fallen Europe and by then Hungary had a communist government under Soviet control.

Akos had always been a strong philosophical believer in the individual and encouraged his students to follow their beliefs and achieve their potential. Unfortunately, individualism did not sit well with the new communist rulers of Hungary and he attracted the attention of the authorities and was arrested. On a train on his way to a work camp for re-education, he jumped from a moving carriage and eventually he got across the border to Austria, where he was selected as a migrant to go to Australia. Once in Australia, he spent several years on construction sites in Tasmania before obtaining a diploma in physical education from Melbourne University in 1955.

He was appointed gym master at Christ Church Grammar School by the then new headmaster, Peter Moyes, who along with most of his teaching staff at the time were ex-military officers from the Australian Army and Air Force. For Moyes to have appointed a Wehrmacht member to join his teaching staff at that time was an indication of the broadness of the headmaster Moyes's vision.
So began Akos's long association with CCGS in Claremont and the Akos way—physical fitness, the realisation of innate potential, reading widely, common sense and family values, which became the trademark of his teaching style. Among the many hundreds of boys who went through the school during his tenure, his charges included Olympian and former hockey coach Ric Charlesworth—who was once a federal MP as the member for Perth, I believe—and gymnast Lindsay Nylund, who won silver in the 1978 Commonwealth Games and was an Olympian in Moscow.

Akos Kovacs was honoured with the Australian Sports Medal in 2000 for coaching men's gymnastics. In 2005, he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia 'for service to sport as a gymnastics coach and administrator, to lifesaving, and to physical education'. In retirement, Akos worked at the school as a handyman looking after the rowing shells until a few years ago when he retired to the St Louis estate across the Stirling Highway from the school where he had devoted most of his life.
Not long before he died, he suffered a fall and passed away in the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital. He was 87. He greatly missed his wife Alice, who predeceased him. He leaves stepchildren, Graham and Annette, two step-grandchildren and a step great-grandchild. His funeral in the beautiful CCGS chapel overlooking Freshwater Bay on the Swan River was attended by several hundred of Akos's former students, many of whom were moved to both laughter and tears as the five eulogies were given. Those present formed a long guard of honour as the coffin was carried to the hearse and there were very few whose eyes were not moist as they farewelled this legendary figure.
Akos was a great man dedicated to bringing out the best in his boys and giving them the confidence to tackle the obstacles life would bring them by forcing them to extend themselves to reach their potential, not just physically but psychologically. He will be long remembered. May he rest in peace.
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