“Benefield, Dr James Joseph (Jim) –
Sadly passed away in Paris, France on Tuesday 11 October 2011. In his 74th year. Loved son of the late Cyril and Mary. Loved brother of Anthony (Auckland). Messages to c/- MSA Club, 231 Burnett Street, Ashburton.”
And with that simple obituary the man that inspired me to travel passed into history last week.
I grew up in Ashburton, New Zealand. It’s a small rural town in a small rural country at the bottom of the world, and comes with all of the diversity of thought, culture and history that such a location suggests.
If you didn’t play rugby or wear the latest in faux-rural chic, you were never going to be part of the in-crowd. There wasn’t a great deal of room for independent thought in my little town, and that was just the way most of the residents liked it.
Most of the residents, that is, except Dr Jim.
With an unruly mane of silver hair and a moustache that had developed a life of its own, there wasn’t much that was polished about the man. When he wandered into the classroom, always a little late and often a little dishevelled, you never quite knew what you were in store for. His stained brown corduroy trousers and floppy cardigans were never going to set the catwalks of Milan alight, and Hugo Boss was unlikely to beat down the door offering to bottle his faint scent of mothballs and whiskey any time soon.
Once he started talking about the great cities of Europe, however, absolutely none of that mattered.
I never knew what random set of circumstances found – or kept – Dr Jim in Ashburton. He didn’t belong there. A rickety garret in Montmarte or a back street pensione in Rome would have suited the man far better. His passion for the Old World was plain for all to see, and every summer the small savings from his teacher’s salary were spent making the lengthy journey to the other side of the world. The fact that he died in Paris, a city he loved, is the most fitting testament I can imagine.
I wasn’t an easy student. Quickly bored with subjects that didn’t interest me, I was more inclined to ‘forget’ to turn up to class than knuckle down to another thrilling calculus lesson. Missing Classical Studies, however? I would have had to be damn near dead.
For those few insufficient hours per week Ancient Greece and Rome walked in through the classroom door. The tales of luxury and corruption, great monuments and the battles that inspired them, playwrights, poets, artists and philosophers that rung out in that classroom literally couldn’t have been further from the life I had grown up with.
I was transfixed. More than that, I was inspired.
Somewhere in the two years that I immersed myself in Dr Jim’s encyclopaedic knowledge and meandering tales, I came to the realisation that merely reading the histories and looking at old photos were not going to be enough. I was going to have to see the places that he talked about for myself.
I was going to have to travel.
And sure enough, travel I did. Standing in the dust near the Forum in Rome a few years later, I squinted into the sunlight and smiled. Turning to my then-girlfriend, I pointed out a tall column maybe 100m away that was carved from top to bottom in intricate detail.
“That’s Trajan’s Column“, I said. And indeed it was, standing there proudly commemorating the victories of the Emperor Trajan over the Dacians for nearly two thousand years.
When the inevitable question of how on earth I happened to know that was asked, the answer was simple.
“I learnt about it from Dr Jim.”
Traipsing all over that Forum – and all over the rest of Rome in the following days – I could hear the old man’s voice ringing in my head. The dull old history text books had been bought to life by the passion of his teaching, and wandering the streets of that ancient city completed the journey that had begun for me in a stuffy wooden classroom half a decade earlier.
While visiting my family in New Zealand a few years later I happened to find myself back walking through my old school. On a whim I wandered into the staff room to see who might be around, and sure enough Dr Jim was there nursing a cup of tea. A little older, a little slower and with hair a little whiter, he nonetheless recognised me and we spent a few minutes chatting.
As I recounted the story of my time in Rome, and how I stood in the beating sun for ages gazing at that emperor’s monument to himself, I was surprised to see tears forming in the corner of my old teacher’s eye.
Wiping them away, he stood up, put one hand on my shoulder and shook my hand.
“Thank you”, he gruffly said.
It has occurred to me several times since that if the thanks should have come from anyone, they should have come from me. Inspiring somebody to travel, to explore, to seek out something bigger and better, is one of the greatest gifts that anybody can give.
He had given it to me.
Thank you for inspiring at least one person to go out and see the world.
I only hope that when I die, I can say I have done the same.