Vintage Chappo

November 16 marks the third anniversary of the Lord Jesus calling John Chapman home.

We miss Chappo so much, not least because of his gift of storytelling, love for life and love for the eternal life in Jesus that he loved to share with others.

What follows is one of my favourite (true) stories that I would often prompt Chappo to tell to any new crowd who hadn’t heard it.

In 1955 Chappo was a Manual Arts teacher at Gunnedah High School. Think ‘Design and Technology’ because that what Manual Arts teachers now call it. Chappo used to say that it was called Manual Arts because everything they made in Woodwork and Metalwork was made absolutely by hand. You couldn’t even find a power tool in any of the school workshops. They didn’t even have a Drop Saw! It was 1955.

There were two boys that Chappo taught that year at Gunnedah High School, the Priest brothers. Gary, the older of the two, was about 14 or 15 and in his Intermediate Year. He was illiterate and, in his own words, “had no concept of spelling or reading.” Despite this, and perhaps because of it too, he was a great storyteller.

Each year the high schools of northwest NSW faced off for the Littleton Cup.  During the day their sporting teams would meet on the school fields and fight it out at every imaginable sport. At night their teams would do battle in the school assembly hall at debating and public speaking.

Being the skilled raconteur that Gary was, he represented Gunnedah in the impromptu public speaking, the last event on the long day of competition. The points tally of the schools were so close that this last event would decide which school would win the trophy.

The teacher chairing the impromptu public speaking began by announcing the rules of the event. Each contestant would be given their title and topic on a sheet of paper with 10 minutes to prepare to speak. Gary was handed his topic but had, “no idea what it was about.”

Chappo says that he and a fellow staff member were standing about half way back and to the side in the hall heaving with teenage school kids. The other teacher turned to Chappo and said, “John, we’re sunk. Gary can’t read his topic.”

Chappo responded, “Don’t worry mate, he’s a smart kid. He’ll work it out.”

As Gary approached the stage he asked the adjudicator to announce the topic he was to speak on. When he did Gary launched into three minutes of unblemished rhetoric on the given subject, won hands down and secured the Littleton Cup for Gunnedah High.

As you can see, since Chappo’s death, I am keen to keep the story alive and have told it on several occasions over the last three years.

I was telling it to a new member of my staff team a few months ago and as I did so, the thought struck me, “I hope it’s true and not one of those Chappo stories that has taken on a life of its own in the course of the many reruns. So I thought that I should ring this Gary Priest, who I knew from Chappo to be a retired Anglican ‘priest’ living in Adelaide.

Working on the premise that there is no time like the present, I sourced his phone number and rang him that morning. After a slightly awkward introduction, I rolled out the story exactly as I have described it above and asked Gary if it was true, false, embellished, exaggerated, undersold and whatever . . . . ?

Gary burst into laughter down the phone. “It’s true in every detail,” he said. “I can even tell you what I talked about. I gave them three minutes on Marilyn Monroe, brought the house down and brought home the Littleton Cup. It was to my great surprise that I took out the trophy, thus forming a bond with Mr. Chapman.”

We spoke for quite a few more minutes. Gary told me that Chappo was not only his Manual Arts teacher at school, but also his Youth Fellowship leader at St Andrews Gunnedah on a Friday night and that Chappo was responsible under God for beginning him on his “faith journey.”

I then mustered the boldness to ask, “Forgive my impertinence, but I would love to know how you came from being an illiterate teenager to studying theology at a tertiary college and having a long ministry as an ordained clergyman, including many years as the Rector of Broken Hill and later as the Dean of the Bunbury Cathedral?”

But that is not Chappo’s story. It is Gary Priest’s. It is a fascinating story. And it is a story for another time.