Rex Pennington died last weekend. He was ninety-four.
Rex was a classic squash friend. He born in 1923. First played squash in 1931, at age eight. He got very good. Champion of Rhodes University. As a Rhodes Scholar, he was the champion of Oxford and captained the Blues for two seasons. He was elected to the Jesters Club in 1948, the first South African to be honored that way, and Rex helped found the South African branch a decade later. Later the champion of Western Province.
He and his wife Sarah were a fascinating couple. They had lived for a couple of years in the early 1950s in Oklahoma City. Rex taught at Casady School. They were incredibly hospitable. The first time I met Rex, it was at a small airfield outside Johannesburg. I had called him the day before, asking if I could stay with him for a few days (I was twenty) and that it looked like I had miraculously hitched a ride on a private airplane from Natal to Joburg. We landed at sunset and there, on the tarmac, was Rex.
The next day we played squash. He was sixty-six at the time and he beat me, rather easily. This was May 1989. I had barely played any softball, but still, I was twenty, fit and fresh from a season on the varsity of a top-ten U.S. collegiate program. It just proved, early on to me, how much more of a challenge softball was.
Rex was good, nonetheless—he got to the semis of the 1997 World Masters 65+ division, at the age of seventy-four.
He was a giant in South Africa. He was headmaster of Michaelhouse, one of the country’s leading boarding schools, from 1969 to 1977. Then in the early 1980s he was the founding head of the first private school in Soweto, Pace. Naturally, he installed squash courts, the first in the township.
Over the years, we spent many delightful evenings together thereafter, at his home in Melville, his farm in the Eastern Transvaal, in New York. He was always generous and kind. When I was staying with him in 2007 and needed a lift to Pretoria, an hour away. No problem. We had a delightful hour chatting, he dropped me off with a wave and headed home. That is how a squash friend is, even at the age of eighty-four.
Sarah and their son Steuart wrote this poem for his seventieth birthday:
ODE TO A FAMOUS JESTER – REX PENNINGTON
When you warm up I tremble a little
The quality of your service is difficult to return
When you rally I feel I should surrender
When you raise your racquet I quiver with anticipation
Your hand-in makes me squirm with delight
Your hand-out makes me sigh with relief
Your boasting is always well disguised
Your knack for the nick catches me unawares
Your sportsmanship is a legendary essay
And… as you put it away
You will always be my Sexy Rexy