MENZ Issues

Eulogy for Bert Potter

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