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The late Stefan Foord. His sudden death at the age of 52 years came as a great shock to all. Photo supplied.

Stefan’s death is a great loss to the academic world

 

Shockwaves are still reverberating through the community since the sudden passing of Stefan Foord on 21 December 2023. Stefan collapsed while out cycling in Stilbaai, aged only 52.

Stefan (Professor Stefan Hendrik Foord) was well known and beloved by everyone who knew him – from his students and colleagues at the University of Venda to co-athletes, cyclists, and friends, to name but a few. He has left a profound emptiness in the lives of everyone.

“He will be remembered as ‘Spinnekop’ because of his passion for spiders and his expertise in the field. He was a keen runner and cyclist, participating in events like the Comrades Marathon and Kremetart. He will be remembered for his larger-than-life personality, his humility, and his ability to share his knowledge and love for nature with everyone he interacted with. He was happiest during fieldwork excursions, family visits to the Kruger National Park, or cycling in the forest,” Stefan’s wife, Caron, shares.

Stefan was born in Pretoria on 4 April 1971. His parents are Ben Foord and Woutrine Theron. He had a younger brother, Krügel, and a sister, Nel.

Stefan grew up in Valhalla in Pretoria and attended Zwartkop Primary and Hoërskool Eldoraigne. He completed his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Pretoria in mathematics and zoology, where he also played rugby for the under 19A and under 20B Tukkies teams. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Pretoria in zoology, focusing on the systematic revision of the Hersiliidae, a genus group of spiders.

“We met at the Zoology Department while both completing our master’s degrees. We were married in 1997 in Midrand and moved to Louis Trichardt the same year,” says Caron (née Muller).

Stefan started his academic career at the University of Venda in 1997 in the former Department of Zoology. At the time of his passing, he was the NRF SARChi Chair in Biodiversity Value and Change in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve in the Faculty of Science, Engineering, and Agriculture (University of Venda). He had professional affiliations with the African Arachnological Society, International Society of Arachnology, and South African Society of Systematic Biologists.

“His work gave him the opportunity to travel extensively while presenting his many academic papers. He published 320 scientific papers and collaborated on and contributed chapters to many academic books, including ‘Spiders of the Savanna Biome’. His recent collaboration included publishing a Checklist of the Spiders (Araneae) of South Africa. Although his research interests were varied, he was most passionate about spiders,” Caron mentions.

Prof. Natasha Potgieter, Dean of the Faculty: Science, Engineering, and Agriculture, mentions that Stefan took over from Prof. Peter Taylor (SARCHi Chair). “This is prestigious and awarded to universities with the aim of training post-graduate students and conducting research on any topic related to biodiversity. Stefan did a wonderful job. He was loved and respected by colleagues and students. He mentored a lot of staff members. When he entered a room, he enlivened the atmosphere. Everyone loved to hear his stories. Not only was he a great mentor, but he was also always willing to help. He was very adept at statistics, and colleagues often asked for his help. To many, he was like a father figure,” Potgieter says. She and Stefan started at the University of Venda in the same year.

Stefan worked closely with colleague Lourens Swanepoel on a recent project in the Tshipise area. Lourens explains that Stefan had previously worked with Prof. Taylor on a similar concept regarding macadamia trees. Research is now being done to establish if bats can be considered as “biological pest control” in citrus orchards. “If there is a good bat community, then pests will be eaten, and a certain percentage of pests can be controlled. This is done by building ‘cages’ with nets over some citrus trees to keep bats and birds out. The damage to the citrus fruits is generally more when bats cannot get in. We do DNA tests on the bats’ droppings to see what type of insects were eaten. The project is, however, at an early stage. I will continue with this. Stefan and I worked very closely. Louis Gossmann was also part of the team – he is responsible for the building of the cages,” Lourens says.

“Stefan will be remembered for mentoring many students. He contributed extensively not only to the academic world but also towards preservation. His passion was spiders and ants. He is leaving behind a legacy of contributions to the agricultural sector. Approximately 95% of his research was in and around the Soutpansberg,” adds Lourens. “I knew Stefan for approximately nine years. While driving to work together, I experienced him as pleasant, hardworking, friendly, jovial, and humble. His passing is a huge loss.”

Colin Schoeman says: “He was my promotor. He was a prolific scientist. Apart from spiders, he worked on taxonomy, ecology, and eco-physiology. He was a thinker – about life and philosophy. He was brilliant but also down to earth. He could have conversations with anybody.”

Colleague Koos Steyn adds: “He was highly educated, capable, and demonstrated extraordinary insight and knowledge about his field of expertise. He understood complicated ecological concepts and was able to analyse difficult data sets. I often requested his assistance for academic advice and support. His sense of humour, cheerfulness, and enthusiasm were contagious.”

Former colleague Paul Fouché and Stefan worked together for more than 20 years. “We did research for the Water Research Commission on river health indices. We were both inexperienced researchers and learned together. The many hours of fieldwork developed into a friendship. Stefan was a unique person, an exceptional scientist, and a true friend,” says Paul.

“In Afrikaans, I would describe my best friend, Stefan, as a ‘mooi mens’ (beautiful human being). This is inclusive of many words, for example: genuine, sincere, someone with integrity. For me, he was more than a friend. He was a brother, a pal,” says Louis Gossmann. “Twenty years ago we were introduced by Murray Hofmeyr - at the time with the Department of Theology at the University of Venda. People could not understand how Stefan and I could be friends, as we were total opposites. We accepted each other as we were. We were both just ourselves,” Louis mentions.

“I know how much he loved his wife and daughters. He often mentioned how he appreciated the wonderful upbringing that Caron gave the daughters as he was many times not available due to his demanding career. Everyone knew that the University of Venda was Stefan’s ‘mistress’,” says Louis on a lighter note. He mentions that they laughed a lot. “When Stefan started using those big words, I always stopped him and asked him to explain it in plain Afrikaans.”

“When visitors arrived at the bat project, Stefan always asked me to explain what we were doing. I would then say to him that I am a carpenter, I do not know anything about this academic world. Still, he encouraged me many times to do the talking. I learnt a lot from him.” Stefan spent six years of research on the spiders of the Soutpansberg.

The Foords relocated to the Cape in 2022, with the aim of retiring there. “Stefan was commuting on a regular basis until such time that he could retire,” says Caron. Louis assisted Stefan with setting up a place to stay while he still worked in the Soutpansberg area. “He was so humble that he did not even want a proper lounge suite,” Louis says. “I also need to mention that I never saw Stefan get angry. His sudden death came as a huge shock, although I am grateful that God gave me the privilege to share part of my life journey with Stefan.”

Many people do not know that Stefan used to be the University of Venda’s rugby coach (2003-2005). The team was called “The Killer Bees”. “Stefan’s talents were varied, and few people knew that, while at school, he had roles in ‘Ballade vir ʼn enkeling’ (1987) and ‘As ons twee eers getroud is’ (1984),” Caron mentions.

Stanley Thompson describes Stefan as a legend in his profession, family life, and sport. “We ran and cycled together. He was always a gentleman. Although highly involved in academics, he had time for a joke or two. All the running and cycling people will sincerely miss him,” said Stanley.

Stefan’s legacy lives on. Both his daughters attended primary and high school at Ridgeway. Nicola went on to qualify as a vet at Onderstepoort, and Emlyn qualified last year as a chemical engineer at Stellenbosch University. Both are working in the Cape.

Caron would like to thank everyone who sent messages of support, especially colleagues and close friends. A special mention goes to his friends Louis Gossmann and Lourens Swanepoel for all they had done for him this past year. A private celebration of his life will be held in Pretoria in February, as well as a memorial service at the University of Venda (date to be confirmed).

 

 

Date:12 January 2024

By: Pétria de Vaal

Read: 8229

 

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