Josef Veselsky – A Profile

As this is the 75th Anniversary of the establishment of the 32-county Irish Table Tennis Association, it was decided to publish a profile on our distinguished Life President, Josef Veselsky.

Josef, known as Joe to all, in addition to being the Life President of the ITTA, is the former President of the Swaythling Club, Honorary President of Swaythling Club International, and recipient of the Order of the White Double Cross by the Slovakian Government.

Whilst the ‘older generation’ will know something of Joe, that is probably not the case for members under 30 years of age. We would, therefore, invite our members to read and be amazed.

Joe was born in Bratislava, the medieval capital of Slovakia, in October 1918, the very same month that the independence of Czechoslovakia was officially proclaimed. Growing up in this historical town, Joe lived in a cultural melting pot due to the town’s geographical position, bordering the two independent countries of Hungary and Austria.

During his youth Joe developed great sporting ambitions and poured his energy into table tennis. At a time when the sport was growing in popularity in Eastern Europe, and when the great players Bohumil Vana and Vaclav Tereba were on the Czech team, Joe gained a national ranking of No. 7.

Table tennis didn’t pay the bills however, and so Joe got a job working in a bank, where he met the other love of his life, the wonderful Katarina, Kathy, with whom he had a wonderful marriage and two children, Peter and Kate. Like Joe, Kathy had a wonderful sense of humour, and the old adage, that behind every successful man there is a woman, could have sprung from the Veselskys’ own marriage; Kathy was a quiet but wonderful woman, who was her husbands greatest supporter throughout their 64 year marriage, until her death in 2009.

In 1938, Joe was 20 when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Joe joined the Czech underground movement, living and operating in the Carpathian Mountains. When war ended in 1945, Joe was still a young man and he returned to table tennis, and went on to have the great honour of captaining a Czech team.

Life was not easy under the new political regime however, and so the decision was made to move the family out of Czechoslovakia, through Hungary, to Switzerland, where asylum was sought. The family’s original intention was to settle in Australia, but difficulty in obtaining the necessary emigration papers resulted in the family moving to Ireland in August 1949, where, with a limited knowledge of English and the business, Joe built up an impressively successful jewellery business.

Australia’s loss was Ireland’s gain, as once the family had settled into their new lives on the emerald isle, Joe once again returned to table tennis. The Irish Association was so impressed with Joe that he soon became the non-playing Captain of the Irish team. As the Irish Men’s Coach at the World Championships in Sarajevo in 1973, Joe’s personality and leadership shone, with players’ later saying that he made them feel 10 feet tall as they walked into the arena.

Tommy Caffrey, who played for Ireland over 140 times from the 1950s until the 1970s, said of Joe “He is one of the rare breed”. Tommy recalled of his playing years with Joe “whether it was a Worlds or Europeans we always had to meet for afternoon Tea. My first introduction to Danish pastries was at the World Championships in Dortmund in 1959. Afternoon tea was part and parcel of every Worlds almost as essential as the play itself. All the star players from around the World were drawn to Joe like a magnet. I had met them all before I was out of my teens thanks to him. They all loved the decency in Joe.” 

The Swaythling Club was founded in Stockholm in 1967, for Table Tennis Champions and Officials, who have represented their country in a World Championship. It is named after Lady Swaythling, mother of Ivor Montagu, President of the World Table Tennis Federation 1926-1967. In 1972 Joe was elected the new President of the Swaythling Club, a position he held until 1987 when he retired, but only after bringing together representatives from the far corners of the globe and joining them together into an impressive and harmonious club.

Mrs Diane Scholer, former world champion and current President of the Swaythling Club, knows Joe for the last 40 years and said “Over the many years I have been involved in table tennis – first as a player – then as Secretary and ultimately President of the Swaythling Club International – Joe became Ebby’s and my very dear friend. His uncanny habit of assessing correctly each individual on their own merit and ability – never ceasing to give advice and assistance whenever needed – was quite remarkable.   Kathleen and Joe were, and still are, the kindest couple I have had the pleasure to know. It has been a great privilege to follow in his footsteps as President of the Swaythling Club  – and an honour to have met him.

Pat O’Brien, former senior international and the current Irish representative of the Swaythling Club in Ireland, said, “The words nice and incredibly helpful only begin to describe Joe”.

Joe also held the post of President of the Irish Association for many years before eventually being elected Life President. During this time he introduced the Joe Veselsky Award, which is presented annually in recognition of endeavour and achievement in administration within the Irish Association.

Joe was also recognised for his dedication to table tennis by the Slovakian Republic’s Government, who honoured him in 2008 by awarding him the Order of the White Double Cross.

Speaking on behalf of the Board and the membership generally, Joe Hickey, President of the ITTA, said, “Joe Veselsky is a one of a kind – a great man with an incredible story – a man without whom table tennis would be the poorer. May we all have the benefit of his wisdom and generosity for many years to come”.