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Kenya Sikh hockey players remember Legend Jack Simonian in London

by Dil Bahra

Former Kenya and Sikh Union Club Nairobi players celebrated the Life of their former colleague, Jack Simonian at an invite only event held at Indian Gymkhana Club London on Sunday 15 March 2020.

Although the evolving situation of coronavirus prevented many from attending, the event organisers decided to carry on. Suzie, Jack’s daughter, who was due to fly from Sardina, Italy especially for this event was one of those who was unable to attend following Government advice.

The commemoration event started with a minute’s silence, remembering Jack who passed away in Sydney, Australia on 23 December 2019 aged 84. Jack Simonian was Kenya’s triple Olympian, Kenya’s former Motor Cycle and Rally Champion and dashing goal-keeper. Nicknamed “Simo” in motor sports circles and Jack Singh in Sikh Union circles, he was a well-loved sports legend. Only a month before he died Jack had attended this same venue with the same players to pay a glowing tribute to Surjeet Singh Panesar (Jr), who had died a month earlier.

Dil Bahra of sikhsinhockey.com presented a 100 page slide show which started with a message from Jack’s daughter Suzie:

“It is with a heavy heart and deep regret that Italy is now on lock down, travel restrictions are in place which means we are not able to fly to UK. This is such a sad situation, for many reasons - more so that you have organised such a wonderful event in honour of my Dad, that I will now not have the opportunity to see you all and thank you in person for all your warmth, hospitality and kindness. I sincerely hope this won’t be our only opportunity to meet. You all meant the world to Dad and I can vouch that in his heart, he was one of you. My deepest apologies and do hope you have a wonderful celebration of “Jack Singh” who forever remains with us. Much love and blessings to you all”

Then followed slides featuring Jack from St Mary’s Senior Boys School in Nairobi in 1953, his days in The Kenya Regiment Training Centre in Lanet, near Nakuru in 1955.

Many slides from his early motor cycle events in the late 1950s in Kampala, Langata, Limuru and Sikh Union Grass track in Nairobi were shown.

Gurdev Sandhu, Dil Bahra, Surjit Rihal, Suti Khehar and Amarjeet Marwa

Dil Bahra mentioned how hockey really took off in Kenya in 1959. Until then there were only four international matches in Kenya, one in 1951, one in 1954, one in 1957 and one in 1958.

1959 saw the start of the East African Championships which were played in Kampala, Uganda in March. Then followed a tour of Kenya by the Indian team, Olympic Champions at the time, in late June, July and early August.  Rhodesia also visited Kenya for a 3 test match series in September. For the record Sikh Union Club Nairobi won the M R D’Souza Gold Cup for the first time in their history.

It was during India’s visit that Jack was selected to represent Nairobi X1 in a match against India. A team photo and team sheet of that match was displayed and the story of how Jack came to be selected for that match which started his international career was told.

Photos of the various teams Jack played in were shown. They included a photo of Parklands Sports Club who were the winners of Craig Cup in 1960; Kenya’s Rome 1960 Olympic Games team on board HMS Royal Ark; Kenya’s tour of Rhodesia in 1961.

The slide for 1962 recalled some historical facts. This was the year when Jack drove the first of his thirteen East African Safari rallies. The first one was as a navigator for D.M Simmons in a Morris Oxford Mark V1, car No. 68; Sikh Union Club Nairobi won the Gold Cup for the second time in April; Kenya won the East African Championship in Zanzibar in July; Pakistan (Olympic Champions) tour of Kenya; Avtar Singh Sohal being selected as captain of the National team in July, a week before the first test match against Pakistan in Nairobi (Avtar remained the captain until Munich 1972 Olympic Games); Kenya tour of Pakistan and Jack joining Sikh Union Club Nairobi.

Then followed slides of the Pakistan tour.

The Sikh Union team photo of 1963 produced a lot of interaction.  Gurdev Singh Sandhu, now 83,  who was a member of Sikh Union’s Gold Cup winning team in 1962 recalled how when Jack joined Sikh Union in 1962, the team went on to win the M R D’Souza Gold Cup for five successive years. M R D’Souza Gold Cup was the Blue Riband of East African Hockey from 1952 to 1983. It was played during the Easter weekend, the same time as the East African Safari Rally. With winning the Gold Cup went the title of unofficial East African Champions. Jack played his part in this history.

The slides of Kenya’s tour of India in April 1964 sparked a lot of interest. A slide showing the team list of the 5th test match against India on 26 April 1964 at Jabalpur, which Kenya won 3 – 0 generated a lot of interest. This was India’s biggest defeat at home at the time in 184 international matches. Three months later, India went on to win the Gold medal at Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. Many recalled that Jack spoke about this match at our November 2019 event.

Slides of Kenya’s tour of Europe in 1966 which included the Hamburg International tournament and Kenya’s tour of Zambia in 1966 followed.

Family Mass in Rugby on 7 February 2020. Photo: Karam Bharij

Several other slides of Sikh Union Club teams in which he played were shown.  These slides sparked a cascade of anecdotes with interactions between those present.

Photograph of Jack and his co-driver/navigator, Peter Huth in car No 11, a Ford Cortina GT was displayed and nearly everyone present recalled how Jack and Peter were leading the East African Safari Rally in 1967 until the final stretch when they unfortunately hit an Impala which put them back to 4th position overall.

The slides showing Kenya’s team photos and squad for Mexico 1968 Olympic Games generated a lot of interest and interaction. The discussions on the teams tour to Pakistan in January and later India’s tour to Kenya in September before the Olympic Games were discussed and the Kenya’s last pool match against Pakistan at the Games where Kenya needed only a draw to qualify for the Olympic Games semi-finals (Kenya lost 2 – 1).

Slides of Jack with Sikh Hockey Olympians in Trafalgar Square, London in 2005 when London was bidding to be the host city for 2012 Olympics. Jack’s presence at hockey events at Slough Hockey Club in 2017, Spencer Hockey Club 2018 were shown to show how he kept in contact with his former colleagues.

It was highlighted during the presentation that in the 1960s, which was Kenya’s golden period in hockey, both the National team and Sikh Union had the best defence. With two great full backs, Avtar Singh Sohal and Kirpal Singh Bhardwaj and a dashing goal keeper, Jack Simonian, during this period, Kenya were amongst the best teams in the world and they played India and Pakistan regularly, both at home and away. It was therefore fitting that when Kirpal died in 2013, it was Jack who gave the eulogy at the funeral.

The presentation included slides from the Memorial Service held at Sikh Union Club Nairobi on 1 February 2020, the family Mass held in Rugby on 7 February 2020 and a photo of Jack on a motor cycle which is displayed at Denbigh Arms in Rugby.

The framed photo which is displayed at Denbigh Arms in Rugby. Photo: Karam Bharij
The last Slide in the presentation was a special “Thank You” to two people who had assisted with photographs for the presentation.  John Davis, former vice chairman of Kenya Regiment Association, for his help with St Mary’s School and Kenya Regiment photographs and background information. Ivan Smith, a lifelong friend of Jack and a fellow motor cycling legend in Kenya for the motor cycling photographs and motor sport information. Ivan also shared the platform with Dil as guest speakers at the Memorial Service at Sikh Union Club Nairobi on 1 February 2020.

Former Kenyan captain Surjit Singh Rihal then read a message from Suzie Simonian:

“My deepest apologies not to be with you all in person today, to celebrate the incredible life of my Dad, Jack. My family and I all send our sincerest thanks for your longstanding friendships you shared with Dad, of which he held each one of you very close to his heart. Aside from his sporting achievements, so modestly held and hard working ethics, he was the kindest, most giving and loving man and father, who gave his all to us four children after my dear Mum’s passing in 1982. Dad was a people person and went out of his way at every opportunity to help those in need, seeking no reward or recognition, and I hope some of his traits have been passed on to us.

I am truly honoured to call myself his daughter and have learnt many new things about him over the last few weeks. He was a humble, honest man with many layers that we are still unfolding and sure will continue to do so for a long time to come.

Our hearts are broken and a huge void remains forever, while we can also smile and remember the many anecdotes he loved to share and filled any room with love and laughter. This, is how I hope you will remember him.

I do hope we have another opportunity to meet and talk. We were so looking forward to this celebration and to hear more stories from you all and learn more about the legend that Dad leaves behind.

But for now, please keep a place in your hearts and we thank you for this amazing tribute.

Keep well and safe and we wish you many blessings. Thank you”

At the last event on 17 November 2019, Jack ended his tribute to Surjeet Singh Panesar by saying “As we celebrated Guru Nanak’s 550th anniversary, it is fitting that Sindh joins his maker. Wahe Guru Wahe Guru Wahe Guru”

Surjit Singh Rihal concluded the evening with everyone saying Wahe Guru Wahe Guru five times in memory of Jack.

Some of the guests raising a glass to Jack after the presentation.

The Olympians and internationals present were Amarjeet Singh Marwa (Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972); Harvinder Singh Sibia (Munich 1972); Surjit Singh Rihal (Munich 1972); Ravinder Singh Laly (Barcelona 1971 World Cup); Tajinder Singh Marwa (Kenyan international); Sutinder Singh Khehar (Sikh Union Nairobi and Great Britain) and Jaswant Singh Bansal (Sikh Union Nairobi and England Masters).

The event concluded with a vote of thanks to Indian Gymkhana Club for hosting us and the excellent catering, enjoyed by all.

Sikhs in Hockey

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