Death of PMB rugby icon Skonk Nicholson

2011-02-28 00:00

THE legendary former Maritzburg College deputy headmaster and first XV rugby coach, James Mervyn “Skonk” Nicholson, died peacefully in his sleep yesterday morning at the age of 94.

In the week leading to Nicholson’s death, when it was clear that his health was failing, honorary life member and past president of the Maritzburg College Old Boys’ Association, David Randles, spoke touchingly of the man known simply as “Skonk”.

“I am devastated. How does one deal with the potential loss of our own Gandhi. Skonk will always be the standard by which we measure real men at College. What a treasure. In our troubled walk through life we should recognise the blessing of sharing some time with one of God’s gentlemen.”

Nicholson was born in Underberg on February 6, 1917 and grew up on the family farm. He excelled at Durban High School (DHS), matriculating as head prefect, captain of the first XV, the first XI and the athletics team; captain of the Natal Schools’ XV, and senior cadet officer.

It was as a grade seven boarder at Durban Prep that he earned his nickname. The senior school headboy, recognising a spirited nature, referred to Nicholson as “Skonkwaan” — the name of a bull on the headboy’s farm in Mooi River. Skonkwaan means “tent-peg”. This was shortened to “Skonk”, and so it remained.

Graduating cum laude at the Natal University College, Skonk began teaching at DHS on the eve of World War 2. A sergeant major, he was demobilised in 1944 due to injury.

Sent by the Natal Education authorities to Maritzburg College, Skonk spent the next two generations teaching geography and coaching the first XV (1948-1982).

In his 35 seasons, College became a schoolboy rugby powerhouse, producing 14 unbeaten first XVs, 12 teams that lost one match, and many Natal and SA Schools’ players. Skonk coached many provincial and international players.

His contribution to society was recognised with numerous awards and tributes, including the gold medal of the SA Geographical Society for his outstanding contribution to geography, and civic honours by the Pietermaritzburg City Council for “Long and Outstanding Service to Education and Sport”.

Skonk married Dorothy Wilson on November 29, 1941 and she died in 2000. He remained devoted to her memory until the end. They had three daughters, Margaret Gibbs, Ruth Crouch and Diana Nicholson, who all live in Pietermaritzburg.

It has been a sad week for College after Wessel Olivier (Class of 2003) died following a serious illness and Zenzele Mdadane (2004) also suffered a premature death.

David Randles

I am devastated … Skonk will always be the standard by which we measure real men at College. What a treasure.

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