Barry Marshall: larger than life

It was exactly a year ago that my good friend Barry Marshall died in a tragic paddle-skiing incident in Port Elizabeth.

I remember the day vividly. 2nd September 2009. Sam and I had just received a mail from Elaine, Barry’s wife, sending us a belated congratulations on our new pregnancy. Elaine didn’t know it then, but Barry had already been lost out at sea for many hours. The next morning I received a call from Mike. Mike tends to phone me when massive stuff is happening, like when he called in 2001, telling me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre in New York. Mike’s call went like this on the 3rd September 2009, “Aids, I’ve heard a rumour that Barry Marshall is missing. Do you know anything about it?” What followed was an intense 4 hour period as we received updates from the NSRI as they searched for Barry out at sea. At about lunch time we got the news that the search was over. They had found Barry’s body. He did not survive the night out at sea.

I cannot describe the shock that I was in. Barry was a larger than life character – it was inconceivable that he was dead. So, on the anniversary of his death, here’s an ode to a larger than life character …

I really mean that. Barry was a larger than life kinda guy. I know all to well how we tend to elevate a person once they are dead. We use totalitarian terms like “always” when describing their best qualities. We do this to rationalise the death in some way, hoping to qualm the regrets we harbour because we sometimes disliked or loathed the person’s less than savoury behaviour or personality traits.

The thing with Barry though, and I’ve had a year to process my denial, is that he was such a bighearted man that it is really quite difficult to imagine him not being around. This is what I mean when I say he was larger than life. Not invincible no (although sometimes he took on life as though he believed he was), just a large character. Anyone who encountered him would attest to his huge booming voice and his in-your-face confrontational style. You just knew when you were in the presence of the “zoob”.

And you would either love him, or hate him. He would either speak a God-inspired word into your life, or he would piss on your battery (mainly because you may hold a theological, philosophical or ethical position that he disagreed with). He didn’t seem to care about your background, what hangups you had or what successes dotted your life – he engaged with you as a fellow God-created human being.

A regular Sunday evening supper club was the mainstay of Barry’s week. Whether he was serving as a minister in Sunward Park, Brakpan, Edenvale or Port Elisabeth, supper club at Barry’s was legendary. It was in these times that you would get a real sense of Barry’s heart – intimate, direct, personal, challenging and loud! He was either dominating the conversation or pouring more wine.

There are so many memories I have of Barry. Tangible ones. Ones that I hope I’ll never forget. It is still my dream to compile a book about Barry, to collect a series of anecdotes from people whose lives he touched so that we can record his life in some small way.

Within the church Barry was probably quite a nuisance amongst his colleagues, but probably the best advert for faith in God to non-believers. Time and time again Barry would win over the hearts of people wrestling with the idea of God, the role and faults of the church and their own fallability. He would do this with his “real-ness”. Saying “fuck”, as he often did, was probably one of the best evangelical traits Barry had. How bizarre is that? It is this real-ness that probably got up the noses of the hierachy in the Methodist Church of South Africa. He would confront the real issues the church was facing, or not-facing, with a challenging voice. There were times that he felt utter despair at how the church was failing in its calling, yet he still loved the place.

Barry had a unique and fresh theology. This is also why I wish I could write a book about Barry – to keep his “theological voice” alive within the church. I suspect that there would be many church leaders who would be glad to not have his “voice” around anymore. Barry’s voice needs a medium for continuation. The church needs to hear his voice, especially with regards to two of his bugbears: poverty and homosexuality. He was convinced we are not doing enough to do what Jesus told us to do: feed the poor. He was probably equally convinced that we are not embodying the spirit of Jesus’ love in the church by marginalising gay folk.

As a friend, Barry’s voice was tenable. We were driving around one day talking about life and growing up (Barry had mentored me through my teenage years into adulthood). I mentioned that my age may be a limiting factor in the work I do. He threw a sideways look at me from the passenger seat and said, “Aiden, you have found your voice, you have just not learned to trust it yet.”

I’m sure there are many similar encounters that friends, family and congregants could share about the man. I’ll share just one more …

When Barry’s best friend Rhett died some years back, Barry lead the funeral. Rhett and Barry had always had a very candid relationship. They shared a special joke around telling each other “fuck you”. And so, at the pinacle of Barry’s message in the funeral he said this, “Rhett, fuck you for dying!”

That pretty much sums it up for me. All the pain, sadness, tragedy and unrealised significance is summed up in one big massive “fuck you for dying Barry.”

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13 responses to “Barry Marshall: larger than life”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Aiden Choles, Samantha Choles. Samantha Choles said: PRT @aidencholes: Barry Marshall. We remember u on this day. A year since u died tragically. An ode to Barry: […]

  2. Michelle Van Staden says:

    I agree with you on everything that you said about Barry. He was my minster, friend and wake up call to life. I think it is a wonderful idea to write a book about Barry and i think it is something that should definately happen. if you would like any help with the book please let me know. I am in the process of writing my own book but Barry’s book carries much more importance to me. My e-mail address is

    God Bless

  3. Samantha Layton-Matthews says:

    Aiden, this is a beautiful tribute. I look forward to reading your book about Barry and his unique theology and philosophies. He left such a huge legacy – I am still astounded that one person could be the sincerest friend to so many people and cut right through to the essence of their souls. He was beyond remarkable and yes, we are not sanctifying his memory like one tends to do with people who die – he was so real in his awesomeness. I loved sharing a glass of red wine with him and remember having some wonderful lunch time conversations with him when he was still at Trinity. I looked forward to the 6am Friday morning Bible Study get together with him. He had such a remarkable mind and made more sense of Christianity for me than anyone else ever could. I sometimes feel his challenging voice nearby and that is good – when someone leaves this earth and still challenges you to be more, to be better, to truly live your potential. Barry truly lived his potential and he may have been young when he died, but I am still in awe by how he overflowed with life in his 37 years – even when down, he embraced the feelings and took what he could from those times and spun then into golden experiences. I will always miss him but shall never forget his laughter, his zest for life, and his principled living – he lived by everything he stood for and had very firm stands on many issues. He may not live on this earth any longer, but his spirit is still a wonderful companion. I often reflect on Teilhard de Chardin’s words “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience” Barry was an example to us all of a remarkable spirit having a wonderful human experience. I am just so sad that his human experience was so short.

  4. Geraldine Hartley says:

    What more can be said Aids, what a stunning tribute…Barry was only a little older than Jesus himself when he died and in many ways in our time today he touched and changed so many lives (living a life of example of the very man he served so passionately)…a special man indeed. And an incredibly special friend to want to keep his memory so tangible…

  5. Lesley says:

    Thanks for this Aiden, I still wonder at the impact on person could have on my own life, never mind the lives of so many other. I also never expected to feel the absence of someone so keenly – thought I know his presence continues.

  6. Rob Weare says:

    I never knew Barry Aids. But your heartfelt tribute touched me because I am still dealing with my dad passing away. I think I will now do my best to write a tribute too….thanks mate. Sterkte!

  7. Jeanne Marshall says:

    Thanks for this Aiden – As his Mom I never ever thought that I would have to bury my son. But think the part that is so sad is that his precious children have to grow up without him. Ruben with just a small memory and Cate with none. We plan to keep his memory alive in their lives. A book would be great for the kids to read when they are older.

  8. Guy Marshall says:

    Thanks Aidan for this and your SMS to us. Not because he was my son but because I saw him in action, I know that Barry was a prophet who was not prepared to accept excuses for accepting less than what God wanted for all. Yes, he taught us to care for the poor, to love the marginalized but also to show how unjudgemental is our God’s unconditional love. Barry often remarked that “my God is not like that so do not go down that path”. So many rejected Barry at first until they found that he spoke after research and hours of brainstorming of relevant issues which many are too scared to face or discuss. Then he had the ability to correct our bias.

  9. Samantha Choles says:

    I couldn’t have expressed my grief any better that you have here. Barry and Elaine have had such a huge impact on our relationship, so in essence our marriage is a constant reminder of Barry. My heart aches, it physically aches, thinking about e, r and c, as well as the rest of family and close friends at this deeply hurting time.

    Long may his spirit and passion be with us.

  10. Steven says:

    Amen! Thank you!

  11. Warren says:

    Wow! Just the way I remember Barry. Thanks Aiden.

  12. trevor hudson says:

    Put glue on your bum and start writing!

  13. Frank Munnich says:

    Well written words Aiden…Barry was an incredible person gone from this earth far too soon. I trust all is well with you!

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