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Farewell to the doyen of diabetes

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Tributes

“So you have diabetes? Remember, diabetes isn’t a disease. It’s a condition that will make you live healthier.” These are the first words my traumatised parents and I heard when we met Professor Larry Distiller after my unexpected diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes at the age of 14.

We were guided by him on the lifetime of injections, finger-pricks, and dietary restrictions that would follow. His ability to turn crisis into calm epitomised who Distiller really was – a man who envisaged turning diabetes into a manageable condition, with which patients could live normally, free of its wretched complications.

The diabetes community in South Africa and abroad this week had the unexpected news of the sudden passing of this doyen of diabetes. Tributes, condolences, and messages of disbelief have flooded every relevant space since.

Distiller, a self-made man from humble beginnings, completed his Bachelor of Science degree, medical degree, physician specialty training, and sub-specialty in endocrinology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and soon became a dreamer. He understood that enabling patients to control their diabetes and transferring the financial risk of poor control to their healthcare team was the most efficacious and cost-effective method to control the diabetes pandemic, which has reached alarming proportions worldwide.

Distiller founded the Centre for Diabetes and Endocrinology (CDE) in Parktown in 1995, and brought to South Africa the concept of the diabetes-team approach.

Every patient would need not only a physician but an educator, dietician, biokineticist, podiatrist, and possibly even a psychologist to ensure diabetic longevity. The results of improved diabetes control in the community spoke for themselves, and under his quest to rally healthcare funders to adopt this approach, his CDE has grown in 25 years into an empire that has touched and saved thousands and thousands of lives.

“Thank you Larry for keeping me alive and well for 44 years” were the words spoken by Rabbi Anthony Gerson, a patient of Distiller’s as he paid his respects at his funeral drizzling with rain and tears at Westpark Cemetery on Sunday.

Surrounded by Distiller’s colleagues, family, and patients, Gerson announced, “Larry is dancing in the rain.” Indeed, he must have been as he finally saw the difference he had made in the world from a new vantage point.

Professor Roy Shires, a fellow endocrinologist from Wits and a man not many could educate any further, described Distiller as the pre-eminent voice on diabetes in South Africa. “I looked up to Larry, and he taught me throughout my career.”

For many years, Professors Distiller, Shires, Harry Seftel, and Barry Joffe travelled regularly to the Society of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes in Pretoria, where they gained knowledge to share. “Larry was a great inspiration,” Professor Shires said.

Dr Stan Landau, a fellow physician at the CDE, posted on social media about his devastation at Distiller’s passing, describing him as his “long-term mentor, teacher, and friend and a giant amongst his peers”. Dr Debbie Gordon, an endocrinologist formerly at the CDE and now practicing in Melbourne, described Distiller as “a pioneer of the approach to truly caring for patients’ well-being. He was a fair man – with a firm, but kind hand … a force not to be reckoned with.”

She reflected on Distiller’s faith in her abilities, and spoke of his later selfless encouragement of her to pursue overseas opportunities even to the detriment of the practice in Johannesburg. She admitted to their “Kit-Kat breaks” on a Friday afternoon that grew her bond with “this gentle giant”.

Grant Newton, the current chief executive of the CDE, and Shelley Harris, public-relations officer and long-term colleague, shared the sentiment that even though Distiller didn’t always verbally address the crowds, he didn’t need to, his stately presence achieved this. They spoke of the legacy he left, and of the revolutionary projects the CDE was undertaking, which would now go ahead without him but still be led vicariously by his calm, unwavering principles of leadership.

Distiller was far more than just a professional. He married Brenda, an actor best known for her “Cremora, it’s not inside, it’s on top” advertisement, and built a marriage that shone with love and affection. He cultivated a family that appreciated sport and wildlife. His children, Natasha, Greg, and Kevin, and his six grandchildren were the real focus of his soul. Two years after Brenda suddenly passed away, he married Barbara in 2019. She became the new focus of his affection.

Kevin, his younger son, described him to me as not only a father but a father figure to so many. “In spite of his impact, he remained humble, generous, kind, and committed to his values,” he said.

CDE biokineticist Andrew Heilbrunn expressed gratitude for Distiller’s mentorship since 1992 – a relationship that included Distiller’s speech at Heilbrunn’s wedding and the advice he still draws from it.

I wrote this piece because Distiller was my personal hero. He saved my parents from the trauma of their only child becoming diabetic at a time when modern information on diabetes management was rather inaccessible.

He looked after my diabetes for 27 years, promising me that if I followed his guidance, I would remain healthy until I became old. I’m distraught that I could prove to him how correct he was only until my 40s.

Distiller inspired me to become a doctor. We all have role models when we embark on formidable challenges. He was mine. Envisioning my potential to touch diabetic lives as a diabetic myself, he encouraged and sponsored me to do my postgraduate training in diabetes at Cardiff University, one of two universities where he held an honorary professorship.

Throughout my career, the buck has always stopped with him. With his deep commitment to evidence-based medicine, he was always the voice that distinguished fact from fiction in my patient care.

Distiller and I spoke about me contributing weekly time to practicing at the CDE in Houghton for some time now. I saw him for a regular check-up two months ago, and this time, he insisted on my commitment to practice diabetology at his centre for some sessions next year. I agreed, but had no idea that it would be without him. He has truly left an unfillable void in my life.

Darren Basserabie, a diabetic patient of Distiller for 30 years so poignantly told me that being cared for by Distiller was knowing that “the world expert was at your back, and his perspective would be spot on”. Every diabetic treated by him agrees. In his own words, Distiller lived “as strong as an ox”. With his everlasting legacy, he died “as strong as an ox” too. The world of diabetes will always be powered by that strength.

  • Dr Daniel Israel is a family practitioner in Johannesburg.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Leon Raff

    Dec 9, 2021 at 12:42 pm

    Dr Distiller
    Thank you for 33 years of the best possible care. I always looked forward to our bi-annual visits and your directness(rebuke when needed) together with your calmness and guidance. In all the 33 years i never once questioned any of your treatment recommendations as I knew you always wanted the best for me.
    You are undoubtedly best doctor that has ever looked after me.
    I will miss you so much.

  2. Dr Dawood Battey

    Dec 9, 2021 at 10:53 pm

    Deepest sympathy to the Distiller family
    MHDSRIP
    Dr Dawood Battey
    Bulawayo
    Zimbabwe

  3. Linda Errington

    Dec 27, 2021 at 9:47 am

    When I was 14 years old, I required extra maths lessons. Larry was around 19 and studying at Wits. I was so fortunate to have him as my extra maths teacher, as it was the first time I had ever understood and passed algebra. I looked forward to my lessons due to his patience and good looks. I then lost touch with him, but was aware a few years ago that he was the top Diabetes specialist. I wish his family long life and deepest sympathy, as well as to his many patients who have lost an amazing man.

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Tributes

Behind the scenes of a South African-born acting icon

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To most people, he was Sir Antony Sher, one of Britain’s finest stage actors who was internationally renowned for tackling the toughest Shakespearean roles with successful stints on the big and small screen.

To his beloved family in South Africa, he was “just Ant”, not a “Sir” knighted by the Queen for his contribution to theatre or a celebrated thespian who graced the world’s most famous playhouses. They just saw him as a humble, reserved, and warm man who loved Cape Town with all his heart and visited as often as he could.

Sher died last week of cancer at the age of 72. His illness was reported in September, when the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) announced that its artistic director, Sher’s husband, Greg Doran, would be taking compassionate leave to care for him at the couple’s Stratford-upon-Avon home.

“In the United Kingdom [UK], they called him Tony. Here he was Antony, a loved son, brother, uncle, cousin, and friend,” said his niece, Monique Sher, this week.

“I fondly referred to him as ‘Sir Uncle’. He once jokingly teased I should be calling him ‘Sir Doctor Uncle’ because I think he received three honorary doctorates,” she said.

While the theatre world mourned Sher’s untimely passing, his family took time to reflect on his “magnificent life well lived”.

“He was a very lucky man whose passion became his job, and he was good at it,” said Monique. “He died too young at 72, but he had an amazing, wonderful, full life.”

She said Sher and Doran, who directed him in many plays, loved to travel and went everywhere together.

“From the gorillas in Uganda to my late great-grandfather’s village in Lithuania, they travelled a lot.”

Not only was Sher a hugely celebrated actor, he was a fine artist and the accomplished author of several books.

“He got to do it all. What a great life he had!” she said.

Monique’s father, Randall Sher, said he was hoping to see his late brother soon in London. “Antony and I were very close – as close as brothers could be,” he said.

“Antony called me from the UK most Sundays at about 18:00. We were always on the same page. I cannot remember having any disagreements with him,” he said.

Sher was one of four siblings including Randall, the eldest, then their sister Verne, Antony in the middle, followed by Joel, the youngest.

The children were born and raised in Sea Point, where the boys attended Sea Point Primary and High School.

Their parents, Mannie and Margery, were very supportive of Sher, visiting him annually in London and accompanying him when Sher was knighted.

“There was a big leaning towards the theatre in our home because our mother was mad about it,” said Randall. “We were very much a theatre-going family although my father fell asleep from the minute the curtain was raised until the end. He would often attend Antony’s performances in London only to sleep through the entire show.”

As a child, he said Antony was “withdrawn and quiet”.

“He was very artistic and liked to do his own thing. He had one or two good friends. but liked to stay pretty much to himself. He was very talented, and it was often a toss-up over whether he should pursue acting or art as a career,” he said.

After completing compulsory military service, Sher moved to London at the age of 19 to study drama and acting. After stints with various performance schools, his professional career began at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre before he moved to the RSC in 1982.

It took him years to forge an identity he was comfortable with. He’s quoted in The Times as saying, “Gay, Jewish, white South African, that’s three minority groups. I wasn’t ready to come out as gay. Jewish I was a bit worried about because I couldn’t see any examples of great leading classical actors who were Jewish, and white South African was a problem because my political education didn’t really start until I got here [Britain] and I suddenly realised I’d been part of one of the most abhorrent societies on earth.”

From the RSC, a career as one of the greatest stage actors of his time began. His many tributes all mention his astounding 1984 performance as the titular king in Shakespeare’s Richard III as his breakthrough. He would win the Laurence Olivier Award – the most prestigious theatre award in the UK – for the performance as well as for his diverse portrayals including a drag artist in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. In his acceptance speech, he quipped, “I’m very happy to be the first actor to win an award for playing both a king and a queen.”

Sher went on to win once more in 1997. He toured the country performing with the RSC, and also appeared in television and film productions.

One of Sher’s favourite longstanding family traditions was to jump off the imposing granite rocks into the icy sea at Saunders’ Rocks Beach in Bantry Bay.

“Once he did it on the way to the airport after one of his visits,” said Monique.

Though the family wasn’t religious, they would always get together for meals on Friday nights and high holidays.

Upon hearing the news of his passing, Prince Charles paid tribute to Sher, calling him a “great man and an irreplaceable talent”. In a statement posted on his official website, he wrote that he was “deeply saddened” by the news.

“As the president of the Royal Shakespeare Company, I had the great joy and privilege of knowing him for many years, and admired him enormously for the consummate skill and passion he brought to every role,” Prince Charles wrote. “My most treasured memory of him was as Falstaff in a brilliant production of Greg Doran’s. I feel particularly blessed to have known him, but we have all lost a giant of the stage at the height of his genius.”

Sher was a prolific writer, with novels such as Middlepost (1989) named after the blink-and-you-miss-it town founded by his grandfather when the family arrived in South Africa in the early 1900s; an autobiography titled Beside Myself (2001); and theatre-diaries-cum-acting manuals for young actors including Year of the King (1985), chronicling his role in Richard 111; Year of the Fat Knight (2015) about working on Falstaff; and Year of the ‘Mad King’ (2018) after his portrayal of King Lear which earned him the 2019 Theatre Book Prize.

His lifelong “work-and-life” friend, well known South African theatre director Janice Honeyman, described Sher as her “theatre-hero”, her “soul-brother, buddy, colleague, thinker, perfectionist, personal teacher, inspiration, and consummate artist” whom she had known since childhood.

In a tribute to her friend in the Sunday Times, she said, “You have always been pure pleasure to direct – you showed willingness to go anywhere I led you, you were greedy for direction, for exploration, for personalising the role, internalising, finding the intimate and infinite detail in the writing, every aspect of your character, and ever-eager for more and more notes to work on! Have you any idea, Tony, how stimulating and gratifying that is for any director?”

Another of his closest friends and colleagues, celebrated actor, activist, and playwright, John Kani, said he was “gutted and left breathless” by the news.

Ironically, Kani last worked with Sher on Kani’s Kunene and the King, the story of an actor trying to get to play King Lear while dying of liver cancer, directed by Honeyman.

Sher’s great-nephew, Joshua Maughan, posted on Facebook, “Not only was he a great uncle, but a mentor and role model who helped me to navigate some of the most transformative moments in my life. It seems more pertinent than ever that the first text we worked on together was Richard II where we sat, overlooking Cape Town’s endless oceans, discussing the stark reality of mortality and how tangible life feels. I will always carry an indescribable amount of love and gratitude for all you were and all you did. I have no doubt that you’re sipping a strong [as it should be] G&T with the Bard upstairs. I miss you already.”

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Tributes

Peter Feldman – the man who never missed opening night

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The sudden passing this week of renowned entertainment critic and journalist, Peter Feldman, brought to an end his 50-year career across print, TV, and radio. For many, it was the end of an era of entertainment journalism, with Feldman as its leader and icon.

“He is one of the last of the important arts reviewers, whose body of work reaches back to the 1970s, when critics were feared, revered, and valued,” says music producer Bryan Schimmel.

He wasn’t born Peter Feldman. “Peter named himself, often regaling us with the story of how he was called Selwyn David Feldman by his parents,” says his friend, Janine Walker. “One of the few if not only Jewish students at his platteland primary school, the youngster made the decision to change his name the first time he walked into the classroom.

“When his ima [mother] visited for the first teacher/parent meeting, no one knew of a Selwyn Feldman, but they did have a Peter,” she says. “Peter’s explanation, complete with an accent, [was] ‘I wasn’t going to be called Shellvin Felldmin – ‘little Shelly’, so I called myself Peter after the Greek café owner in our street.’ Later, his parents officially changed his name.”

It was the beginning of an illustrious association with words, stories, and entertainment. “Recalling his career and working together for more than 30 years, Peter had a truly wonderful and rounded life – a time of many laughs, amazing experiences, and touching human moments,” says Walker.

“He was passionate about what he did, a hard grafter, and a lover of people. He was spiritual and believed in angels, and that his guardian angel protected him. This past February marked 30 years since he was shot in the stomach by a hijacker in the driveway of his then Parkmore home. He later told me he didn’t believe it was his time to go,” she says.

“Peter was the country’s foremost music critic in the heyday of arts journalism in South Africa,” says Walker. “He was punctual, professional, pedantic about grammar, and didn’t pick and choose only the better stuff to review. He sat through it all. His criticism was always constructive. Many former colleagues from The Star, paying tribute to him on social media, recalled his kindness to them, his willingness to share his immense knowledge, and his lack of ego.

“It’s Peter with a twinkle in his eye, his love of prawns, and his collection of watches that I will miss the most,” she says. “He was master of the pun, and happy to make fun of himself. He once arrived at The Star wearing a pair of over-the-top platform shoes purchased two decades before in London’s Carnaby Street, and paraded around to laughs and applause. With his thinning hair and bright red spectacles, he looked somewhat like a young Elton John.

“He was a dedicated family man. When you saw Peter, you usually saw his beloved wife, Carla. My heart goes out to her, their beloved daughter Janna, and grandson Quinn.”

Publicist Penelope Stein met Feldman in the 1980s, “at the beginning of my career. Peter was a highly respected, much-loved music and entertainment journalist, whose contribution to the arts in all forms was enormous.

“He had a love of many things: good food, watches, dogs, movies, theatre, and his great interest was ‘the artist’. As a young publicist, the fear we had of dealing with him was quite something – no spelling mistakes, and if you said 09:00, it had to be 09:00 not a minute after! Peter was always on time, reliable, and delivered on his word.

“In those days, we had no faxes, computers, or cell phones, so every press release was typed, photocopied, and delivered to The Star offices with pictures. Deadlines and spelling were everything to Peter! He loved having lunches with music-industry people, and enjoyed the different whacky personalities of those days. Zoo biscuits and tea were a regular event to chat about ‘what’s news’.

“Peter had a quirky sense of humour, always quick to chip in a funny pun. If he made it to your press conference, you were okay! He would often lead the way and in many instances, saved the day for me. He gave so many artists an opportunity to shine. He was fair. I know of numerous artists who still treasure the stories he wrote about them.”

For the owner of the Theatre on the Square, Daphne Kuhn, “his support for more than 25 years of Theatre on the Square was exceptional. He has probably reviewed almost every production since 1994 which he attended with Carla, who is a drama specialist. Janna [his daughter] is also a drama specialist and lives in London. His article about my theatre and our fundraising drive to keep it alive appeared in The Citizen a few weeks ago, and he regularly wrote for the SA Jewish Report, Artslink.co.za, The Citizen, The Star, The Saturday Star, The Sunday Independent, and other publications.

“He has also been the recipient of several awards for his contribution to music journalism and the South African record industry, and was a judge for the Naledi Theatre Awards,” she says. “He was a true gentleman, proud of his Jewish identity, warm, kind, and would do whatever he possibly could to promote the industry. There wasn’t an opening night that he missed! He simply understood the business. He was a true icon in the industry and a huge loss.”

He was a mentor to many. “He loved nothing more than to help a writer become their best self,” says entertainment blogger Mandy Strimling. “He always critiqued my writing before I published it. He had the ability to mould a writer of the arts in a profound way.”

As a critic, he never took advantage of his power. “He was an old-school writer, and never veered from it,” says Strimling. “Even when he gave a bad review, it was always done in a way that gave the show an optimistic tone, the way it could improve. He never just tore someone’s work to pieces like many do. He always said there was never a good reason to do that. That’s what I respected most about him as a writer – his criticism was always constructive, never mean.

“We would have an opening night where there were lots of journalists and bloggers invited, but the cast and directors of the production would wait for Peter’s review to come out because that’s the one that could sell the show based solely on his thoughts. It was incredible to watch.”

Says Stein, “I will always have a picture of him in my mind, which is Pete carrying his bag and recorder ready to get the exclusive at any time. It’s the end of an era. There will only ever be one Peter Feldman.”

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Tributes

Playwright and leader Victor Gordon makes his final exit

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Victor Gordon, who passed away this month due to COVID-19, had so many divergent sides. Gordon was a multi-talented man – a playwright, an artist, and a musician.

He was one of the Pretoria Jewish community’s guiding lights. He has been an active member of the Zionist Federation media team for the past 14 years, monitoring and countering antisemitism and anti-Israel bias in all facets of the media.

He served on the Carmel School parent-teachers association, Carmel’s board, the Jaffa management committee, and was chairperson of the Pretoria Council of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies for eight years as well as acting vice-chairperson for several years.

Gordon was pivotal in arranging events at Jaffa, bringing interesting speakers, films, and the like to the Pretoria community for many years. He also took over the running of Tararam, the South Africa Israel culture fund for a number of years, and wrote many speeches and articles for the Israeli embassy.

In his eulogy, Rabbi Gidon Fox said, “On the one hand, this is the easiest eulogy to write. On the other, it’s the hardest and one of the most painful to write. Easy, because there’s so much to say. Difficult, because the loss is unbearable. Difficult, because what words can one say about one of the world’s finest wordsmiths? What tribute can one pay that will do justice to a life that itself was such a tribute to the gift of life itself?

“Yet despite all these talents, Victor didn’t seek the limelight. Victor took on positions of import in the community not because he needed them, but because they needed him,” said Fox. “They needed his sage, wise, and eloquent advice, counsel, and leadership. In spite of all this fame, Victor was one of the humblest people I have had the privilege of knowing. A man who struggled to receive compliments due to his humility, yet had no trouble in dishing them out in spades.

“He lent his support, time, and abilities to communal organisations. Whether it be the history club, Jaffa, or indeed any time an MC was needed at a function or someone was required to give a vote of thanks,” said the rabbi. “And when Victor spoke, everyone listened. Every time he wrote or spoke, it sounded like poetry. Every time he opened his mouth, it was music to the ears. When a fabulous guest speaker or guest entertainment was provided in the community, it wouldn’t be uncommon for the highlight of the show to be Victor’s opening or closing remarks.”

His first play, The Clue of the Blue Vase, was staged at Brooklyn School on the final day of his school year. While living briefly in London, his interest in writing plays really started to germinate. Soon after their return to South Africa, it was announced that television would be introduced in 1976, and it became obvious that this would create opportunities.

For Gordon, these lay in scriptwriting, and in spite of having no experience whatsoever, when the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) announced the launch of an English drama and scriptwriting competition with guaranteed production of the winning play, Gordon was inspired to write Fever Ward. To his amazement, the script scooped first prize.

He also co-wrote what he referred to as “an awful TV series” with Paul Slabolepszy and Joe Stewardson called The Adventures of Scotty Smith, followed by a few episodes of the Springbok Radio series Squad Cars for Anthony Fridjhon. Victor then submitted The Stibbe Affair for the Amstel Playwright of the Year Award, gaining 11th place among more than 60 entries. He was so encouraged by that, a year later, he re-entered the competition with a play called Brothers, which scooped first prize and was subsequently produced by PACT (the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) at the State Theatre. It was a critical success, and was produced at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. Two years later, a new play called Comrades won the Combined Performing Councils of SA Award, and it too was staged at the State and Alexander Theatres.

The demands of earning a living then took priority, but in 2009, Victor wrote Harry and Ed, a play based on the unusual friendship that existed between President Harry Truman and a nondescript Jew named Eddie Jacobson which had a vital influence on the birth of Israel. This play was staged at the Sandton Theatre on the Square.

Next, believing that the Jewish American, Jonathan Pollard, who spied for Israel, was the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice, Victor wrote a play titled Pollard’s Trial. This came to the attention of well-known Israeli actor and director Roy Horowitz, who translated the work into Hebrew. The play opened shortly thereafter at the famed Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv. Not only did it get a five-star rating from every critic, but Horowitz won the award for the best director that year.

It became the only play in the history of Israel to receive an invitation to mount a private performance at the Knesset before an invited audience of 350, hosted by current President Reuven Rivlin. Pollard’s Trial ran on-and-off throughout Israel for more than two years. The Gordons went to Sydney, Australia, not long ago when his latest play, You Will Not Play Wagner had its premier. It, too, was an outstanding success.

Gordon had just completed a play on the life of George Bizos, which got the nod from Bizos prior to his passing, and he was in the process of writing two further plays.

He began painting in his teens, with sales of more than a hundred, many of which are in foreign lands.

At 13, Gordon took up the clarinet and by joining the Boys High Military Band, was given a rudimentary introduction to the instrument’s workings. By 14, he had formed his first band. From there on, jazz dominated his life for many years, and he played semi-professionally for more than 40 years.

Gordon’s other interests included working with his hands. He was a devoted member of the MG Car Club for 12 years, during which he restored three vintage MGs, one dating back to 1938.

The Gordons have two children, Jonathan and Lisa, and are also the proud grandparents of Amy and Tali.

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