In Memoriam John Petersen

This week I attended the funeral of Past Master John Petersen. He had fought bravely against myeloma, bone marrow cancer, for four years. The church was packed, not always the way with one of older age, but this showed the breadth and depth of his life and the numerous circles of his family and friends. He was born in Cardiff in 1936, the son of Jack Petersen, the then reigning Heavyweight Boxing Champion of Britain and the Empire, one of the most iconic and popular sportsmen of the day. It would be like being born the son of David Beckham today.

But early life was not easy as he lived through the war as a small boy, often with Luftwaffe bombs destroying nearby houses. His father wanted to join up to fight abroad but instead he was used to build morale among trainee troops at home. At the age of eight John went to boarding school but when he was 12 he developed polio spending one month in an iron lung in an isolation ward. Perhaps this made him stronger and he resolved to do the best he could with his life.

At 14 he went to Radley, a rowing school and he excelled at rowing and in his last year he was captain of boats. They reached the final of the Ladies Plate of Henley Royal Regatta in 1953, losing by only ¾ of a length to Jesus College, Cambridge. He was elected to Leander Club in Henley and to the Stewards’ Enclosure.

He did his national service as a commissioned officer in Germany and Cyprus seeing active service there against the terrorists. He was a popular and natural leader of men and was regarded by some as the best looking man in the regiment. He must have been a chip off the old block as he became the Army Heavyweight Boxing Champion. In 1957 while he was in Cyprus his father was the subject of an episode of This is your life with Eamonn Andrews. It was only the third time that the programme had used an outside broadcast and it featured John’s sister and two of his younger brothers. His third brother was also on National Service in Germany and he and John appeared on the programme by telephone link, no doubt quite a technical feat in those days.

He married a beautiful Welsh fashion model, Pauline Davies and began his commercial career on the Western Mail as an advertising representative. He was also a fine rugby player playing for Penarth for a number of seasons as a well-known prop forward. He later moved to London working in advertising with Notley advertising agency and the Daily Express, and played rugby for London Welsh. He then moved into brand management with Quaker Oats, Lyons Bakery and Trust House Forte where he reported directly to Lord Forte. American Express head-hunted him to be European Marketing Director.  Think ‘That’ll do nicely’.

He continued playing rugby for High Wycombe RUFC helping the club to win the Buckingham Championship. At the same time he also played squash at a senior and veteran level playing for the RAC and for Wales.  While playing for Wales he snapped his Achilles tendon which sadly ended his rugby and squash careers, Undaunted he took up golf. To be outstanding at one sport is good but to exceed at four is extraordinary, particularly for someone who had suffered from polio.

His beloved Pauline sadly died in 2000 but later John married Feona McEwan, herself a leading figure in advertising as Group Communications Director at WPP.

John was someone who threw himself with enthusiasm into everything. In business he was clear minded, a good negotiator, and years after he took early retirement at the age of 59 people would seek his advice. He remained active on several fronts not least as a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors which he joined in 1983 and became Master in 1999. In his year as Master he led a very enjoyable trip to Wales, visiting Royal Porthcawl, the Millennium stadium in Cardiff, the Royal Mint, Cardiff Castle, and Bay and other great historic places of interest with outstanding meals and entertainment.

In his 70s he and Feona bought the neighbouring land to their house, planted grapes and developed the Dropmore vineyard which won prizes and its wine is enjoyed widely in restaurants. In 2013 I organised a City Walk with a Twist round Burnham Beeches which is owned by the City of London Corporation. John lived nearby and invited us to see the vineyard after the walk. He proudly showed off his vines and demonstrated how you test which are the grapes that have the right levels of sugar. We then had a tasting and the wine is really of a high standard.

John was a popular and handsome man, a fine leader, a successful business man, an excellent sportsman, and a person of genuine charisma. The funeral service was conducted by the Rev Capt Peter Simmons CA who finished by quoting the immortal words of Max Boyce. He had been inspired by the hearty singing of the congregation, led by the St Bride’s choir, of ‘Bread of Heaven’ reminding him of the great rugby played by the Welsh at Cardiff Arms Park in the 1970s and 80s. He would be able to talk about the day he presided over John Petersen’s funeral and say “I was there!”

In the book of condolences I wrote “You could not have squeezed a Dropmore out of your life.”

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