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Farewell After A Lifetime Of Service

An era ends on Monday 31 October 2022

A lifetime horseracing administrator and one-time CEO of Turffontein Racecourse, the low-profile Merle Parker is known to anybody who has been in the game for five minutes as an old school pillar of reliability.

Merle, or ‘Aunty Merle’ to some, embarks on a new journey this week as she retires from the Racehorse Owners Association, after close on 20 years service.

Much like her younger, but equally dependable colleagues Penny Morsner and Angie Basel, who collectively have over 50 years service between them, Merle is one of those rare people in racing.

Merle Parker – an era ends on Monday

She always answered her phone and seldom didn’t have a guiding word to offer.

We had to practically break down the glamorous Granny’s office door to get her to talk, but retirement is a strange tonic – people somehow open up and talk as they aren’t really answerable to whoever is dictating media perceptions or the way they should think, any longer.

“Should I start at the beginning? I am proud to say that I come from extremely humble beginnings, having been born in Gqeberha in a suburb called North End. I firmly believe that it is important that we should always remember where we hail from. I am the second eldest in the family, having had three brothers, one who has passed,” says Merle.

Port Elizabeth now known as Gqeberha – back in the day

As a young girl she tells us how she was very involved in sporting activities.

“We lived in Newton Park so my brother and I used to go to Fairview Racecourse, which at that time was on the Cape Road, to do fitness training running around the track. On Saturdays we often went to watch the races as my uncle was an avid racing fan. We were under-age so we were not permitted to go onto the racecourse, but watched from the car park and always enjoyed those family outings.  The memories of the people involved in racing are vague –  but I do remember Roy Curling, who was a very successful jockey,” she recalls with a distant glance out of her Turffontein office window.

Merle was educated at Alexander Road High School and matriculated in 1969.  She recently attended a school reunion which she thoroughly enjoyed.

“It was good catching up with the loyal and friendly people from ‘die Baai’. I must say I was very impressed with the way in which the school has developed since those early days and the young scholars are doing us proud,” she says sentimentally.

Merle married in 1972 and has two children, Louise and Steven.

“I’m very proud of them and my beautiful grandkids, Luke and Shannen. I regard them as my anchors in life.  Their (late) father and I had both been involved in the motor industry, and I spent the first 10 years of my working career at Ford Motor Company.”

Merle’s route into horseracing happened by a corporate twist of fate.

“My husband was transferred to Johannesburg and I went to an agency to seek employment.  I was sent for an interview at Germiston Racecourse, as it was then known, and was very impressed with the gardens and the peace and tranquillity of the racecourse. I was offered other positions but really wanted that job,  so I held on until I heard from them that my application had been successful.  And that is where my lifetime in the horseracing  industry started!” she says proudly.

Merle describes herself then as a jack of all trades – working as a secretary to the Assistant GM, John Alexander during the week. On racedays she would work on reception, go upstairs to meet guests and do hostess duties until racing started, and then went back to resume her reception duties.

After a few years, a job came up at the Star newspaper in the racing department under the Racing Editor, Robert Garner.

“It was a half-day job and we attended all Transvaal racemeetings and many social events. I suppose I moved mainly to learn new skills in horseracing.”

Turffontein

Two years later John Alexander was appointed CEO at Turffontein Racecourse and offered Merle a position as his PA.

“My time at Turffontein proved to be very happy and successful and after a few years John decided to return to New Zealand.  A few years later I was offered the position as CEO. I believe that much of my success was due to the fact that I was extremely hard working, I had the ability to listen to people and always got the best out of the superb team who supported me at Turffontein. The Stewards of the Club, as well as my counterparts at the other racing clubs and racing bodies who were seasoned campaigners, were always willing to give advice if I needed it.”

Racing corporatized in 1999 and Turffontein was the one racecourse that had not outsourced any of their staff in the lead up.

“Our racecourse was a racing club, a horse training centre and an entertainment venue, and we gave it our best shot right up until the end.  As a result, the retrenchment at Turffontein affected a lot of staff members which was traumatic.  However, during the years leading up to the change, I brought  Ike Shirindi on board as Human Resources manager to assist with education and training. Ike had been a barman in the Stewards quarters as a part-timer, but he was in fact a deputy headmaster at a school in Soweto. He  was an absolute gem and I also have to thank the stewards and management in office at the time who supported our transformation programme.”

Merle tells how prior to retrenchment, many of the staff at Turffontein Racecourse had received diplomas from recognised training institutions.

“Ike  found a seamstress to provide sewing classes in order that, when the staff left the racecourse they had a skill and could put food on their tables. Turffontein assisted with loans and purchased the sewing machines. It was indeed a sad day when we left Turffontein, but the legacy that we left was one that we were extremely proud of,” she adds with humility and a tinge of sadness.

RA Logo

In 2003 Colin Gordon was looking for an assistant and offered Merle a position at the then Racing Association.

“Retrenchment takes its toll on one’s self-belief and I have been along that road and understand what people go through following that experience. I have had just short of 20 happy years at the ROA and, once again, it was the horses and the interesting people who made a huge difference in my life. The ROA has grown tremendously during the time that I have worked here.  Much has changed over recent years -including the name – and I wish the ROA success for the future.”

The once introverted ‘girl from the plaas’ says that working with powerful people like Graham Beck, Ken Palmer, Colin Dunn, Laurie Jaffe, Arthur Taylor and Eric Gallo, to name but a few, taught her a lot about life and helped her develop confidence and a belief in herself.

“The transition in this male-dominated industry is taking place, albeit slowly! But as much as I respected my male counterparts, I saw myself as being equal and I can look in the mirror and like what I see.”

Looking back today, Merle says the champion horses and determined folk she worked with will always be an inspiration.

“Horses are amazingly beautiful animals, and we can feel at peace in their presence. Their gentle eyes seem to enquire ‘how are you old friend?’ and suddenly all one’s troubles seem to fade away. Some of my best memories are about champion thoroughbreds, and the determined people who I worked with and made a difference in their lives. These wonderful people, and there are many, went out and did the very best that they could and were successful. Kudos to them. To my lifelong friends who I still communicate with practically every day, you will always be special to me, wherever you are!”

As to her plans after she closes her office door for the last time on Monday 31 October, Merle says that she has now come to the end of a road and can count her blessings for her life experiences.

“I am indeed a lucky lady. It is good to see youth coming into senior positions in the industry and I consider it a privilege to have worked with some of them over recent years. My plans going forward will be to take a break until the new year and then I will decide where my skills and passion will be best suited.  Watch this space! Thanks to all of racing’s good people. It’s been a privilege to serve each and every one of you.”

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9 comments on “Farewell After A Lifetime Of Service

  1. John Alexander says:

    Merle worked for and with me at Gosforth Park and Turffontein and was a great support to not only myself but also to the staff at both racecourses. Merle always had time to talk and listen to those around her and the Racing industry will miss her knowledge and wisdom and I wish her well as she embarks on the next phase of her life. Thanks Merle and my thoughts are with you. John Alexander

  2. Dorrie Sham says:

    Merle never said NO to anyone…..will be missed I’m sure. Enjoy your retirement Merle. Regards, Mark and Dorrie

  3. Steve Reid says:

    I have never met Merle Parker, something I’m not particularly bothered about to be very honest because of our dealings with her at the RA. She was clearly a different person when she wasn’t defending Larry, and mores the pity she chose the route she ended up following. She carries the information that would have enabled her to make a meaningful difference should she have had racings interests at heart and not her own.

    Dorrie, your comment particularly amuses me. All Merle Parker ever did when the principled Concerned Owners who did not sell out racing to Jooste, asked anything from the Racing Association, was to say NO, and in very pronounced capital letters too. I have the correspondence to substantiate my statement – lots of it.

    If there were ever to be a Racing TRC of sorts, she would be one of the first people needing to tell her story. She is the Brian Molefe of Phumelela country racing.

  4. Cliffie Miller says:

    I thought this would never happen but well deserved Merly always so kind and never a bad word to anyone you will be missed but only a phonecall away Aunty. Lots of love Heather and Cliffie

  5. Donald Bradshaw says:

    Interesting article , did not know Merle but can recommend retirement to her , as long as you have good health they are the best years of your life , no question. S.P. are outdoing themselves today , first a magnificent old photo of Milnerton Racecourse with that majestic , stately icon of South Africa , Table Mountain standing in all it`s glory in the background and now a lovely old image of P.E. with not a piece of trash to be seen in the surrounding harbour area ?

    1. Editor says:

      Hi Donald – you must be our most observant reader! 🙂
      Agree – both images conjured up good memories

  6. Editor says:

    Merle was always accomodating of our queries over the years – even if Larry never really loved us.
    Sorry to read in the ROA newsletter tonight that Penny Morsner (Broodryk) and Angie Basel will also be leaving at the end of October. That’s a massive drain of experience.
    Wish all three ladies best of luck.

  7. Frankie Zackey says:

    Frankie Zackey… Such a pity that 95% of the racing industry never ever witnessed the tears streaming down most of the female workers that worked for the RA on a daily basis,, Mr Ed are you telling us that in addition to Merle’s departure that another 4 or 5 staff members left too in such a short space of time ? Someone is or something is very fishy Mr Ed,, but very very fishy 😷 Mr Ed can you please tell us who’s the RA board at the moment ? they need to answer us … We don’t ever hear a word from that bunch … Mr Ed when is the RA AGM please ?

    1. Editor says:

      Hi Frankie
      According latest ROA newsletter, Ashwin Reynolds and Philip Sarembock (relocated to Europe) are recent resignations.
      That leaves Peter Riskowitz (Chairman), Jessica Motaung, Greg Kotzen, Desiree De Andrade, Kevin Sommerville, Garth Towell and Natalie Turner.
      AGM date needs confirmation.
      Cheers

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