Obituary: Michael Miller Arbuthnot – 17 July 1932 – 7 April 2023

Obituary
Michael Miller Arbuthnot (Buthie / Mike)
17 July 1932 – 7 April 2023

Michael Arbuthnot lived through many global events.  The great depression, World War II, the moon landing, Democracy in SA, Covid-19, 4 Zulu Kings and 5 British monarchs.  In his lifetime, you wrote letters, and they went by mail ship.  Then they went by air.  Then telegrams, telex, fax, email, computers and smartphones.

His father, Nigel Bruce Arbuthnot, was the Magistrate in Stellenbosch.  They moved to Alexandra and Springbok.  Michael’s mother, Florence Mitchell Miller, had been a teacher at Merchiston Preparatory School.  She passed away when Michael was eight, and he returned to his parent’s hometown of Pietermaritzburg.  His brothers, Nigel and Bruce, were a constant in his life.  He became lifelong friends with Tony Brokensha at Merchiston Prep School, and they moved in with Tony’s aunt and uncle, Joan and Rowe English.  Rowe English was the Chairman of Seals Swimming Club, established in 1907.  Mike joined as a member at age 9, and Seals Swimming Club became his family.  Mike attended Merchiston and went to Maritzburg College.  He lived at 333 Alexandra Road and cycled or ran to College.  His love of the outdoors and sports was genetic, but his life with the English family saw him find his true passion for water and swimming.  He would either be swimming competitively, or they would be swimming at Salt Rock for holidays.  He and surrogate brothers, Barry and Roddy English and Barry Parton, would swim all morning, and Joan would use a mirror to catch the sun’s reflection to tell the boys to return for lunch.

Mike met his beloved wife, Yvonne June Geyser (Azalea Queen 1955), at the Alexandra Swimming pool one Sunday afternoon.  They spent 70 exceptionally happy years together.  Yvonne was very supportive of his sporting endeavours and was instrumental in his founding the Midmar Mile. In the early days, they spent many hours writing certificates, posting entries, etc.  Yvonne also worked at Comrades Marathon for years.  Mike took exceptionally good care of her until she passed away during covid in 2021.  He is survived by his children, Grant, Ross, Tracy and Dale and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mike participated in and won many swimming events at Maritzburg College, Seals Swimming Club, KZN Provincial Swimming, South African swimming and KZN and South African masters swimming.  Mike swam his first gala at age six and his last race on Saturday, 18 February 2023, at age 90, where he broke the South African record for 800m freestyle.

He participated in the 50th anniversary of the aQuellé Midmar Mile in February 2023 (race number 1), having swam every year since Midmar Mile inception in 1974.  Buthie founded the Midmar Mile with help from friends Dick Park, Brian Glover and Geoff Joliffe.  They used to do the Buffallo Mile in East London, and with petrol rationing and rising fuel costs, this became difficult.  They decided to start their own mile swim in KZN.  Mike spent a long time getting it established.  His love of Midmar Dam and the green rolling hills that frame the quiet corridor that cradles the stillness, a breeze, sunshine, occasional thunder, imbibing everything that is beautiful – sport, the outdoors, social get-togethers – his beloved ‘home’.  Mike was grateful to Wayne Riddin for running Midmar Mile – another community member who has given back so much to Seals Swimming Club and South African swimming.

Mike also played Water Polo for Seals, and the team desperately needed a new water polo ball.  The committee said there were insufficient funds, so they decided that a new swimming race would help raise funds for a ball!  Little did they know that in many years to come, Midmar Mile would be the largest open-water swim in the world and be in the Guinness World Book of Records.  For the first ever Midmar Mile, the Glenwood Water Polo team swam across the dam while throwing a water polo ball to each other in recognition of the funds needed for a new ball!  Mike also started Seals Iron Man, which sees participants doing Midmar Mile, the Duzi Canoe Marathon and Comrades Marathon.

Mike was awarded South African national Colours and broke the South African record numerous times for the South African modern Biathlon championship in 1983-1985 and again in 1988.  Mike was awarded South African colours for 100m backstroke.  He was awarded Natal Provincial colours 1948-1951. He was presented with the Natal Meritorious Award for Service to Swimming  He participated in diving competitions representing Seals Swimming Club and KZN.  He loved participating in open-water sea swims with the DUC (Durban Undersea Club).

Michael loved storytelling, enjoyed writing poetry and devoured his beloved Natal Witness Newspaper from his youth to the day of his passing.  His connection to Pietermaritzburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal and South Africa was engrained.  He travelled overseas but could not understand the need as he said South Africa had everything one could ever wish for.  Buthie loved the sunshine and the outdoors.  He loved nature and elements and spent his life respectfully embracing them.  South Africa was, to him, a slice of heaven on earth. His lifetime saw him travel to England by plane, which took three days, and his trip back on the Union Castle took two weeks.  He travelled years later on a modern-day supersonic jet which took 11 hours.  Buthie preferred to go slow and savour the perpetual goodness he saw in people and places.

He led many hikes to his beloved Wild Coast, enjoyed the Drakensberg, and did the Sani Stagger race numerous times.  His love of Comrades Marathon arrived later in life.  He first entered at age 19.  The advice in those days was not to drink water as it could cause stomach issues.  Dad set off with very ordinary takkies, having followed instructions by the book.  He even avoided water the night before!  His two seconds, Maurice Bruce and Cyril Langlois were nowhere to be seen.  He ran past them at the Hillcrest Hotel, where they were having a curry and a beer for lunch.  Their group asked Dad to hurry up so they could make it to Shaka’s Rock for sunset.  Mike collapsed on Fields Hill and had to wait for kind strangers to give him a lift.  He thought he was not a good long distance runner and 26 years later, at the age of 44 in 1976, he joined his running club, Collegians Harriers and once again tried Comrades, with water and decent trainers!  He went on to run 17 Comrades Marathons (race number 149) and was a founding member of the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA).  He ran his last Comrades at age 62.  He had to stop as he broke his leg doing a parachute jump!  Buthie was often found at Collegians Club, catching up with friends or finishing Comrades, as it used to be the finish back then.  He was always there on a Tuesday evening to do the Herman’s Delight time trial.  He became an honoury life member of Collegians Club in 1951.  Collegians have flown their flag at half-mast to honour his life.  Later in life, Buthie found joy in the Parkrun and he had done around 180 and counting.

Mike also loved being a member of the Fezela Canoe Club, and he found his love of canoeing and completed at least 16 Duzi Marathons, 12 of which he did with his son, Grant.  He loved Valley of a Thousand Hills and the beauty and the beast that is the Umgeni River.  He enjoyed the festivities of staying at the overnight stops and was known to enjoy a good few Castle Lagers – his favourite tipple.  He occasionally had a brandy but usually when listening to speeches by his favourite war hero and orator, Winston Churchill.  To quote Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get.  We make a life by what we give.”  Mike has given to sport, particularly swimming, and his contribution will last for many generations.  We will honour Buthie, at his happy place, the 2024 aQuellé Midmar Mile.

Mike had many wonderful friends, Mike, Jill and Tony Bath, Ronnie Hooper, Watson Brothers, Dexter White, Brian Birch, and the Price Family, to name but a few …. Mike was often seen walking around doffing his cap in a greeting, and we doff our caps to Buthie, the wonderful son, husband, father, grandfather, sportsman, but most of all, gentleman.

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