By At Smit

When a tree is felled, it attracts woodturners as spilled milk attracts flies. Often the spouses act as scouts and inform the turners of potential usable material to be harvested. The 2010 roads upgrade project underway in Pretoria during the past year or so, have resulted in many trees, often Jacarandas, being uprooted and ending up on municipal dumps or landfill sites. There are just not enough woodturners around to harvest and make even a small dent in the pile of wood that is available. What a pity! I would like to share such a wood harvesting episode with a rather different course of events.

On the afternoon of 28 May 2009, the wife of a fellow woodturner alerted me that a number of Jacaranda trees have been felled in Charles Street for the widening of the street. Her husband was still at work but was keen to get some of the wood. After waiting for Carel to get home, and for the heavy afternoon traffic to subside, we set off for the corner of Charles and Roper streets in Brooklyn, armed with a chainsaw and flashlight since it was getting dark early at that time of the year.

Whilst loading some of the bigger but manageable pieces, we discovered a metal plate fixed with screws to one of the logs. When off-loading at home we had a closer look at this tarnished brass plate. It was oval, ± 120mm X 90mm, and the following inscribed on it in Afrikaans: “In fond memory of Louis van Staden: 10 Sept ’72 – 24 Oct ’93.”

Judging from the location not far from the University of Pretoria and the dates, I surmised that it could very well have been a 21-year-old student who lost his life in a collision with that tree. Later that evening when I eventually got around to reading the Pretoria News, there was a brief article about the Jacarandas that were felled in Charles Street, accompanied by a colour photograph of the trees. The photo was of the very spot where we earlier collected the wood with the inscribed plate. I decided that it might be a nice gesture to trace the family of this young man and to return this brass plate to them, and possibly, to present them with something made from the wood of that specific tree where he presumably lost his life. The first task was, however, to trace the family.

The next morning I phoned Pretoria News offices to find out if they had record of such a fatal accident that happened some 16 years ago. They informed me that with the changeover to electronic systems, much of their information was lost. The Pretoria News route was a dead end.  My common sense also told me that with a surname of Van Staden the Afrikaans newspaper would probably be a better call.

The Pretoria telephone directory yielded columns of Van Stadens. There was also no guarantee that the family of the deceased were from Pretoria at the time of the accident 16 years ago, and even if they were, they could very well have moved elsewhere since the accident. I made a few phone calls but it did not yield anything. Normal day-to-day activities resulted in the search being put on the back burner for a while. However, the brass plate was kept in a visible place as a reminder.

It was only some months later during September 2009 that the matter was taken up again. The Woodworking Association of Pretoria was given some local media exposure on celebrating 20 years since its founding. I approached the young woman reporter for BEELD doing the article on our association with my story and requested the help of the newspaper to trace the Van Staden family.

On that Wednesday (September 09), both articles appeared in the Supplement to BEELD. At about 09:00 I got a phone call from a woman that read my plea for help. Mrs Wright informed me that unfortunately she was unable to help me with the whereabouts of the Van Staden family, but that she lived in the house on the corner of Charles and Roper streets at the time of the accident. She is now living in the Cape and happened to be on a visit to Pretoria and saw the article in the newspaper. She recalls that the family put up the brass plate on the tree and for a number of years they used to gather there for a short memorial service on the date of the fateful accident. Although I was not any closer to finding the family, I was at least encouraged that some response emanated from the newspaper article.

The day wore on without any further calls and my hopes gradually started to fade. At about 5 pm I got a second call from a Mr Burger informing me that he knew the whereabouts of Mr Louis van Staden Senior and that they worked together at the time of the tragedy. He was still in occasional contact with him and gave me his telephone number.  I was elated.  Mr Burger could fill me in with some useful information about the Van Staden family; unfortunately, not all was good news. He informed me that Louis junior was in fact the only son and the youngest of three children. Subsequent to this tragic accident, the mother was brutally murdered and the father, Louis snr, was recovering from a recent stroke. I was very grateful for this information as it helped me immensely as to the manner in which to approach the family. I was exited that I eventually had contact details to fulfill my original undertaking.

I immediately phoned Mr Van Staden and related my story to him as well as my intention to return the brass plaque to the family. He was of course very surprised and overwhelmed. He informed me that he was going away for a couple of weeks’ holiday at the coast. I undertook to contact him again once he was back so that we could meet up. When I put the phone down I felt very pleased and very grateful that my few problems in life were insignificant compared to what life dished out to this family.

The next day I phoned the woman reporter from BEELD to thank her and to bring her up to date on the success achieved because of her article in the paper. Later that morning I received a call from one of the daughters of Mr Van Staden who was living at the same address as her father. He told her about my phone call the previous afternoon and she wanted to confirm with me since her father sometimes get a little confused with his facts since he had the stroke. She undertook to inform me when her father would be back from his holiday in order for us to meet up.

Eventually a date was set for 23 October 2009, one day before Louis jnr died, to meet the father and daughter to return the brass plaque, which I buffed up in the mean time. As one can imagine, it was a rather emotional meeting. Over a cup of coffee, I was filled in about the brother who in fact was a student at TUKS and a sport and rugby fanatic. The family was very thankful for the return of the brass plaque and very enthusiastic about my offer to make something from that very tree – something that the family could keep as a remembrance.

Being a turner, I opted to make turned objects from the Jacaranda wood. Since the immediate family consists of two daughters and a father, I decided to turn a group of three items, which could be displayed together as an entity or separately as individual objects. The group of items consists of two hollow forms – a tall vase (350mm X 220mm), a smaller narrow necked pot with bark inclusion (200mm wide X 180mm high) and a base. The two hollow forms are positioned on the base consisting of a thick, sloping slab of Jacaranda with bark all round. The base is hollowed out eccentrically at the bottom so that when used individually, it can be turned upside down to form an eccentric bowl. The bigger, plain vase happens to display some of the most beautiful ripple grain that I have ever seen in Jacaranda wood. It is one of those turned pieces one would normally be very reluctant to part with. In this case, however, the pleasure of giving will be far greater than the desire to keep it for myself.

The final chapter to this remarkable story was written on Wednesday 12 May 2010 when the three turned items were handed over to the family of the late Louis van Staden. Present at the informal ceremony were the father and one of the two sisters and two journalists, one of whom was instrumental in finding the family of Louis van Staden. It also turned out that this day and ceremony was greeted with mixed feelings because it was on that same day, four years previously, that the mother was murdered. The story and a picture was to be published the next week in Tswane Beeld, a weekly supplement to BEELD.