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Eulogy for Bert Potter

Filed under: General — JohnPotter @ 8:26 pm Sat 12th May 2012

I read this at my father’s funeral today:

When I went to Middlemore last Sunday to identify dad’s body, the young cop asked me: “How long have you known the deceased?”

Well, it’s been 55 yrs.

Now I know you’re not supposed to speak ill of dead but some things have to be said.

By committing himself to a radical ideology promoting the sexual liberation of children, Bert got it badly wrong, and people were damaged as a result.

Sadly, he never accepted his social experiment failed in this respect, and he believed to the end that he had done no harm.

As one of the other residents of Centrepoint however, I have to accept just as much responsibility as him for creating and maintaining an environment where children were not protected from deluded adults.

He didn’t make me do it. I sincerely apologise to anyone hurt by either my actions or inactions, and if I can now finally presume to speak on dad’s behalf I apologise for him as well. I hope his demise will bring some closure to those with unresolved issues.

But the demonisation of Bert Potter as some kind of monster, controlling others with his supernatural powers and his group of “henchmen” is not at all helpful towards gaining an accurate understanding his life.

The fact is, for thousands of individuals, contact with my dad was a life-transforming experience. By pushing the boundaries of what was previously considered socially acceptable behaviour, and encouraging others to join him, he created space for people to discover and enjoy their full potential.

When Luke the undertaker was filling out the forms for the Death Certificate, he asked me what dad’s main occupation was. I initially thought about putting guru, but decided that most of all he was a salesman.

From vacuum cleaners in the 50s to carpet care and pest control in the 60s to free love and personal growth in the 70s and 80s, he mostly pursued a career of talking people into buying whatever he was selling.

He’s always been a dreamer, and extremely ambitious. I remember as a kid seeing a string of self-improvement books from the USA such as Napoleon Hill’s “Think and grow rich”, and another that I even read called “How to win friends and influence people”.

Throughout the 60s he became very involved with training door-to-door salesmen, and he researched all the latest techniques of motivation and the art of persuasion. When he was running Dale Carnegie courses, he demonstrated how he would get groups of conservative businessmen thumping the table and chanting: “act enthusiastic and you’ll be enthusiastic”.

While a great many of the skills he utilised after he went into the guru business were learned from others, he did have some unusual qualities from the start. Most obviously, he had a complete disrespect for authority if he thought it was illegitimate, although I didn’t realise this until my teenage years. He was also remarkably fearless and projected a genuine self-confidence which I’m sure was very attractive to others. As a child, I was given far more freedom than I ever gave to my own children!

I think the first time he started to think he might have some special talents was an incident when I was at Balmoral Intermediate, and got caught stealing doughnuts with a couple of classmates. Dad was shocked, and to my intense embarrassment organised with the headmaster to speak to the entire school about the virtues of honesty and confession. To his surprise, he received dozens of spontaneous letters from kids confessing all sorts of crimes, so he knew he had made a deep impression.

Later on when I was in the 5th form at Rangitoto College, I got sent home with a letter saying I couldn’t come back until my hair was cut short enough to be clear of my collar. He had just returned from one of his trips to Esalen in California, and had been practicing being assertive. I wish I had seen it myself, but his reaction became a bit of a legend because it was observed by all the kids waiting for homewards buses. He apparently drove his BMW coupe at speed into the school car-park, stopped it directly in front of the school steps, marched into the headmaster’s office with his own long hair and wearing a paisley shirt, then thumped his fist on the desk and shouted “what’s this nonsense about my boy’s hair?” I never went back to school, and the dress code was relaxed a couple of years later.

I’m sure by now he saw himself as a revolutionary, rebelling against the conservative establishment. Our home saw the appearance of books by writers like Richard Alpert, Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg. A series of colourful and interesting characters floated into our lives.

When I was 15, my mum had a turn visiting the USA for a couple of months, and he looked after his four kids. I remember eating meals that contained ingredients re-cycled from the previous three meals! When I bought my first girlfriend home for the night during that time, he magnanimously vacated his double bed and slept in my room. By now I was well aware that he wasn’t your average father.

Mum has told me that he took a lot of time off work when I was a small baby, so that he could play with me. After my wife gave birth to his first grandson, he took on a huge amount of the care – even waking in the middle of the night! He was a good role model for me, and fatherhood has subsequently been one of my greatest joys.

In 1977 I was travelling in India when a letter from mum informed me that dad was visiting Rajneesh in Poona. I almost decided to go and join him, but I was in Calcutta and running out of money fast, so it didn’t happen. I later heard from a sanyasin that all the time he was at the ashram, he wore green clothes. This was a time when there were colour swatches indicating exactly which specific shades of orange were acceptable. He also reportedly spent more time watching than participating. He reckoned afterwards that he only went to get cheap Rolfing massage done, but I’m sure he picked up quite a few tricks of the guru trade while he was there.

The way I see it, by the time Centrepoint got started, he had figured out how to set himself up as Alpha male. He surrounded himself with an awesome bunch of strong, capable, and desirable women; and this attracted a number of on-to-it men who could see that there were plenty to go around.

He used to regularly claim: “I am God”, and taught that because we all create our own internal universe, we can actually all be God. I suspect this stance was partly inspired by the rather large amounts of LSD he consumed at various times in his life, and that this contributed to his sometimes lack of judgement when dealing with the real, objective universe.

Our relationship changed after I was sent to Mt Eden Prison. As one might imagine, I was feeling pretty stink when I first arrived, but after only 20 minutes, there he was waving to me from across the yard. He immediately wrangled me a job in the sewing room so we could talk to each other during the breaks; somehow the authorities got the idea I was an expert machinist! During the few weeks we were incarcerated there together I was very conscious that our social status was pretty much equal.

He was a different man after his release. The internal fire had begun to die down, and he just didn’t have the energy and drive he once had. The gap between the powerful and manipulative 1980s Bert Potter in the public imagination and the real, retired old man losing his memory has got increasingly large over the years.

Once he accepted that Centrepoint was over, Dad settled down to a reasonably contented retirement. We often went on walks together; he loved nature and the outdoors as I do. He completely gave up on telling me how to run my life, which was lucky because by then I’d pretty much stopped caring about getting it right for him. We enjoyed almost a decade of easy friendship before his Alzheimer’s began to create problems.

In the last few years, as his dementia has worsened, I pretty much became his parent. Unfortunately there have been times when he enthusiastically embraced the role of naughty child!

A few weeks ago I went for a last walk with him around North Shore hospital, down to Lake Pupuke. By then it was getting hard to maintain any sort of conversation, but he chatted away about the things we were seeing, and at times it felt almost normal.

More than anyone else in the world, Bert has made me the man I am, and I honour him for everything he passed on to me. Sharing my life with Bert has been a wild and exciting ride at times, and I consider myself blessed to have had him as a dad.

John Potter
12th May 2012

22 Responses to “Eulogy for Bert Potter”

  1. ReformedDeviant says:

    One thing, John, that I have learned in my travels, is to not judge the man. Judge the actions, perhaps, but not the man.
    I commend you for your eulogy; extend my condolences, and wish you well.

  2. Kelvin Dunn says:

    Sick! The guy was a manipulative pervert who prayed on the young and innocent and colluded with the equally deluded deviants. He should have been locked up for longer! To try to mitigate his actions by sentimental musings is obscene…. Far better to have kept this to yourself.

  3. Ford says:

    #1..judge the actions but not the man? it was the man that performed the actions.. you are mental

  4. Down Under says:

    Sick – how sick? Sicker than the family court. That’s a social experiment that hurt far more people than Bert Potter ever did…..and we can talk about that, but John isn’t allowed to talk about his experience – so why are you here. Get over it.

  5. Ford says:

    losing a parent isnt good at any time but i agree with #2..#1 and #4 you both seem to condone his actions now hes both need need your heads read

  6. rc says:

    No matter how the world may judge me when I am gone, I would consider myself blessed if I left behind children who could remember me this well.

    God bless you John Potter.

  7. Ford says:

    #6..depends on what 1 is remembered for

  8. ReformedDeviant says:

    Please excuse me for quoting scripture. I accept many people here have little acceptance or tolerance of christian faith; nor is my intent to foister religion on them.
    However Bible: NIV Version; John Chapter 8, is most pertinent.
    Find a bible; look it up on the internet. Or reply without reading, by all means.

    I share my table with past-murderers, child sex offenders (in the widest sense of the law; I will say no more), drug takers, prostitutes, transexuals, and a range of other ‘deviants’. To paraphrase John Bradford (1510-1555), There but for the grace, go I.
    Nowhere do I condone Bert Potter’s actions – nor, indeed, Johns.
    That does not make me mental. Hopefully it makes me tolerent, somewhat non judgemental, and not one of those who would hound a man to death, and beyond, for his actions.
    I stand by my words.

  9. Ford says:

    #8.birds of a fether flock together and with a nick like reformed deviant im not surprised you tolerate others of a similar ilk

  10. Ford says:

    john potter..are you also related to aaron potter?

  11. ReformedDeviant says:

    you’re welcome at my table anytime, Ford.

  12. JohnPotter says:

    #6 Kelvin:

    Far better to have kept this to yourself.

    That was never going to happen. This skeleton is well and truly out of our family closet:

    Bert Potter’s son offers apology to victims
    It had to be said: Commune leader got it ‘badly wrong’

    #5 Ford – I hope no MENZ readers will condone my past actions.

    #10 Ford – never heard of Aaron.

  13. Ford says:

    #12..its a hard road john..i hope it gets easier for you and im pleased aaron isnt related to you..hes from akl and got a mention in child internet porn ..he got 2-3 yrs for having 80,000 images and 12,000 child porn videos

  14. John Dutchie says:

    Reply to JohnPotter#12

    There is a saying John ‘For he has not sinned,can cast the first stone’…I read your article online John …Kudos must be given for your honesty and frankness

    All best to you,and your family

    Kind regards …John Dutchie…Free at long last

  15. The Unreasonable Man says:

    “The fact is, for thousands of individuals, contact with my dad was a life-transforming experience. By pushing the boundaries of what was previously considered socially acceptable behaviour, and encouraging others to join him, he created space for people to discover and enjoy their full potential.”

    Yes indeed – very true.

    And the sheer amount of “sexual abuse” at the Centrepoint Commune as a percentage of the population in relation to the crimes committed was less than in the boroughs of Auckland’s North Shore, at the time and now. That fact does not excuse anything; every abuse is a crime. But it is useful to put things in perspective within any particular culture.

    Just who is it we are choosing to point a finger at ?

  16. Gwaihir says:

    John, my deepest sorrow for you and your family.

    The easiest thing to do is condemn others often without full knowledge. It is written that we cannot begin to understand another until we have walked a 1000 paces in their sandals. This is a time for forgiveness. Show me another who has never made a mistake – and I will show you a person who has achieved very little.

  17. Hans Laven says:

    Well done, a fine eulogy John: straight, frank, diplomatic. Your dad would have appreciated the honesty.

  18. John Brett says:

    Well said John.
    Your father may have created your childhood, but you have created your own life after that, and earned huge respect for that.
    Kind regards

    John Brett

  19. sam says:

    While I think it is positive that you have apologised for the child molesting committed by Bert and as I understand by you (although I am not sure exactly what acts you committed), and I do believe in forgiveness, “got it badly wrong” is a euphemism if ever I heard one. In my opinion by downplaying the actions, you are also downplaying the damage that was done – these children were molested, it wasn’t just a “failed experiment”. John, your father was a sexual predator – that is not something created by the media or the “sex abuse industry”- Your father sexually molested children, and for the rest of his life refused take responsibility for the way he violated his victims, and the damage all of you caused.

    However everyone deserves forgiveness, I hope you have reformed yourself.

  20. MurrayBacon says:

    Dear John, please accept my late condolences. I admire your honesty and acknowledgement of all of the possible viewpoints.

    There are comments above about sexual abuse, that appear to be based in the scenario of significant imbalance of power and manipulation. Professor Rind reminded us that in addition to that scenario, there is a continuum to consensual relationships and at that end of the range, the indications of harm are relatively negligible. Of course there are some advantages too.

    This controversy is still being debated today. It is worth reading, just for the examples of statistical analysis contained therein. Rind’s paper is accessible under reference 1.

    “sam” has suggested that “got it badly wrong” is a euphemism. Maybe s/he meant understatement? In any case John, you have put your name to this and stood by it.

    In human research ethics, the greatest sin is to perform an experiment without competently evaluating the outcomes. Unfortunately NZ is skilled at doing this and in the habit too.

    Although there were criminal court hearings after Centrepoint, I don’t believe that the Centrepoint experiment has been satisfactorily evaluated in an impartial way. As you said John, there were positives and negatives. These should be better measured, so that what lessons can be learned, actually are learned and applied.

    NZ Community Growth Trust have commissioned Massey University staff to prepare a report about the consequences of Centrepoint, mainly aimed at ensuring proper aftercare was available for people leaving Centrepoint. While this report goes a long way toward evaluating Centrepoint and the lessons it offers about sexuality and child development, I suspect that there is still a lot to be learned.

  21. MurrayBacon says:

    The Centrepoint situation shows up not just what a small group of people can do, good and bad, but also how we as a society handle such challenges and how well we act to protect vulnerable individuals.

    It is important that we move forward constructively. I am concerned that we sometimes emphasise victimhood too much and dwell too long in black spaces. Personal responsibility and resilience are important too. John, I believe that you do this well.
    Yours faithfully, MurrayBacon.

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