For the fourth time in eighteen years, we bade farewell last week to a lady who epitomises the Summerhill story. In the closing days of 1996, I interviewed a charming applicant who was typing up deeds of transfer at a law firm in a nearby village. In those days, the title of “personal assistant” belonged to those who worked alongside big players like Harry Oppenheimer, Laurie Jaffee or Graham Beck, while little fellows like me employed “secretaries”. The subject lady however, quickly redefined the job, took over the “H.R”. function and soon became our international relations manager as well. Three years down the road, and just as she’d made herself indispensable, Heather Rosemary Morkel broke the first vow she’d made at the time of her appointment: her “permanence” in our neck of the woods had been upset by her forester husband’s indispensability to the multi-national pulp and paper company he worked for, and he was Jo'burg-bound. It took a conversation with the boss of the opposition to keep Russell Morkel in the local neighbourhood, so the first resignation was averted. But you can’t keep a good man down, they say, and the inevitable transition to head office (just as inevitably, to Jo'burg, too) followed, so once again, the farewell party.
We’ve been lucky at Summerhill with the team we’ve assembled, despite our remoteness; you need only look at the Long Service roll in the farm office to know that. The time you invest and the patrimony you build in a really good one should never be allowed to go lightly, so two farewells later, we established a branch office in the leafy suburb of Emmerentia. That was around the time we were setting up the South African Equine Trade Council with the Minister of Trade, Alec Irwin, and were looking for a CEO: nobody had better credentials, so the ambassador-at-large became the first head of South Africa’s first board of equine trade. With some success I should add: the first five years yielded a larger number of equine exports from this country than at any prior time in our history, and heralded the first notice to the world that we were not only open for business, but that our horses meant business.
As a Comrades athlete, Heather knew the ins-and-outs of what a long distance runner needed to sustain herself: while her subsequent appointment as the boss of Vuma Horse Feeds was more an exercise in long distance-learning, we soon realised that given the chance, she was headed for bigger things. As luck would have it, like the cream of the nation’s rugby players, Mondi’s Forestry Division returned to Sharks territory, which meant that when the Group Business Manager’s position became vacant, we did not have to look far: our lady was already “home”.
She came to that job without much exposure to the financial aspects of the business, but by the time the day dawned, the hands might’ve been calloused, but the mind was clear: she could do anything. And she did. Until Amber enrolled at Stellenbosch and Megan was appointed to the Head Girl’s portfolio at Epworth; again, the fatted calf and the party invites were scarcely dry when we found an accommodation between the School Of Equine Management Excellence and the school at Epworth, as well as keeping the book club and the women’s institute happy. Four graduate classes later and some astounding international outcomes, and it’s confirmed: this girl can sprint, she can stay, and she can throw the javelin.
Eighteen years and five cars later, the grind of the N3 from Hilton to Hlatikulu before the sun rises and after it sets every day, was just too much, so here we were again, the line in the sand. Another big braai, a few tearful speeches and a good excuse for a mid-season party, and we’ve discovered another purpose for a girl we can’t let go. Henceforward, blessed by the husband, Heather Morkel has come full-circle to the “ambassador” job again, this time with the gravitas and the mileage of one who’s seen it all before. Meanwhile, as much for the sake of continuity as to signal their respect for what she’d achieved as head of the School, governors Judge Alan Magid and Ronnie Napier have invited her to join their company: the third governor of the School Of Equine Management Excellence. Now that’s a job I’d secretly aspire to when this lot finally puts me out to pasture.