Story-ideas-1011172

Long John Berks - what a boykie!

  • Berks
John Berks (Berkowitz) followed the pattern of many South Africans - his parents Louis and Hennie (who is soon to turn 103) were from Lithuanian stock, transplanted to England and later to Krugersdorp and Klerksdorp, like many Jews who settled in the country towns of South Africa.
by SUZANNE BELLING | Jun 15, 2016
PHOTOGRAPH BY SUZANNE BELLING

“But there is where the similarity ended,” Berks told SA Jewish Report. “I was dumb - dumb academically - and left school without passing standard eight because I was already shaving and looked too old to still be at school. It was suggested that I leave.”
The other Jewish kids in the then community of 150 families “were flying” but Berks had been told he would only amount to working at the train station, clipping tickets.
 
However, John Berks, or Long John Berks as he is affectionately known, has outshone many of his peers to become a household name. He even has a street in Klerksdorp named after him.

“It’s really only a lane,” he says modestly. Berks admits he is shy, “except when I am with my best friend ‘Mike’ (a microphone)”. He is humble, honest and unassuming and spends much time looking after Hennie (now Nochimowitz), who lives in Glenhazel.
Berks followed his childhood dream to be a broadcaster. “One of G-d’s greatest gifts is to present a picture through the spoken word. That is what radio does. You can be blind like my mother and still see a picture in your mind’s eye. If you dream it, you can do it,” he says.

From an early age, encouraged by his father, who died when Berks was only 14, he would spend hours glued to the old-fashioned radio, mimicking the sports commentators. “I would tune up the old Philips radio and mimic the great commentators on BBC - John Arlott, EW Swanson and Rex Austin, encouraged by my father, who would set up a cricket pitch in the yard, and I would do the commentary.” 
Hard to believe but Berks, said to have been born with a “wooden spoon in his mouth”, was a sickly child, who came out with rashes from nerves and stuttered and stammered - unless he was imitating his idols.

Robin Binckes insisted Berks had a story to tell, a tale of a dream turned into reality, which comes alive on the pages of his book “What a Boykie - The John Berks Story”, to be launched on June 28 at Exclusive Books Hyde Park (30° South Publishers). Price is R302. 

The book tells how Berks’ “wooden spoon” turned to silver “through perseverance and sheer willpower”.
It traces the young Berks’ persistence in making endless calls to the SABC, standing outside the building in the Johannesburg CBD in the rain and never giving up until Colin du Plessis offered to give him elocution lessons, ridding Berks of his Afrikaans accent and generally doing a Pygmalion on him.

It tells of his employment with Dandy Polish and a soap factory, retching on the tallow used for the soap products. He tried his hand at reporting for the Klerksdorp Recorder and the Germiston Advocate. Then there was his unfortunate stint in the then SADF till his lucky break came with LM (Lourenco Marques) Radio, drawing the attention of the iconic David Davies who sent Berks to Australia, where the pattern of commercial broadcasting became a blueprint for radio in this country.

Berks’ career spanned 40 years of different countries and radio stations, including Springbok Radio (as a freelancer), Capitol Radio, Radio 5, Swazi Music Radio and 702 (through Issie Kirsh) and even living in Port St Johns in the former Transkei, where his children Lance and Charise went to school and back in a rowing boat.
Berks is described as an exemplary father and grandfather. He is also known by many different guises, including the characters he invented in his radio talk shows. He fooled unsuspecting victims with his practical jokes and the imaginary situations he conjured up.

With unmatched wit and humour he took in politicians, professors, and celebrities, including hotel magnate Sol Kerzner-by pretending to be late US president Ronald Reagan, angling for an invitation to the opening of the Lost City.
This “boykie” overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to become a broadcasting legend. In 2014 he was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame and honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
 

2 Comments

  1. 2 Suzanne Roach 07 Mar
    Looking  forward to see and meet him  as a speaker at our meeting  of U3A on the 22nd March in Benoni 
  2. 1 Lorraine 23 Oct
    I have always enjoyed listening to Berksie but with him all the best life has to offer with health and happiness !

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