He was a steady hand at the helm

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

When I first joined the Sunday Times in the early 1980s, I soon became known as the "young Old Dalian". Rather amazingly, the two top men on the newspaper at that time were products of Dale College in King William's Town, my alma mater. And the chief honcho, then editor Tertius Myburgh, had come from the same town as me, Komga, just a tiny freckle on the map near East London. But it was the other Old Dalian, Joe Sutton, who was to have the greater influence in my life.

Joe, who will be remembered by family, friends and former colleagues at a memorial service in Johannesburg today, was the managing editor of the Times, South Africa's biggest and best newspaper. In this position, he had enormous influence on what the newspaper looked like. While the editor is responsible for the political stance of the newspaper and the overall direction it takes, it is the managing editor who is often in charge of the day-to-day running of the paper and putting it all together.

In Joe you got what you saw. He was a kind, friendly man, but determined and dedicated to a fault. If he wanted a particular story that Sunday, he would continue to goad and push reporters and news editors until it landed on his desk. He believed in the Sunday Times and it was during his watch that the newspaper published some of its more memorable stories.

Ironically, I was to follow in his footsteps and become managing editor of the newspaper many years later. One of the things that I tried to emulate was his calm, unflappable disposition - a real challenge on a big newspaper like the Sunday Times. When the going got tough I would think of Joe and his simple approach to most issues. "That's just not right," he would often say.

Inevitably, I would welcome another "young Old Dalian" to the staff when I was news editor. Simnikiwe Xabanisa is now a leading rugby columnist and one of the country’s top sports journalists.

The last time I saw Joe was at a Dale Reunion, when he was editing a magazine for the Old Dalian Union.  At the time I had just moved to live in Thailand, so he asked me to write a piece on my new life in a foreign land. I was a little tardy in getting the piece done, but I sprung into action when Joe sent a friendly reminder about "making the deadline".

After his family and alongside the Sunday Times, Dale College meant the world to Joe. Sutton Square, the shopping centre in Queens Road that was once a school hostel, serves as a reminder of his family's contribution to education in the Eastern Cape. Joe's grandfather and father - both Anglican priests - were headmasters at Dale from 1890-1937. Joe's sons, Allan and Stuart, both attended the school as boarders.

Shortly before Joe's former colleague and fellow Old Dalian, Tertius Myburgh, died from cancer aged 55, he sent out a poignant message on his computer to his friends saying that they should remember to stop and smell the roses. At the time, Joe himself was fighting cancer. I think Joe was one of those unique people who was able to split his time between his career, his family and the school he so loved - and still found time to smell the roses.

After matriculating from Dale College, Peter Malherbe studied journalism at Rhodes University. Apart from his stint at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg, he worked as a journalist in Port Elizabeth and was business editor of the Daily Dispatch. He retired, now ' lives in Phuket and still writes for the Sunday Times.

Written by: Peter Malherbe

  • This article was published on Weekend Post.