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A tribute to Jack Simonian, one of Kenya’s best all round Sportsman in the sixties

by Dil Bahra

Jack Simonian 1970

John Levon (Jack) Simonian who was the East African motor cycling, motor rally and track Champion and who represented Kenya at hockey at three Olympic Games passed away in Sydney, Australia on Monday 23 December 2019. He was aged 84.

Jack, who resided in the UK since 1978, had gone to Sydney, Australia earlier this month and celebrated his 84th Birthday only last week. Replying to his friend, George Brink’s greetings of Happy Birthday, Jack wrote “Yes, thoroughly spoilt by Family and Friends from all over. California, Canada, Kenya, England, Australia, New Zealand, Sardinia and last but not least South Africa!! Great day and taken out to dinner this evening!! Life is Always Great!! However WE are all leaves on a tree, some fall off and others stay on for a while!! Wish All of you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy new year with all Blessings, Health, Happiness and Prosperity. I do miss all your company, but memories will have to suffice. Such is The Precious Life that we are gifted!! Anyway, enough of all that!! Totsiens for now”

Jack was born on 15 December 1935 in Wad Madani, Sudan. His parents had emigrated from Armenia to Egypt and then to Sudan and in 1948 the family moved to and settled in Kenya.

After his primary school education in Sudan, he studied at St Mary’s School in Nairobi, Kenya. He was a very good tennis player at St Mary’s and played hockey and tennis for his school team.

After schooling, he joined East African Airways as an apprentice Aircraft Engineer.

Jack enlisted in the Kenya Regiment on 30 September 1955 (National Service) and he then underwent basic training at the Kenya Regiment Training Centre at Lanet near Nakuru from 3 October to 10 December 1955. He was awarded the Africa General Service Medal in 1956. He played hockey for the Regiment.

After completing his two year’s National Service, he re-joined East African Airways and qualified as an Aeronautic Engineer. He took up motor cycling racing, grass track motor cycle races being his first love. He played hockey for East African Airways hockey team.

He joined Parklands Sports Club in Nairobi and played hockey in the Kenya European Sports Hockey Association League. He was a member of Parklands Sports Club that won the Craig Cup in 1960 against Nakuru Athletic Club. He represented Parklands at hockey, tennis and snooker.

He fondly recalled that one Saturday afternoon in 1959, the Chairman of his Club, Ron Cooper, who was vice President of Nairobi Hockey Association at the time, asked him what he was doing that afternoon. He invited him to play in goal for Nairobi X1 in a match that afternoon in a couple of hours’ time. That day was 1 August 1959 and the match was against the visiting Indian Hockey Team.  The Nairobi X1, which was captained by Chris Wevill of Impala Sports Club, included Kirpal Singh Bhardwaj, Krishan Aggarwal, Silu Fernandes, Edgar Fernandes, Surjeet Singh Panesar (Jr), and Egbert Fernandes who all went on to represent Kenya at Rome 1960 Olympic Games. The Indian team in that match also included seven players who went on to represent India at Rome Olympics.

Nairobi X1 that played India at City Park Stadium, Nairobi on 1st August 1959

It was hockey’s good fortune that Jack did not have a motor cycle racing event that afternoon. That match started his international exposure in hockey and he never looked back. But he kept his motorsport going on at the same time which is a remarkable feat. He progressed to Motor Rallying and track racing which ran side by side with his hockey feats.

Nairobi X1 and Indian team players after the match on 1 August 1959. Jack Simonian is 3rd from left on the ground
Only two Europeans were considered to be of possible Olympic standard in Kenya when the trials for the Olympic squad started. One was Jack Simonian of Parklands and the other was Impala’s Chris Wevill. He was the only European selected for Kenya’s team for Rome 1960 Olympic Games. By this time he was already Kenya’s top racing motor cyclist.

He made his international debut in hockey against Italy on 1 September 1960 in Rome, a match which Kenya won 7 – 0. From that moment he became a regular member of Kenya squad.

He toured Rhodesia with the Kenya team in August 1961 and played against South Africa and Rhodesia at the international Hockey Festival in Bulawayo.

In 1962, he joined Sikh Union Nairobi, a Club with a rich history of hockey. He told me, during one of our many chats over the years, that Tari (Avtar Singh Sohal)  and Sindh (Surjeet Singh Panesar (Jr)) were a big influence on him joining Sikh Union. He added “We have a lot in common. My best friends are Sikhs”.

Sikh Union Nairobi Team 1969. Jack Simonian is 1st left on ground.

He played for Sikh Union Nairobi for over a decade, helping the Club win the M R D’Souza Gold Cup; Laton Brothers Cup; Asian Sports Association Cup; Golden Jubilee Kenya Cup; Desmesh Cup; Ujjager Singh Cup; Kishen Singh Cup; Joseph and Sons Shield; Karam Singh/Hira Singh Cup and Nairobi League Championship.  During this golden period, Sikh Union Nairobi won nearly all the competitions.

He was a member of the Club’s team that won the M R D’Souza Gold Cup seven times. The Gold Cup was the Blue Riband of East African Hockey and played in Nairobi during the Easter weekend.  With winning the Gold Cup went the title of unofficial East African Champions. At the same time during Easter, another sporting event – The East African Safari Rally used to take place and Jack had to juggle the two sports. There are many stories of Jack managing to play in both these sports during the Easter weekend.

He was a member of the Kenya tour of Pakistan in 1962 and tour of India in 1964. Last month (17 November 2019) at a gathering of Kenyan Olympians in London to celebrate the life of his late Olympic colleague Surjeet Singh Panesar (Jr), Jack recalled the match in Jabalpur, India  when Kenya defeated India 0 – 3 in their backyard and the conversation he had with the umpire in the clubhouse about disallowing two of Kenya’s goals. Needless to say the conversation was very interesting. Six months later, India won the Gold in Tokyo.

Kenya team - Tour of Pakistan 1962. Jack Simonian is 2nd left front row.

Jack went on to play his second Olympic Games in Tokyo with Kenya finishing sixth, her best position at Olympic Games.

Jack was a member of Kenya team that toured Europe in 1966 and played in the 12 Nations Hamburg Tournament. Three months later Kenya had a tour of Zambia and Jack was unable to go due to work commitments. His employers were rightly concerned about the time being taken off, having recently returned from a six week tour. It so happened that Kenya’s selected goalkeeper, Ahmed Hassan Sharman, got injured in the first test match and Jack was flown to Zambia in a private plane to play in the 2nd and 3rd test matches.

Jack went on Kenya’s tour of Pakistan for the Pre-Olympic Tournament in Lahore in January 1968 and following a successful East African Championship in Kampala in August 1968 and India’s tour of Kenya, Jack was selected for his third Olympic Games -  Mexico 1968.

At Mexico Olympic Games, despite losing their captain and full back Avtar Singh Sohal through injury after only two matches, Kenya needed only to draw in their last pool match against Pakistan to proceed to the semi-finals. They lost 1 – 2 and had to play Australia in a pool playoff match which they lost 2 – 3. Kenya finished 8th. Jack was awarded the best goalkeeper of the tournament at Mexico Olympic Games.

Following a lengthy break from international hockey, during which he set up his own business, a Caltex petrol station, participated in the RAC Rally in the UK and the East African Safari Rallies, Jack was recalled for the match against West Germany in Nairobi on 18 March 1972. The Kenyan Management wanted a commitment for a three weeks training at the BAT high altitude Athletics Training Camp in Kijanjo along with other fitness camps prior to selection for the Munich Olympic Games. Jack was not prepared to take so much time away from business and thus ended Jack’s international hockey playing career.
There are many others, who I am sure will chart the Motorsport career of this accomplished motor cyclist, rally and track driver which ran side by side with hockey.

Jack emigrated to the UK in 1978.

I had the pleasure of having many interactions with Jack for over three decades that I have known him personally and have chatted over many hockey stories. He would always attend a hockey function anywhere and only last month he attended the “Celebrating Life of Sindh” function in London, driving his car down from Rugby. He was our main speaker. And he was the last one to leave the function room with Surjit Rihal and me. The three of us walked down the stairs at Indian Gymkhana Sports Club in Osterley, and had a long chat by his car before he got into his car and drove off – happy memories!

Jack Simonian with fellow Olympians at Spencer Hockey Club on 20 July 2018


Avtar Singh Sohal (Tari), Kenya’s  captain from 1962 - 1972 said “We were both very close friends and played together for many years for Sikh Union Club and for Kenya. It was time when competition was too tight to get selected for Kenya team. Jack use to rush to my house  near  Sikh Union Club on his bike with pads on and carrying a bag full of balls for me to take hits to get him good practice. Sessions were one hour to two hours Individual training. We worked many hours together which helped both us. After training it was China's restaurant spring rolls to galore and of course chilled beers. We were allowed entry to the Chinese with sweat all over the place. Those were unforgettable days. Full of memories. Will miss Jack of all trades. Condolences to friends and family”

Surjit Singh Rihal, Kenya’s captain from 1973 – 81 paid this tribute “It was an honour to have played  hockey along with Jack for Sikh Union Nairobi for a few years when l came back from India in 1969. He was a very down to earth dedicated sportsman. He was a very daring goalkeeper and we had a lot of confidence in him when ever the ball reached him in the circle that he will prevent the opposition from scoring. A few days before he left for Australia, a number of players including Jack got together to pay tribute to Surjit Singh Panesar (Jn). This was the last time when l met Jack who was in his usual jovial mood. May God give eternal peace to his soul. We will always miss you Jack. RIP”

Dr Joginder Singh Dhillon, Melbourne 1956 Kenyan Olympian, paid this tribute “Jack was undoubtedly a legendary and giant of goalkeeper. I would have loved to keep goal behind me during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. On the hockey field Jack was sharp as a tack and did everything he did to keep a clean sheet. When I first met Jack  on my last visit to Kenya we had a round of golf. I found him to be a gentleman oozing with warm friendship who will be missed by his family and friends”

Ajmal Malik, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in Islamabad, Pakistan said “With Jack in the goal you were always sure to have a ‘rock’ in the last line of defence! He was quick in anticipation and swift to thwart opponent’s attack. From his vantage position as a goal keeper he was quick to anticipate opponent’s moves and provide valuable and timely call to his defence players. Jack’s sporting activities went beyond field hockey. He was a successful car rally driver participating in the famous East African Safari Rally and also in the motorcycle track racing. A humble person who was always ready to help. Once we were in Moshi to play East African Championship; my host was in a transport business and was having a problem with one of his vehicle for quite some time and could ill afford to have it off the road. Knowing Jack’s expertise with cars, during practice time I mentioned to Jack about my hosts predicament. As soon as our practice was over he came to me and said ‘let’s go’. He spent two hours working with my host’s mechanic until the fault was identified and rectified. There was no fuss: he simply left saying ‘see you at the ground for the match”
Norman Dacosta, former hockey correspondent of Daily Nation (Kenya). Now residing in Canada paid this tribute “For hockey lovers Jack Simonian was one If not the best goalkeepers to represent Kenya. Apart from playing several internationals around the world, Jack who passed away whilst vacationing in Sydney, Australia, wore his country's colours  in three Olympics - 1960 in Rome, 1964 in Toyko and in Mexico City in 1968. On the local scene Jack, who I not only played against for the Railway Goan Institute and also wrote about for the Daily Nation , was a man who played hard and off the field was one who loved to have fun like the rest of that great Sikh Union club. Jack also made his mark as a top-flight Safari Rally driver and also a first rate motorcycle rider where he was almost unbeatable on the tracks in Nakuru, Embakasi, Sikh Union and also in Kampala. It's sad to see this great leave the scene a month after his Sikh Union and Kenya teammate Surjeet Panesar left us last month. A couple of weeks ago another rally driver and organizer par excelleance Bharat Bardwaj bid us farewell. Too bad”
Edgar Fernandes, former Kenyan Olympian, now residing in Melbourne, Australia paid this tribute “It was a pleasure to play with Jack in Rome and Tokyo. He was an outstanding goal keeper. It was like trying to get through a brick wall. He knew no fear, and had fantastic reflexes. As a person he was most friendly, courteous and helpful. As a motor cyclist he was a champion. The story goes that once Jack was riding on a Highway and a policeman parked at a  corner with his motor bike, on seeing Jack, ran to his bike and started it, but as he looked up to see where Jack was, he was nowhere in sight. The policeman gave up his intention of chasing Jack. When my brother passed away he rang me to express his sympathy and told me he had a daughter in Sydney who he visited from time to time. I said that if he visited Melbourne I would catch up with him. Alas it never happened .Please convey my deepest sympathy to his daughter and family”

Sikhs in Hockey

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