Gil Cottrell, F’62

In February2009, we received the very sad news that Gilbert, Gil as we all knew him, had died of an accident in his flat.

His great friend, Roger Thomas (Tredgold, 1958 – 1962) conducted a “Celebration of Life” for Gil arranged by his daughters Ariel and Miranda, in a beautiful garden in Constantia, Cape Town, which I was privileged to attend.

The tributes to Gil were so meaningful, deeply sincere and numerous that I have sought to capture their intensity and hence the wonderful personal characteristics of Gil in this remembrance of his life.

Roger gave a brief summary of the life of this extraordinary man followed by a loving tribute by his devoted daughters.

His good friend Giles Ridley spoke next on their time together at Eagle School in the Vumba. Giles recounted that whilst Gil was an outstanding hockey player, his prowess at cricket was less heralded. Gil though used to tell the story of an intense Under 13 game of cricket between Eagle and Falcon. One of Falcon’s greatest ever sportsmen was Freddie Goldstein. Even at Under 13 level, Freddie was recognized as someone who would achieve outstanding feats on the cricket field. Bowling to him that day was Giles Ridley. He tells of bowling a shortish ball that Freddie Goldstein lashed with all his might right out of the meat of the bat. Gil, fielding at point, stuck out his hand and took a blinder of a catch. What was remarkable, and the reason that Gil was able to dine out on the story, was that Giles Ridley and Freddie Goldstein were, in the years to come, to follow each other as eventual cricket captains of Oxford University. A rare catch indeed! Giles ended with a moving reading of Gil’s favourite poem “High Flight”.

At Falcon Gil distinguished himself both in the academic sphere and as the captain of the 1st Hockey XI . His crowning glory was, however, to be selected as Head Boy of the College in 1962. It was my good fortune to be in the same form as Gil and hence to spend a good deal of time with him, both within and without the classroom.

1962 was a signal year in the annals of the College as it was the first of Dougal Turner’s 23 years of exceptional headmastering of Falcon.

Dougal Turner was not able to attend the Celebration of Gil’s life, but sent the following note read out by Paul Cannon:

“Most of you will know that for several years I was Headmaster of a school in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. In retrospect I was singularly fortunate, not least in the support I had in a remarkable number of Head Boys. Gilly was the first of these – and perhaps the best; certainly he had more responsibility in guiding a very inexperienced Headmaster, and later he became a good friend.

He went straight from school to Cambridge University – almost unheard of at that time – which was a recognition of his ability – but his gifts were not merely intellectual, and I would put his maturity of judgment foremost of his leadership skills.

We shall miss him so very much.”

Dougal, or DET as we all knew him, always had a wonderful way with words. His note above captures the essence of Gil and the attributes which led to an outstandingly successful academic and business career. Gil did indeed have an exceptional intellect. As Dougal says, it was rare indeed for a boy to get accepted straight into Cambridge University from school.

Gil had a tremendous gift of leadership. In carrying out his duties as Head of Founders and Head of School he was always calm, firm, but never abusive or harsh and always utterly fair. I do not recall him ever raising his voice or belittling anyone, qualities that would stand him in great stead in the years to come.

Talks of Gil’s time at Falcon were warmly delivered by Paul Cannon who taught us history and was Housemaster of George Grey, and Peter Steyn who taught us Shakespeare and who is now a much published author and world authority on raptors. They both spoke of Gil’s great intellectual ability and his other heart-warming personal character traits.

Paul Cannon, who after leaving Falcon taught for many years at Hilton College before becoming headmaster of St. George’s School in Mowbray, Cape Town, told a remarkable story of Gil which captures Gil’s passion, his modesty and the lengths to which he was prepared to go, at no benefit to himself, to help out a friend.

Paul had taken over at St. George’s at a time when the school was battling to keep up its numbers and to maintain its position against the power and prestige of its near rivals, Bishops and Rondebosch. In conversation Paul mentioned these difficulties to Gil.

Gil, at that stage, had established a most successful business consultancy in Cape Town. Without being contracted, Gil sent a team to the school to make some findings and then came up with a highly radical solution to the school’s challenges.

Bearing in mind that Gil had spent his entire school career at traditional boarding schools in Rhodesia, he proposed a raft of radical ideas to change the entire direction and ethos of the school. Acting upon Gil’s recommendations, the school went co-educational; it substituted the prefect system with another which gave responsibilities and portfolios to all the seniors; it abolished corporal punishment; it downplayed competitive sport and replaced it with recreational games; it increased the level of pastoral care and career planning.

In due course these dramatic changes were accepted, with the result that St. George’s School’s enrollment climbed dramatically from 220 to 555 and it is now highly regarded and much sought after.

Gil’s reward was purely that the proposals enabled the school and his friend Paul Cannon to succeed brilliantly. He refused to charge for his work so well done!

Reminiscences of Gil’s years at Cambridge and Columbia University were poignantly and passionately presented by Brian Kileff , then Des van Ginkel spoke with great feeling on his business association with Gil in their very successful Corporate Management Consultancy business.

Over very many years Gil and a group of friends undertook what they termed “Peregrinations”in Land Rovers to many wilder corners of Southern Africa. The group included Roger Thomas (Tredgold l962), Bob Windsor (Tredgold l962), John Hanger (Hervey l961), ‘Sprout’ Thirkettle (Tredgold l962), ‘Wobs” Wantenaar (Oates l962), Pip Longden (1962), and Malcolm (Haggis) Ross (1961).

These trips so vividly illustrate the incredible bonds of friendship created at Falcon, in this case, spanning nearly 50 years.

One member of these Peregrinations, Rod Whyte, had been schooled at Northlea, but was accorded honorary FOB status to enable him to participate in the outings and to provide competition when they revived inter school sports! In his letter to Gil’s two daughters, Miranda and Ariel (sadly, Gil and his wife, Phoebe had divorced some ten years before Gil’s death), Rod wrote of his impression of Gil when first he met him in l964:

“He was at the top of his game at that time – confident, urbane, intelligent and immensely popular with the friends from Falcon and Cambridge. And yet even at that stage, there was an underlying humility and sensitivity that for me was his defining character trait.”

His cousin Ed wrote of Gil being a passionate thinker, an engaging raconteur, always loyal, loving and helpful to his family and friends and a wonderful mentor and guide.

There were many more glowing tributes which flowed in from all over the world mourning his loss.

Roger Thomas’ list of Gil’s distinguishing characteristics reads: “cultured, compassionate, kind, caring, extremely intelligent, enthusiastic, decent, loyal, competent, a leader, considerate, sensitive, ethical, humorous…the list could go on.”

Gil was one of that band of incredibly loyal FOBS who continued his passion for the College right up to the time of his death. For both the celebrations of the 40th and 50th years of Falcon College, he joined with other like-minded Old Boys to make the long journey to the school from Cape Town.

During the years that I was Chairman of the Falcon Board of Governors, Gil would often telephone me to make enquiries and express his deep interest in and support for all that was going on at the College. He, like so many others, was amazed but delighted at the achievements of the College notwithstanding the dire situation in the country.

It was, however, due to men like Gil Cottrell that the foundation of the College built in those early years has endured and remained unshaken in spite of the many difficulties and challenges encountered.

Roger Thomas’ tribute ended with these words to which all of us who knew Gil would attest :

“Gil Cottrell was an extraordinary man. The big footprint he left belied his short stature. We shall never forget him.”

T.F.M. TanserGeorge Grey 1962

An Appreciation by Roger Thomas, Tredgold 1963

Gilbert Reginald James Cottrell.  1944 – 2009

I have known him 51 years. I wanted to give a brief synopsis.

  • Born: Broken Hill (Kabwe) in NR/Zambia in 1944.
  • Parents: South African of British stock. His father was in the colonial service – education. Gil was a laat lammetjie with two older brothers Kit (deceased) and Rick who is here today. All three brothers excelled in their fields.
  • Prep school: Eagle in the Vumba.
  • Senior school: Falcon College where Gil was an outstanding Head Boy and also captain of the 1st hockey team. He was also an exceptional student.
  • University 1: Cambridge, Queens College.
  • University 2: Columbia in New York – MBA.
  • Family: Married Phoebe from Connecticut and had two daughters Ariel and Miranda. Gil and Phoebe sadly divorced more than 10 years ago and since then he lived alone.
  • Work Abroad: USA and Australia.
  • Work RSA: MC Geffen and Ass. Corporate Consultants; Pizzaland, an exciting start up enterprise;Later CCG with Gil as CEO. High level. Many years.
  • Passions: Daughters, Bush, fly fishing, music, literature, Robberg.
  • Distinguishing characteristics: cultured, compassionate, kind, caring, extremely intelligent, enthusiastic, decent, loyal, competent, a leader, modest, sensitive, ethical, humour.

…the list could go on.

Final notes

My wife, Jan, and I have been close to Gil for many years through his ups and downs. He was an outstanding friend and also showed a keen interest in our three children and they loved him for it. He would have been absolutely delighted at the birth of our daughter Vanessa’s baby this morning. She sends special wishes from hospital.

When Jan had her 60th birthday Gil went to extraordinary lengths to produce a unique letter to her purporting to be the Queen. He also spent many hours constructing a 4 page and incredibly complex, incisive and amusing analysis of her character. Nothing was too much trouble for a friend.

Our hearts go out to Ariel and Miranda. He loved them so much.

Ari, so far away, felt deeply the pain of separation especially in his time of need. He missed you so much Ari, but understood your predicament.

Miranda, who so steadfastly stood by his side and supported him beyond the call of duty, bore the brunt of it in recent years, often to her own detriment. A huge burden for her. Miranda I can tell you your Dad appreciated your efforts more than you will know.


Gil Cottrell was an extraordinary man. He left a bigger footprint that belied his short stature. We will never forget him.

Roger Thomas Tredgold, 1963; 10th March 2009

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