Peter Michael Colvile Croeser
1949 to 2016
Born in Zimbabwe in 1949, Peter Michael Colvile Croeser was the first of two boys born to Shirley and Michael Croeser. His father was a tobacco farmer but became a successful landscape artist. The family later settled in Knysna, South Africa.
Peter and his brother Lawrence attended various boarding schools in the Transvaal and elsewhere. Peter’s life was filled with work concerned with the recording and dissemination of information. His first profession was journalism, which he began while conscripted in the South African army. He continued working as a journalist in Johannesburg at The Star newspaper. During the 1970s he left Hillbrow and his job at The Star to pursue a science degree at Rhodes University (now commonly known as UCKAR). Whilst studying, he simultaneously ran the Grocott's Mail newspaper together with his wife Fiona, who was also then studying at Rhodes. During this period their two sons Michael and David were born.
After completing his degree at Rhodes, Peter changed professions. In 1982 the family moved to Pietermaritzburg where Peter took up a post in the arachnology department at Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) Museum. Peter became a world expert on the huntsman spider, completing his MSc on a revision of the genus Palystes in 1996. Eight years before this, in 1988, Peter had a species of spider, Caddella croeseri, named after him for being one of the collectors of the type material. In 1989 he had Penestomus croeseri named after him for being the sole collector of the type material and Afroceto croeseri followed in 2010 for the same reason. During his career as a scientist, Peter described seven new species of rain spider (in Palystes and Sparassidae).
Despite the significance of his work in South African arachnology and natural science, Peter was not satisfied that it was meaningful enough for the community in which he lived. This led him to take up the position of Chief Education Officer at the museum in 1991, a position he held until he retired at the end of 2008. In this position as a museum employee, Peter started, facilitated and was involved in many community programmes such as an attempt with Debbie Whelan to record the history of Georgetown in Edendale and lobby for a museum to be established there.
As Chief Education Officer, Peter held weekly biology lessons for high school students at the museum and sometimes offered extra lessons in other final year school subjects. These were focused lessons for children from township schools who were struggling to cope with the content or wanted to improve their understanding of the subject. These began at a critical time in South Africa when children from township schools began to be admitted to former Model C schools. The lessons Peter gave helped many children adapt to English-medium schools with a foreign language and custom for the majority of learners in the Pietermaritzburg community. Later, Peter would also facilitate weekly poetry sessions at the museum by making available the museum’s main hall to different youth groups free of charge. These sessions ended after his retirement in 2008.
Peter’s dedication to teaching and skilling learners to extract the most from their school learning took a unique turn in 1992 when he separated from his wife and opened his home in Prestbury to young students in whom he saw potential but who needed a helping hand. These learners lived in his home with his two sons, learning not only the skills they would need to succeed in their new school environments but also general skills from carpentry and plumbing to driving and cooking or jam making. Peter played the role of the ‘old wise man’, the ‘elder of the tribe’, who taught and guided the youth under his tutelage through their adolescence into adulthood. It was through this role that he played to predominately Zulu children that he became known as ikhehla (old man) or umdala (old person). Peter was a very practical man and imparted his practical skills to generations of children who passed through his household from the early 90s to about 2014.
After Peter retired from the KwaZulu-Natal Museum in 2008, he took up the rotating chairmanship of the Natal Society Foundation Trust. Peter was instrumental in turning over the Natal Society Library to the Msunduzi Municipality and establishment of a role for the NSF Trust. At the time of his death, he was its Administrator.
In his work at the NSF with his fellow trustees, he helped administer scholarships to needy students, publish books of historical significance to Pietermaritzburg, facilitate the continued publication of the historical journal Natalia, and continue the association between the Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.
After a short illness he died at his home, in the company of his family, on Saturday 29 October 2016. The Pietermaritzburg community has lost a man who made the city a better place and who lived a life of service to its people and some of its key institutions. Peter was a rare individual whose legacy will live on far into the future.