Kabul. Syria. Kashmir. Leopardstown. Caracas. Baghdad. Sudan. Liberia. Kyiv.
St. Conleth’s College is used to having ‘far-flung’ alumni, with impromptu Past Pupil reunions regularly springing up all over the globe, but Pierre Zakrzewski must have set the record for geographical variety during his incredible but all-too-short life and career. But wherever Pierre was calling from, the voice and the essential personality remained the same: warm and sincere, humble yet inspirational.
Ronan O’Kelly, Captain of the Class of 1984, has a well-earned reputation as being a one-man ‘nanny state’. Some Class Captains shirk their post-graduation duties of maintaining contact with their classmates, as the years pile up along with children and dogs and ex-spouses; some do a half-decent job of keeping everyone in the loop and then corralling them quinquennially into their Past Pupil Dinner; and then there is Ronan, a.k.a. ‘Mr. St. Conleth’s, Junior’. Long before ‘Find-My-Phone’ and tracking apps, Ronan would know the location of every single member of his graduating class, at any time, all the time, with one significant exception: Pierre Zakrzewski. The funny thing is that Ronan and Pierre were the best of friends from the time they met in Fifth Form, sometime in the 1970’s, until the fateful news last week. An odd couple, perhaps, the insurance man and the ultimate insurance risk, but they were united by an unabashed enthusiasm for life and an appreciation for the role St. Conleth’s played in setting that spark and nurturing the flame.
Over the years, Pierre did show up in person at many of the Class of 1984 informal Christmas drinks sessions, but there would also be times that a phone call would have to do: Pierre’s warm voice and infectious enthusiasm spilling through a crackling line. Inevitably, Pierre would be crouched in his curb side ‘office’ risking his life to bring light to some dark dealings in a unfashionable corner of the globe and, just as inevitably, Pierre would pass it off as if he were just working the late shift at a car-parts factory in Potsdam. No name-dropping, and no holier-than-thou condescension, but with each visit and call, Ronan and the other classmates and friends would glean a bit more of Pierre’s life out there in the real world: titbits both thrilling and terrifying.
Afghanistan, Syria, Kashmir… no, not your typical ‘gap year’ locations: Pierre was not some hipster adventurer, merely going off-piste for the sake of personal gratification or to spur the jealousy of friends who were stuck for a week with half board at Kelly’s of Rosslare, instead. Pierre was a true professional, and tributes elsewhere attest to his dedication and skill with the camera and his ability to adapt and persevere despite the almost comically complicated conditions of being a freelancer in the world’s least hospitable hotspots. After Pierre’s death, Fox News waxed poetically and truthfully of the esteem with which he was held by his colleagues: not just for his professionalism but for his winning personality, too. Perhaps in an industry known for cut-throat screen preening, Pierre’s warmth and honesty stood out all the more. But Pierre was more than the stereotypical friendly, chatty Irishman. Last year, he played a key role in getting Afghan freelance associates and their families out of the country after the abrupt U.S. withdrawal and, in December, he was awarded the “Unsung Hero” award during the FOX News Media Spotlight Awards. What Pierre did in Kabul for both friends and strangers, he also did in Syria, in Kashmir, in Sudan…. he always got ‘that shot’ for the newsreel, but the essence of the man came to the fore before and after the camera was rolling: a passion for people and for doing the right thing by them.
Some people pass away and the tributes and platitudes pass away soon afterwards. With Pierre, it has been, and will be, quite different. The testaments, the memories and the stories have just multiplied and mushroomed in the days since his passing: how could one man have touched so many lives? Well, we have just a few more to add to the legacy of the man with the fondness for moustaches and motorcycles and making people better about themselves.
Marie-Ange, Pierre’s mother, attests to his difficult start in life: ‘Pierre was a very premature baby, born a few days before the seventh month and spent two months in hospital. We were told he would not walk, or speak.’ So much for the prophetic abilities of paediatricians! After learning to walk and talk quite well, Pierre joined his brothers Stash, Nicholas and Gregoire at St. Conleth’s and took full part in the academic and social life of the school: his keynote speech at the 2004 Past Pupil Dinner attested to this, and how such Conlethian legends as Kevin Kelleher, Louis Feutren and Paul Mullins helped shape and sharpen his zest for life and adventure. And of course, the camaraderie and friendship of classmates, such as Ronan and Stephen O’Dea and Ronan Hingerty, also played their part: Pierre may have ‘marched to a different drummer’ but he never walked alone.
Upon graduation Pierre tried Arts at UCD for a short time but he quickly realised that the subtle thrills of the BA were not for him and so began his wanderings with purpose. Ronan relates how Pierre turned up at an early gathering of ‘84ers with a cool-looking hiker’s rucksack, packed full of… bricks. Pierre was trying out his gear on a Dalkey-Howth pilgrimage, with a dogleg to a cold storage unit in Sandyford, where the new cold-weather sleeping bag was getting a try-out. Pure Pierre. And then he was gone. But the stories drifted back, sometimes with the man himself, sometimes through the close network of friends… and we don’t mean of the Facebook variety. Pierre’s famous climbing of approximately 75% of Everest is typical: inveterate adventurer that he was, his decency and sense of humanity were deeper, and Pierre balked at the waste of money to be spent on oxygen for the summit and mere self-aggrandisement. He instead spent his money and time on, depending on the relater of the tale, either helping a fellow climber down or repatriating the body of one who had fallen: knowing Pierre, he probably did both. Imagine how beneficial to this regular gang who were negotiating career progression and mortgages and normal lives were the tales of Pierre? Besieged and targeted in Kashmir for documenting human rights abuses. Stuck to the seat of a motorcycle, retracing his family’s journey from war-torn Poland. Embedded with the first tanks rolling into Baghdad. Poised for the white smoke in Rome. Bivouacked on the shores of the Blue Nile. Hunkered down east of Kyiv.
The tragedy of and triumph of Pierre’s last chapter has a particular resonance with Conlethians. We have all been schooled on how Bernard Sheppard inauspiciously opened the doors of the school on the very day in September 1939 on which World War II started, but it was always used in rhetorical contrast: look how we were different, look how far we have come. Pierre’s passing has brought that story to the fore, again. While Mr. Sheppard was embarking on a brave new adventure in education, Pierre’s father’s family was fleeing for their lives from the horrors of war. This heritage played an important part in how Pierre lived his live and chose his life’s work. The suffering of the victim of war and the plight of the refugee were nearly always the focus of his camera and his passion. Our last glimpse of Pierre was sent last Sunday from the eastern outskirts of Kyiv, mere hours before his death. There is no irony but only tragedy and triumph in the circumstances of Pierre’s passing: once again he was doing what he loved for the people whom he loved, that is… everyone.