PROFESSOR JOHN CHEFFERS (1936-2012), who coached the Papua New Guinea athletics team at the 1969 South Pacific Games in Port Moresby, has died in his sleep while flying with his son to Sydney from San Francisco.
Cheffers grew up in a battling working class family in Melbourne and became an excellent athlete and Australian Rules footballer. He also became an first rate teacher.
His hopes of competing for Australia in the decathlon were dashed when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament just weeks before the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne.
So he turned to coaching and, in 1968, was eminent enough to become track and field coach for Rhodesia’s multiracial Olympic squad, only to have Mexico block the team from competing because of the then African colony’s race policies.
The following year I first met this big, ebullient and permanently positive man when he turned up in PNG as coach of the athletics team for the third South Pacific Games in 1969.
Cheffers then took his young family and his passion for teaching and sport to the United States to pursue an academic career. He received a doctorate in education from Temple University in 1973 was appointed to Boston University in 1974.
He soon became known for infusing his teaching with close camaraderie with his colleagues and students. Cheffers would accompany students to a pub after night classes and host tastings of Australian wines.
Another former student, Steven Wright, said Cheffers was a visionary who “thought outside the box.”
“He had a different view of what physical education could and should be that differed from a lot of his contemporaries,” Wright said. “He was all about being humanistic and being the best for kids.”
Cheffers also became an authority on the behaviour of sports fans. “The love-hate relationship which spawns so much violence by fans is often ingrained in our youth by the dubious ethic that finishing first is the most important thing in sports.
“The result is that many fans are frustrated athletes who simultaneously love and hate the heroes they watch in stadiums and arenas,” he said. “When a team wins, a fan shouting, ‘We’re No 1,’ really means, ‘I’m No 1.’”
Cheffers wrote extensively about the science of teaching physical education and his students marvelled at the boomerang he kept in his office.
“John’s passion for first-class teaching has influenced hundreds, if not thousands, of his students worldwide,” said Len Zaichkowsky, a sports psychologist who was his longtime colleague at Boston University.
Cheffers became a professor emeritus in 2002 and lived on a farm at Murrumbateman, near Canberra, with his wife Margaret, whom he married in 1958.
He is also survived by their children Paul, Mark, Leigh and Andrew and 17 grandchildren.
Sources: J M Lawrence (Boston Globe); John Bell (Sydney Morning Herald)