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Walter Parry’s legacy celebrated and re-entered into Stellenbosch history
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson (media: Faculty of Science)
Published: 30/05/2024

The legendary physicist and mathematics teacher Walter Parry (1913-1966) is the first historical figure in the history of Lückhoff High School in Stellenbosch to have his remarkable life story and legacy re-entered into the history of the school, town, and university.

Stanley Amos.jpg“And he won't be the last!" emphasised Mr Stanly Amos, chair of the Lückhoff Alumni and opening speaker at the inaugural Walter Parry Memorial Lecture held at Stellenbosch University (SU) on Wednesday 22 May – the day of Parry's birth 111 years ago in District Six.

“Tonight, is a giant step forward for social and restitutive justice by Stellenbosch University for our community and South Africa at large," he said.

The event was hosted by the Lückhoff Alumni in collaboration with SU's Social Impact Division and the Department of Physics, as part of the Lückhoff Living Museum visual redress as restitution initiative. The establishment of the Walter Parry Memorial Lecture is part of a larger effort to help correct historical omissions and distortions of the contributions and experiences of those connected to the Vlakte and especially the old Lückhoff school. During the late 1960s, this community and staff and learners from Lückhoff were forced to leave the area and move to designated areas under the Group Areas Act of 1950.

The lecture commenced with a statement of support from SU's Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof. Wim de Villiers. He said the inaugural Walter Parry Memorial Lecture holds historical significance within SU's commitment to restitution: “Parry, a brilliant mathematics teacher and pillar of the Stellenbosch community, faced tremendous adversity during apartheid, and dreamed of becoming a scientist, but the doors to a life in academia were not open to him.

“In our restitution statement, SU acknowledges its contribution towards the injustices of the past. For this we have deep regret. We apologise unreservedly to the communities and individuals, like Walter Parry, who were excluded from the historical privileges that SU enjoyed. His legacy inspires us to bridge the past with practical applications in science today. Through this lecture, and in responsibility towards present and future generations, we honour his contributions and recognise their enduring relevance," he said.

Mr Chris Jooste, current principal of Lückhoff High, said in his welcome that Parry was a true champion of life and a compassionate educator in service of others: “Officially, this used to be a no-go area for us. Now we are here to celebrate his life and feel very welcome."

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A critical part of the lecture was delivered by Mr Brian Pool, an alumnus and later principal of Lückhoff High School and a colleague of Parry for six years. It is known that Parry started teaching mathematics at his alma mater, Trafalgar High School in District Six. Before arriving at Lückhoff in 1952, Parry was also principal at Paterson High School in then Port Elizabeth.

“I was in his class from Grade 10. He taught without text books and could literally answer any of our questions," Mr Pool remembered. He also recounted how they had to pass SU to study at UCT, waking up early for the 6am train to Cape Town, and then rushing through District Six to catch the 5:03 pm train back to Stellenbosch.

Prof. Shaun Wyngaardt, another Lückhoff alumnus who is today a nuclear physicist and head of SU's Department of Physics, delivered the primary inaugural lecture. He reflected on the physics at the time that must have inspired Parry, such as Rutherford's discovery of the atomic nucleus in 1911 and the debates about quantum physics, challenging the very core of classical physics. He also shared that, at UCT, Parry must have studied under Sir Basil Schonland – one of South Africa's foremost nuclear physicists who himself studied under Rutherford.

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“The passion for physics is contagious. Like water moving through the landscape and gradually changing it, in the same way we still feel the ripples of time and space in the many applications of nuclear and quantum physics today – from the treatment of cancer to exploring the cosmos," he explained.

Who was Walter Parry?

Walter Hazel Parry (1913-1966) was born as the only son in humble circumstances in District Six. He was awarded an MSc in Physics (cum laude) from the University of Cape Town in 1934 and planned to continue with a doctoral degree in physics to fulfill his dream to become a nuclear physicist. He was, however, forced to take on the position of a lowly paid technical officer and eventually became a mathematics teacher. Parry was known among colleagues and the community not only for his mathematical brilliance, but also for being an extraordinarily inspirational teacher.

Both Mr Amos and Mrs Elizabeth Vergotine, Parry's eldest daughter, also confirmed the rumours that Prof. Piet Zeeman (1918-1985), then head of SU's Department of Physics in the 1950s, secretively collaborated with Parry on projects for experiments which were planned for the Southern Universities Nuclear Institute (today known as iThemba LABS). Parry passed away unexpectedly in 1966, at the age of only 53.

Establishment of the Lückhoff Living Museum

Reneé Hector-Kannemeyer, deputy-director in the Social Impact Division, emphasized the importance of re- writing history today: “We are writing the story of Walter Parry back into history. The Walter Parry Memorial Lecture today is an example of epistemic justice. This knowledge helps correct historical omissions and distortions. It brings to light the contributions and experiences of people who have been unjustly erased or ignored, such as the brilliance of Parry."  

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Walter Parry's story will form part of the Lückhoff Living Museum initiative to be established in the old Lückhoff school in Banhoek Road. The living museum initiative was co-conceptualized with the late Mr Otto van Noie, former Lückhoff learner, teacher, and community activist. In 1969 staff and learners were forced to physically relocate to a new school in Idas Valley, some carrying their benches as they left. In 2007 then Rector Prof. Russel Botman symbolically acknowledged the school community of 1969. In 2019, fifty years on, SU held a special ceremony during which two of the original school benches were returned to the school, as part of an act of restorative justice. Click here for a video clip.

In his closing remarks, Dr Leslie van Rooi, director of SU's Social Impact Division, said Parry will continue to inspire many in the years to come: “We must make sure that we all work much harder to make it possible for the next generation of children to come and study here," he concluded.

The lecture was attended by Parry's eldest daughter, Mrs Elizabeth Vergotini, representing her seven siblings of which four are deceased. Already deep in her eighties, she said the event was emotionally overwhelming: “A big thank you once again to get this very special project off the ground. It was a tremendous success."

Parry's youngest daughter, Gwyneth, followed the lecture online from Libya. She thanked the Lückhoff Alumni for their input and thought process behind the memorial lecture: “It was beautiful and emotional for me. I'm the youngest of the family, but I remember his kind heart. Thank you again. You have no idea what this gesture means. To think people in Stellenbosch will now think differently of my dad after all these years."

Learners and teachers from Lückhoff High also attended this historical event together with a significant representation of the surrounding communities historically excluded from Stellenbosch University.

According to Hector-Kannemeyer, it is believed that this historic event has drawn the largest community attendance in an academic space in the history of Stellenbosch.  One of the attendees, Mrs Minni van Noie (83), who has lived in Stellenbosch her entire life, said this was the first time that she has been in a lecture hall on the Stellenbosch University campus. 

At the end of the evening's celebration, the vice-chair of the Lückhoff Alumni Mr Wilfred Daniels remarked upon the significance of the event and the coming together in the physics department of communities that were previously held apart: “This is long overdue. I can honestly say that I was made to feel welcome this evening," he concluded.

According to Hector-Kannemeyer, it is hoped that this work will draw attention to the possibilities of how divided pasts can be cemented into common, joint and shared futures. 

​All images by Henk Oets