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Akos Kovacs : an Hungarian-Australian…

Akos Kovacs : an Hungarian-Australian odyssey

by David Mason-Jones

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At a conference in Melbourne last year, a stranger asked me where I had acquired my accent, and then proceeded to add to my unaccustomed self-consciousness about the way I speak by telling me she was an academic linguist and was a preparing a paper for an international seminar on the formation of accents.

That evening she phoned her husband in New Zealand, and subsequently asked me what years I had been at Christ Church Grammar School. As I had not told her where I had been to school, I was puzzled by her question. In her phone conversation, she had realised that her husband and I have the same accent, and it was most likely acquired at school.

She confirmed for me my hunch that there is a “Christ Church Grammar accent”, a fact that should not be surprising. You would expect a school that developed its educational philosophy with consistency over many years should leave discernible marks on its pupils.

The new biography of Akos Kovacs, one of the legendary character-builders — and characters — of Christ Church in the fifties, sixties and seventies, reveals part of the process by which Anglican schools like Christ Church pass on their Christian ethos, and in the process, tells a fascinating story of a man who made his life’s mission instilling self-discipline, self-esteem and respect for others into the students given into his charge.

I have known Akos for as many years as David Mason-Jones, the author, and I was fascinated that he dared use the first person in the autobiography. One thing that Akos certainly does not possess is a “Christ Church accent”. After all these years, his voice still has Eastern European gravel in it. The first person gives an immediacy and intimacy to a powerful story and allows Akos to state with sincerity the philosophy by which he lives.

Akos was born in Hungary, and grew up just before World War 2. At the moment when he was about to go to fight for Hungary, his government changed sides. In the confusion, he ended up wounded and prisoner in Germany, Hungary's former ally. This experience gave Akos a passionate loathing for any kind of totalitarian government, and he enthusiastically passed on this political view to his students.

Mason-Jones recounts Akos’ daring escape from Germany, his painful return to his home, and his subsequent escape from Hungarian prison, followed by his difficult choice to come to Australia.

Always determined to make the most of his life, Akos battled to learn English and pass a degree in Physical Education at the University of Melbourne. He was recruited to Christ Church Grammar by long-serving Head, Peter Moyes, then consolidating his leadership of the school by building up a team of exceptional teachers. He selected them mainly for their character, for the influence they might exert on the boys.

Akos fitted that mould in an extraordinary way. He did leave his mark on the boys. Akos believes in corporal punishment, so that mark was sometimes literal, and boys often took it as a badge of good fortune to be at the receiving end of a “Kosh special” — an open-handed slap across the buttocks; good fortune because it was all a part of a discipline that was seen to be fair and formative.

As a teacher, Akos concentrated on the needs of all students. I have always found interesting the reaction to Lyndsay Nylund’s wonderful success as an Olympic gymnast. He benefited from all Akos’ skill and perseverance as a coach, and everyone applauded the achievement of both student and coach when Lyndsay raised a silver medal at the 1978 Commonwealth games, and went on to compete creditably at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Even so, the effect that Akos had in encouraging the development, both physical and moral, on the less-coordinated always receives even greater praise from former students than his work with Lyndsay Nylund.

Those who know the Swan River well will be intrigued by Akos’ decision about the jelly-fish. When teaching swimming, he had a deliberate policy that they didn’t exist. We had to simply plough through them. Akos’ two reasons illustrate much of the man: his first was that, if the boys spent half the lesson arguing about the gelatine obstacles floating in the way, he would never achieve his task of teaching us to swim. His second was that, if his students ever needed to rescue someone, it would be an advantage to have been trained to ignore the minor discomfort of the jelly fish.

David Mason-Jones captures well the qualities of determination and duty, the value on human life and the moral perspectives of a man who influenced generations of students in the name of an Anglican school. Those who know Akos will of course know of the respect Akos has for Christianity. In this book he explains how his parents’ mixed marriage has made it difficult for him to be more of a practising religious person. But his enduring influence is undoubtedly creatively Christian.

© Ted Witham 1997
First published in Anglican Messenger 1997 ( )
  TedWitham | Mar 23, 2008 |
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