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Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. And from the most unusual places. In an age when many public servants spend their workdays trying to extract the maximum from the system, the late Charles “Carl” Chipps was an outlier. He believed providence had provided him the skills and position to serve the common good. And he was determined to do this to the best of his ability. Mr Chipps was in the headlines lately when SARS credited him for its R706m settlement with 16 year tax fugitive and serial entrepreneur Dave King. It came too late for him to savour the moment. Or for the rest of us to get to know what motivated him. Mr Chipps, as he was best known, passed away on 5 February last year. So I asked his son Richard to share some of what he knows of this unique human being. Richard delivered a sensitive, honest and incredibly insightful piece that honours the memory of his father. As mentioned before in these columns, it would be a good thing if SARS were to follow suit. – AH
By Richard Chipps*
Born in December 1929 into humble circumstances, my father was the second of two sons. His father, Barend Jacobus Chipps, was the railway station master at Mooketsi, and his mother a farmer’s daughter whose family hailed from the Louis Trichardt district. He was named Carel Christoffel Ludewicus after his maternal grandfather. Names he despised.
They relocated several times to small towns in the Transvaal. Mataffin, White River, and then Klerksdorp, where he and his brother started school as boarders at a convent. He told the story of how they ran screaming after their parents’ car as they were dropped off in this alien environment at a tender age. They were terrified by the stern nuns and were as yet unfamiliar with the English language; but his father was a Smuts man and didn’t want his children indoctrinated into the growing tide of Afrikaner nationalism.
Pushed by his father he developed an abiding passion for sport, especially rugby, cricket and tennis. He attended high school at Kimberley Boys and then Pretoria Boys High, where he matriculated. Unsure what to do after completing his secondary education with average grades, he seized an opportunity to become an auditing clerk with an accounting firm. Determined to succeed he studied at night , often exhausted, as he was also playing 1st league club rugby for Berea Park. He was a tall and skinny fullback but earned a reputation as a fierce and fearless tackler. Signs of things to come. In due course he qualified as a Chartered Accountant. His real love though, was law.
On turning 21 he officially changed his names to Charles Christopher Louis. Intrigued by the church he did a stint at a mission station in Mahamba, Swaziland. He relocated to Johannesburg where he found employment as an accountant. He met my mother, Molly, at the Epsom Homes and Orphans Fund . She was a divorcee with a son, and the eldest of five children. Her father was a postmaster. He and her mother both held senior positions in The Salvation Army. (That amounts to a lot of civil service in our immediate ancestry).
Once married they produced three sons within four years. He had lofty ambitions for all of us and goaded us to excel in academics, sport and music. Like his father before him, he was a demanding, dutiful and driven man, and great believer in the merits of corporal punishment. We learned to fear the bite of his belt.
On returning home from work he would summon us to the garden to play whatever sport was in season. We were belittled for making mistakes, not trying hard enough or showing fear. When spectating at our sports events he would pace up and down along the sidelines and bellow insults and instructions, which I found particularly deprecating as my talents lay elsewhere. Apart from whatever sports were offered at school, we were also compelled to attend piano and organ lessons during the week, cricket clinics and junior rugby at the Wanderers Club on Saturday mornings…and church every Sunday.
Eventually accepting that I am an artist, and not a sportsman, he enrolled me in extra art lessons. He truly went out of his way to afford us every opportunity he was denied. I remember with fondness frequent holidays in station wagons with caravans in tow. They inculcated an enduring love of travel and appreciation of our spectacular country. He was always generous to us, members of the extended family and his friends. He never refused anyone help if he had the means to assist.
Briefly this is how we, his sons, turned out. Casper (57) went on, after a dismal school career, to get diplomas in Biochemistry and Microbiology and then a PhD in Zoology. He now lectures in Vancouver. Chris (51), an eccentric genius and inventive electronics engineer, is also a brilliant pianist and saxophonist, and a partner in an engineering company in Cincinnati. I, Richard (50), am a graphic designer, illustrator, photographer and poet residing in Limpopo. I have two grown children living in Cape Town. Carl was a very involved and doting grandfather, and observing this I noticed there was real tenderness lying beneath. Keith (49) still lives in Johannesburg and is a primary school teacher and beloved sports master. He has run 11 Comrades Marathons, ten more than his brothers. Most of his numinous running medals are silver.
Although we’ve all succeeded to some measure in our chosen fields, it must be said that we’ve all had our struggles with father issues, and with other intimate relationships as a result. It took me a long time to realise that even though his ways were sometimes tyrannical and overbearing, all his efforts were well intentioned. Mercifully we have a darling and devoted mother who attenuated the sharper edges of his personality.
Carl was not a humourless man, however. He loved a good joke and my mother tells me he was something of a clown in his younger days. He was also an admirer of good journalism and one of his hobbies was collecting newspaper clippings, which he would pass around at social occasions. He particularly liked James Clarke and Zapiro. He got quite irritated if anyone spoke during a TV news broadcast. He was a news junkie. He read newspapers from cover to cover. He also read financial magazines, but very seldom any books. When writing business correspondence he would labour meticulously over every sentence, frequently consulting dictionaries, and do many rewrites before submitting anything. He was a Toastmaster for a spell, and was fully bilingual.
He had no vices. He never smoked and I never saw him drunk. He loved chocolate, biltong, peanuts and baked puddings and always enjoyed a plate of pap en wors. In the army he learned to tap two teaspoons together on his lap to create a rhythm. This he liked to do to the accompaniment of lively boeremusiek. His other favourite genre of music was classical.
He went ‘back to school’ in his early sixties to get his Higher Diploma in Tax.
At age 79, starting to lose dexterity in his hands, he opted for major surgery on his back. I left Cape Town where I was living at the time to assist my mother who was travelling almost daily from Brakpan to Rosebank to visit him in hospital. Despite the attentions of a physiotherapist, occupational therapist and psychologist, and private medical care he deteriorated rapidly into an almost immobile and very dependent state.
I advised Casper and Chris of his condition and they came out from North America to pay their respects and say their farewells. Our far flung family were united briefly for the first time in many years and I experienced a real sense of belonging.
I spent a lot of time at his bedside, watching TV with him and holding polite chit chat, but never quite managed to have the real heart to heart with him I’d hoped to. The last time I saw him was Christmas Day 2011. He died on the 5th of February 2012. I believe I managed to demonstrate in the months I helped care for him that I loved, forgave and appreciated him.
In those last 17months of his life I became aware of a remarkable inner strength in my mother and realised I have, as my genetic inheritance, those genes too. I suppose we all at times wish we had different parents, who were a bit more like this and a bit less like that, and I suppose, they also wished the same of us. But we are who we are, the sum of our parts, the products of our particular inherited natures and nurturing styles; and our appointed task is transcendence. I am, for the most part, delighted to be me and realise I could not have manifested as such by any other path but through Carl and Molly.
Carl, or Charles (as he preferred to be known in later life) worked for various companies as an accountant, 17 years as a company secretary, tried going on his own briefly, and then decided to join SARS. He was a painfully pedantic workaholic right to the end. He bragged that he had worked for 58 years. I believe that he found as a special investigator the power and authority to ’bring down the bad guys.’ I think he may have fancied himself as Elliot Ness. In my view he erred on the side of being overzealous. That’s something he never managed to temper. If there is a post-humous consciousness, I hope he will be satisfied with the outcome of the King case.
If our current civil service had just a modicum of his passion and devotion to duty, I believe our country would not be in the dire predicament it finds itself. He was an exceptional man. A caring son, provident husband and father and tireless servant to what he believed was the correct way.
His demands and expectations were enormous and none of us attained the height he set the bar, which I think left us all feeling like we weren’t good enough. But in the practice of that striving, I believe, we probably all did a lot better than we otherwise would have.
Although he is now absent, I find him conspicuously present in my eyes and mannerisms. I am, after all, incontrovertibly his son. To some he was a menace and to some a Mensch. To me he was both, but I have come to accept him in his myriad multiplexity.
* Richard is the third of the late Charles “Carl” Chipps’s four sons.
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