I first met Frank Heydenrych in 1994, or perhaps it was 1995, soon after I started my career, at Systems Publishers. Even back then, Frank was a larger-than-life character.
I was a youngster, fresh out of journalism school, and had moved to Johannesburg after being offered a job by Systems CEO Terry Murphy. I joined Systems a month before South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994. I was fresh faced, new to the big city.
I had joined the Systems Lab, an interesting experiment run by Terry’s son, Niall Murphy, who, I think, now lives in London. The idea, I recall, was to try and create some sort of new media lab. I could be missing details – it really feels like a long time ago now. I do remember it was in the basement at Systems in Craighall Park. It was actually quite fun – and fairly ground-breaking at the time – and we got to play around with some pretty cool tech just as the Internet was starting to be commercialised.
There were great people there at the time: Ivo Vegter, Thomas Browne, Simon McQuade, Clayton Nash, Paul Furber, Brian Bakker. I’m forgetting names.
I remember working with Jovan Regasek and his good friend Ranka Jovanovic, both of whom were exiles (I hope that’s the right word) from the war in Yugoslavia. We worked on PC Report, an early IT magazine. I was subbing and laying out the magazine, but I honestly didn’t have the first clue of what I was doing back then. Jovan and Ranka went on to start ITWeb, and to great success.
I have fond memories of that time. I remember Frank, up on the first floor of the building on Jan Smuts Avenue. He was someone to be feared – at least, I feared him. He had a reputation from the people up on the ComputerWeek floor of being a bit of a tyrant. Actually, as I later discovered, he was just a stickler for getting the facts straight, an old-school journalist who loved hunting down a good story. He had no time for BS. Frank had a nose for news. And he gave many young journalists, including me, a solid grounding in the trade.
While working at PC Report, I quickly realised I wanted to work with Frank, that this was a guy I could learn a lot from about tech journalism, which is what I wanted to pursue as a career, so I sent a letter to Terry Murphy expressing my wish to join ComputerWeek. I think I was 22 at the time. Terry, to his credit, immediately transferred me to the first floor. I had my first gig as a news journalist.
Frank and I immediately took a liking to each other. But my desk was situated right between Frank’s office and the office of the advertising sales manager. It was like a war zone. The two of them did not get along, to put it mildly, and I was often in the middle of screaming matches. It was all quite funny in retrospect, but I was green around the gills then and didn’t want to poke my nose into things. I kept my head down and tried to be a diligent pupil.
One of my most endearing memories of Frank was the way he would charge up and down through the newsroom, an earnest look on his face, his Telkom cordless phone pressed against his head, working the leads, hunting down the stories. He was like a determined bulldog. He was in his element.
Those were good times. Systems was a great company, despite all its flaws. I remember the camaraderie, and the legendary Friday lunches at Fratelli’s.
After 1997, when I left Systems, Frank and I didn’t have much contact with each other for several years. He’d later started a PR agency, while I was focused on an exciting new career at the Financial Mail, where I spent the next 12 years. I was a young tech reporter covering the dot-com boom. And I got to work with more great people. Those were heady days.
I think Frank and I reconnected again properly in the early 2000s. I’d sent a message on an e-mail list we were both on saying I was really enjoying discovering an old 1970s rock band called Blue Öyster Cult. Frank saw the message and excitedly reinitiated contact. It turned out he was South Africa’s biggest-ever Cult fan. And he just had to play me their catalogue. We ended up meeting over a beer to chat about the band and rock music generally.
We shared an interest not only in music, but in food, and we loved arguing about politics. We became good friends. We also later became good-natured rivals on the tennis court.
Frank was always passionate about every subject under the sun. He was stubborn, and often wouldn’t concede a point, even when he was obviously wrong. But he was always good natured about it.
And — good God! — he was a raconteur of note. Frank could spin a tale this way to Sunday. And (unless, in my case, he was talking about “the bloody cricket” — a sport that he loved more than life itself), he was always entertaining to listen to, even if sometimes you couldn’t get a word in edgeways. Frank’s knowledge of cricket and rugby, in particular, was encyclopaedic. He supported the Stormers; me, the Sharks. It made for lively discussion.
Frank was a great friend and mentor. I will miss his colourful yarns, and his enthusiasm for everything under the sun, be it politics, sport, technology, business or cooking — even his love of crude jokes.
There were many people — friends, family, other journalists — whose lives Frank touched in so many positive ways.
A great man is gone.
- This is a slightly edited version of a eulogy Duncan delivered at Frank’s memorial service in Johannesburg on Thursday