It isn’t often that we get to have our life story told let alone live on for ever. At GreaterGood it is important that charities are aware of your history and continue to remember you. Below is a Jon Prance’s story and his journey through life follows. -
The Prance Family Memorial Fund proudly supports the Guide Dogs, RSPCA, Make a Wish and the ACT Jewish Community Inc.
Jon Prance ~ 1939-2007
Introduction by Raffi Lehrer
When Jon’s illness returned after a four or five year break and he and I were speaking about arrangements for his funeral, should that eventuate, I told him he’d need to do his obituary as he had no-one still around who knew his full life story. Barbara tells me that he sat down straight away, months ago now, and produced the bulk of what you will hear in the following obituary. He’s written it in the third person but remember as you hear it that it’s Jon telling you, in his own voice and his own way, stories about those around him whom he considered to be family. It’s not a usual style obituary but the information is all there within his stories. For those who knew Jon, you will ‘hear’ him speaking, you will be able to find what was important to him during his life and you will feel his modesty.
Jon was born in Eastbourne, England, on 8 May 1939. Not a good time to be born, especially in the south of England, and so he, his mother, Patricia, and his elder sister, Romaine, were evacuated to North Wales for the war years. Jon’s father, Claude, was in the RAF & served mainly in the Middle East. When his father was in Jerusalem, he bought a small book called Modern Verse (ed. Phyllis Jones) which later became one of Jon’s favourite possessions. Jon took it with him to Israel in 1959 & then it came to Australia, & on several holidays later.
His favourite poems in Modern Verse were: The Donkey by GK Chesterton. Though with a specifically Christian ending, he loved it because it seemed to stand above all normal differences in religion, and as his Dad (a confirmed atheist) once said – ‘This is a great poem!’ The other was “When you are old” by WB Yeats which begins ‘when you are old & grey …’ & contains that magnificent phrase ‘the pilgrim soul’.
North Wales was a golden age for Jon: they had a farm cottage (no electricity) with the mountains behind & the sea in front – Anglesey & a small blob of land called Puffin Island (but he never managed to see one). The walks, the farm animals, the glorious rainfall (100” per year) – all delighted him & he was homesick for Wales till the end.
The family later moved back to England (Hertfordshire) where Jon went to his 4th Primary School, Moreton End, Harpenden. This too was a good time for Jon, as he was OK at both study & games then (but never again). The headmaster, Dr Billinghurst, had taught at The Jews’ College, Brighton, & many Jewish pupils came to Moreton End. Jon had 2 good friends, Tony Sive & David Claret. As so often, he lost contact with these & other mates. What happens to the friends of one’s youth?
Jon’s secondary school was Haileybury College, Hertford, a boys’ boarding school then & a fairly well known ‘Public’, i.e. private, school. He enjoyed athletics, & passed A levels in Latin, Greek & Ancient History (for his sins).
Before entering (& failing at) university, Jon had an experience that was deep & stayed with him for the rest of his life: Israel in 1959. He went by cargo ship from Liverpool, stayed at Kibbutz Beth Ha Emek in the Galilee; travelled from Metulla to Eilat, stayed at the Jerusalem YMCA; spent one Friday night with the Berman family (Berman’s Bakery); attended an international work camp at Tselafon; visited the Great Nabatean ruins at Avdat; admired the stark beauty of the Negev; & one night slept on the beach at Caesarea – woke up next morning covered in small red ants – solution: run like crazy into the sea!
Jon emigrated to S. Africa in 1962 & spent the next 8 years in Johannesburg. First in Barclays Bank DCO, then in bookshops (CNA & 6 years at Exclusive Books, Hillbrow). His boss, Philip Joseph, like Jon, was a Pom. (They called Poms ‘Rooineks’ [red neck] in S. Africa either because they blushed easily or got burnt quickly in the unfamiliar strong sun or both). Jon remembered PJ, as he was called, as having only one fault – a quick temper - & as PJ once said ‘Either you can take it, or you can leave’. Otherwise PJ was a marvellous man – great sense of humour, a real concern for his staff (always first at the bedside if someone had an accident) and great Christmas bonuses!
Jon loved classical music, & it wasn’t long before he gravitated to a record shop, Recordia, in the centre of Johannesburg. It must have been the best shop of its kind in S. Africa, both for the huge stock & the knowledge of the staff. And there was one particular staff member whom Jon found more interesting than the others: knowledgeable, approachable and beautiful – Dorothy Isaacson; though shy & uncertain of himself Jon managed to ask Dorothy out, & one thing led to another as they say. They were married in 1964, & enjoyed 41 years together, mostly in Australia, where they emigrated in 1970. The honeymoon was spent at Mont aux Sources in the Drakensberg Range, a green spectacular valley used in the film, Zulu, as the setting for the famous battle in the Zulu Wars, Rourke’s Drift.
In 1966 they bought a Ford Anglia & travelled over much of S. Africa, from Rhodesia to Cape Town. The Kruger National Park was much visited, & they took up bird watching there & elsewhere. A favourite place for weekends was a luxury guest house called the Bundu Inn, with its walks into the rounded granite hills, the rich bird life, the ever present baboons & the wonderful frog choruses at night.
Jon retained his interest in Israel & Jewish things from his visit to Israel 5 years earlier. Dorothy, though from an Orthodox family, was not particularly ‘religious’ herself, believing more in meditation, yoga & what Jon thought the Quakers call ‘the spark of God within each of us’. Jon wanted to become Jewish in some form,
and some years after their Registry Office ceremony, Jon converted to Reform Judaism & they had a Jewish wedding at Temple Israel, Hillbrow, Johannesburg (Rabbi Saul Super in charge).
Dorothy’s father Nathan Isaacson came to Sth Africa from Riga during the 1920s. He was a tailor and for many years had a shop in Church St, the longest street in Pretoria. For the rest of his life, Jon had a wooden coat hanger with the No. 366 Church St on it. Nathan made Jon a beautiful brown suit soon after he and Dorothy were married, which Jon wore regularly till joining the Public Service in Canberra and became too plump for it – doctor’s orders, there was a minimum weight to join the health scheme in 1971!
Nathan was a pillar of the Jewish Community in Pretoria. He belonged to a Jewish (Masonic) Lodge but Jon didn’t know the details. He wished someone (in the Community there) had got Nathan’s story down in Yiddish (on tape, but that was uncommon in the 1960s). Nathan opposed Dorothy’s & Jon’s wedding at first, as Jon was an outsider & even when Jon converted, the Jewish marriage was only Reform. But they got on well enough to go over for Sabbath meals in Pretoria, & enjoy Nathan’s excellent wine. Not to mention the beautiful crisp salads made by Aunt Rose, Dorothy’s stepmother.
Aunt Rose was a character. A grumpy old woman maybe, she could always be roused from her gloom by the word ‘travel’, whether the annual journey to Muizenberg in the Cape or a Sunday trip in the car which they quite often did. Both Nathan & Aunt Rose died in the 1970s, & John missed them both.
In Australia, Jon & Dorothy worked for a few months in Sydney (Dorothy in Horwitz the publisher, Jon at Dymocks the book seller). They then moved to Canberra in 1971, as Jon had seen a librarianship course advertised in the papers that seemed a good idea, ie they paid you to study for 2 years & then became a Library officer in the Public Service. This Jon did, & remained a librarian till retirement in 1999. In moving from S. Africa to Australia, Jon swapped book selling for book lending; but throughout this time, he remained a book collector. Like his father before him, old books, old bookshops, reading & writing articles had a strong appeal for him. Dorothy mainly did what she loved most, working as a medical receptionist.
In 1971, Dorothy & Jon attended the opening of the National Jewish Memorial Centre in Forrest. Memories from that day include the raising of the Australian flag by a Mr Joseph, a veteran not of WW2 or WW1 but the Boer War - & the belief that Jon had that he’d stood next to American actress & singer, Lanie Kazan, in the crowds.
Jon & Dorothy lived in Higgins for 35 years, in a small house later cape-codified into a 4 bedroom mansion. At one time they had 3 mortgages & 3 cats. Jon 4.
Enjoyed gardening & at various times had the tallest tree in the world in a pot (sequoia sempervirens), the world’s most invasive bamboo & the beautiful but sinister Passionflower (a cutting from his sister’s garden), sinister because it spreads more alarmingly than bamboo. Dorothy once wrote an article on Jon’s gardening practices entitled “How Green was My Gardener, or, The Man who Forgot to Put in his Forget-me-nots”.
After retirement Jon & Dorothy continued life much as before. They formally joined the Jewish Community in the early 2000s, & never looked back. After her own retirement, Dorothy enjoyed several activities such as U3A, Literature and Music, while Jon took up book reviewing for The Canberra Times about this time, & started to produce booklets on various things for his home-grown & home-produced Peppercorn Press. He later did volunteering at 1RPH (One Radio Print Handicapped) where he enjoyed early morning news reading. Travel was important for both: the Great Ocean Road for 2 weeks, overseas trips including China, Japan, & then North America (Canada, Alaska, San Francisco & Los Angeles).
Their last trip came just before things took a down turn for the Prance family. Jon’s father, Claude, died in 2002, aged 96, & his mother, Patricia, in 2007, aged 99 & three-quarters!! But as Jon said, the sad thing is when people die out of sequence. Romaine, his sister, went with a brain tumour in 2004, aged 59, & about a year later, Dorothy, his beloved wife, passed on from the same cause.
Though he never quite got over the death of Dorothy, Jon was always fairly philosophical about his own mortality. One Thursday afternoon in 2005 or 6, Ben Selinger and friends decided to start a regular get-together for men at the Jewish Centre, called Grumps R Us. At the first meeting, Raffi Lehrer called for all present to write down their own obituaries. Jon was one of the few to make a coherent response (but he’d written his years before).
I’m happy as happiness goes;
Happy in summer & happy in bed;
Happy in winter so long as it snows;
I’m happy I’m happy I’m happy I’m dead.
Jon really appreciated all the kindnesses and companionship that was shown to him especially during and after the loss of Dorothy while he was on his own. Jon included a long list of these people, many of whom are here today and some are not. I’ve chosen not to read the names out as I know Jon would be mortified had he inadvertently missed someone out.
Then in November 2006, Barbara Beasley came into his life. A retired teacher from Sydney, she became his partner & guiding light. Sharing many things – a love of music, reading, cats, plays & travel, to mention a few – their meeting showed that brief friendship can be luminous & eternal. Jon’s further thought was that Rabbi Harold Kushner’s title “When bad things happen to good people” should be altered to read “When wonderful women meet rather ordinary men”.
I met Jon last year on November 5th. I had come down to Canberra for a few days with my good friends Jane Harris & James Mohr. Jane and Jon had been good friends in Jo’berg in their early twenties and she’d organised to go out with him for a day.
We went to the Kingston Markets in the morning and spent the afternoon at the Botanical Gardens. The way it turned out, I spent a lot of the afternoon talking to Jon. It was absolutely lovely. We chatted on about many things as we wandered around the gardens together – birds, plants, cats, derivations of words, who had said a certain quote, music, films, books, travelling, food and of course photography. I took many more photos than I normally would as Jon pointed out good angles and nice light and they all turned out beautifully. It was vintage Jon – unhurried, philosophical, learned & interesting, never boring or intimidating.
We finished off back at our hotel for tea and brownies and we discovered yet another mutual passion – chocolate! I remember thinking afterwards: What a lovely man! I feel as if I’ve known him for years. It took a month or two for our romance to get going, but we really connected with each other on that day.
Falling in love at 57 is every bit as miraculous and marvellous as it is at 17, let me tell you. Jon and I were both amazed we’d found each other and really couldn’t believe our good luck. A whole new world opened up in front of us and it was hard to know where to start. We had so many ideas and plans starting off with a trip to S America, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.
Jon was operated on for lymphoma on April 18. After that our life together revolved around hospital and treatments. But in spite of that we still managed to have some very happy times together just on our own or when friends and family were visiting. We both tried to stay as positive and hopeful as we could, but deep down we knew that it would really be a miracle if Jon pulled through.
We became very close very quickly and we did try to make every moment we had together count. We didn’t hold back saying the important things. Jon spent a lot of his time worrying about me and my welfare which was so typical of him – others first, himself second. One way of doing something for me was by always ordering me a dessert from the hospital menu. I think it’s going to take me quite a while to get my sweet tooth back under control again!
Jon spent the last month of his life in the Clare Holland Hospice. It was really quite a positive time for both of us. Although he couldn’t walk or even turn himself over in bed, he was well enough in himself to find some enjoyment in life again. He loved looking out at the view across the lake and watching the birds. He really enjoyed his many visitors, including some of his doggy best friends. He was even able to enjoy eating some of his old favourites – cheese, chutney, berries, cream and of course chocolate.
I doubt very much that many people could have gone through the last six months like Jon did. He faced it all stoically and with very little complaint. It is hard for those of us who have not made that journey to understand and I know Jon made it look much easier than it was. I will never forget his great courage.
He was my soul mate and the love of my life. Losing Jon has left a huge hole in my life but knowing him has made my life complete.