Ninety-three-year old Con Travis has seen it all.
Born in 1926 in Cardiff, Wales, Con and much of his extended family emigrated to New Zealand in the late 1930s, once war was imminent.
A few years into World War II, American troops became a common sight in New Zealand, where they often went while on leave in between fighting in the pacific islands. Con often invited Jewish troops to his family for Shabbat. After one such dinner in 1943, Con’s friend, Nat Berman sneaked Con, then 16, back into his army cap. “They dressed me up in khaki in a marine uniform. Unbeknown to them they were being shipped out in the morning to go back into action in the pacific. So, I went along with the 2nd Marine Raiders Battalion. After six days at sea, they discovered me. They put me ashore at Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides islands in the Pacific.”
Con was then sent back to New Zealand. It did not take him very long however, to run away again. He desperately wanted to join the air force but was unsuccessful. After a short stint in the army, Con finally got into the air force by pretending he was older. Ironically, once he completed flight training school, he was posted to Number 14 Fighter Squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force at Espiritu Santo New Hebrides islands — a location that was not unfamiliar.
After the War, Con was stationed in Japan for two years in Iwakuni a few miles south of Hiroshima and, once he was discharged in 1947, returned to Cardiff where his parents had also resettled. He then obtained a forces further educational grant and, still passionate about planes, studied aeronautical engineering. After qualifying, he worked on the first passenger jet aircraft, called The Comet.
During Con’s school days, his time in the air force and in between, he was always playing football and cricket. His football position was goalkeeper. Indeed, during the War, he played football for the Royal New Zealand Air Force and captained the New Zealand Combined Forces. From the 1948 football season, he played for the professional side of Cardiff City but as an amateur.
In 1953 he was chosen to play for Great Britain in the Maccabi Games. Prior to going to Israel, Con’s team played against Manchester United, after which he became friendly with a few players, including Billy Whelan, who was among various Manchester United players killed the same year in the Munich Air Disaster. In the wake of this tragedy, Con was asked to play in a charity match to raise funds for the survivors. It was after this match that he was offered to play professionally for Manchester United; however, he refused.
Last year, when Con visited his brother, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren in England, he visited Old Trafford and its museum. Since showing the curator his team photographs, they have been displayed in the museum.
In 1958, Con was made an offer to go to Canada to work on a new military aircraft, called the Avro Arrow. Con recounts, “This was a new all-weather fighter and there was nothing in the world to touch it at that stage.” However, in 1959, the Canadian Prime Minister canned the whole project and put nearly 20 000 people out of work virtually overnight. Con was one of them.
This sparked a change in career for Con: “I’d always been a bit of an amateur comedian-cum-actor and, with a little bit of luck, met a producer at CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in Toronto. He helped me develop myself and I became a professional comedian.”
Con went on to work on various television shows and concerts with stars like Sammy Davis Jr. and the Ink Spots, and in 1960 presented at the Lions Club International Convention in Chicago, among people like Rosemary Clooney and Edie Gormé. In 1960, he went back to Britain where he did a lot of radio and television; highlights included working with Benny Hill.
Then, in 1963, Con came to South Africa under contract with Connie Francis; they toured Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. While in the country, he went on a blind date and ended up staying in South Africa where he got married to Ida Shur. They had two sons: Lynton and Steven. Con regularly did cabaret at Ciro’s in Johannesburg and went up to Salisbury (now Harare) to perform there as well.
Later, Con became a public relations officer and worked in sales and, prior to the implementation of television in South Africa, was called in to train people, to assist with sound and lighting and to advise on mock television shows. He went on to appear on Biltong & Potroast, a panel programme.
In 1965, his family relocated to Durban and Con began playing football again — he was nearly 40. His team went on to play at the Maccabi Games, and one of his teammates at the time, Bernard Shapiro, now lives down the road from him in Sea Point!
While in Durban, Con got involved with the Hebrew Order of David (HOD), which has become his biggest passion. “This is my life. Really and truly,” he says. Con has contributed greatly to the organisation over the years in various capacities and at different lodges. For example, he was made Consecration President of the lodge in Sandton, which he helped to establish; he became a member of the executive in 1975 and became the Grand President International in 1981. In the 116 years since the HOD was established, Con is one of only two people in the world to be awarded honorary membership. Today, Con is the President of Lodge Golan, the last lodge in Cape Town, and remains dedicated to giving charity through the organisation. After being widowed 13 years ago, he now lives in Cape Town with his partner Jean Levy.
“So many things have happened in my life; it’s been unbelievable.”
In true Capetonian nonagenarian style, Con went paragliding when he was 91 years old!
By Jaime Uranovsky
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