Ronnie Roodt: a life well-lived

Ronnie Roodt points to his picture memorabilia.

At 84, Ronnie Roodt is a chipper octogenarian, with a sharp mind and a keen sense of community.

The former gymnast moved last year, together with his wife Elizabeth, to a retirement village in Brackenfell, after downscaling from their longstanding larger house in Edgmead, and, while he’s put away his gymnastic tracksuits, Mr Roodt’s keen sense of competition and awareness of all matters sport are still very much in evidence.

The couple’s compact but welcoming apartment is filled with memorabilia. Mr Roodt is excited to share his illustrious past with Northern News and he leads me to a room, where, spread out on a bed are many photographs that are testimony to his life – a life dedicated to teaching youngsters the joys of competitive sport that was also tied up with his own involvement as a keen horse rider and also, further back, as a champion South Africa boxer in the 1940s and 1950s.

Life as a schoolboy for Mr Roodt started at St John’s Hostel, which was located in Upper Kloof Street in Gardens.

His mother died when he was 7 years old and his father died a year later.

He says the hostel was a springboard for his love of sport which started in 1954.

St John’s was famous for sports, he says. But, above all, he mentions the influence of resident chaplain Cecil Thomas Wood, who was warden there from 1946 and later became the director of the South African Church Institute in London in 1950 and then the Archdeacon of Cape Town, known for his strong opposition to injustice and all forms of racism.

Mr Roodt says what Mr Wood stood for played a great role in his life, leading him to become active in helping communities all over the Western Cape.

“Cecil Wood was my life,” he says, with a sense of reverence towards this leading religious light and humanitarian who died in 1980.

Mr Roodt says there have been many chapters in his career not only from riding horses for the Western Riding Club but to owning stables in Phillippi, taking part in shows in Goodwood in the old days between 1960 to 1995, and performing a range of gymnastic feats.

He was also a mariner apprentice prior to starting to tutor others in sport and in 1955 went to Antarctica, where he spent four and a half months during the whaling season.

“What an experience that was,” he says, when he relates his time down south on a whale catcher ship, where he acted as junior ship’s engineer.

It was in 1956 that he began mentoring others and he again mentions Mr Wood, to whom he made a lifelong promise.

“I told him I would give back to others, and that’s how I went to Woodstock to help underprivileged children where I taught competitive gym,” he says, referring to the gymnastics club at the All Saints Anglican Church in Woodstock.

“Among other things I did to help, I made each and every child there a pair of sandals with my own hands,” he says, his blue eyes lighting up as he recalls one of his many acts of faith and kindness. He also taught gym at the Bothasig gymnastic club.

“In my 38-year teaching career, with four classes a week, I only missed two of my 7 600 classes that I gave to 1.5 million children,” he says.

Many of the black and white photographs spread out on the beds are from the church and show children being taught to do many amazing gymnastic feats. He also proudly points to a photo in which he is performing the “flying acrobat”.

Today he is active in his community with the Assembly of God church and in the retirement centre, where he helps the disabled while his wife works in the community centre there.

“They also call me the sweet man,” he says, referring not only to his charming manner but the fact that he always has sweets in his pockets that he dispenses with to children and church members.

And as I take my leave he gives me a handful of sweets, which on the drive home I unwrap and munch on, as I think about a man whose life can best be described as one “well-lived”.

* Mr Roodt would like to hear from anybody who attended his gym classes. You can contact him on 082 784 5762.