LÁSZLÓ (Les) GRÓF, 1933-2020:

“Once seen, never forgotten!” by Mervyn Benford

“A Rock!” wrote our Editor, learning the tragic news the virus had taken a most loyal, colourful, and generous member who joined the then Magyar Philatelic Society of Great Britain in its founding year.

A former Society Secretary told me: “I met Laci bácsi I think the first time I went to Thame - it’s a whole day’s drive there and back for us so I only got to see him when those rare opportunities arose - he was so friendly and such a great addition to the club to make people feel really welcome. I’d not realised then just how accomplished he was in history and cartography and what an adventure of a life he had. That only became obvious when we became connected online and I could follow his posts. He was much-loved not only in the society but also in Hungary and Transylvania where he touched many lives. I found it particularly poignant just how terrible this disease is that he was posting pictures of some Linzer biscuits he baked one day - less than a week later I learnt about his passing. I’m grateful to have known him and the world will be a bit less colourful without him.”

We all loved him! László, or Les to most of us, fled Hungary in the 1956 anti-Soviet Revolution, reaching the UK via Austria and onwards. He initially found work in the Derbyshire coalmines, but eventually ended up in Buckinghamshire where he knew of a small group of Hungarians. He took a job that came up, and soon after met his wife, now widow, June. They settled in a newly-built house in Chinnor in Oxfordshire from where with a close partner he ran a frozen poultry business. Chinnor was only three miles from the one where I later worked and lived. I had joined the Society in December 1964 and Les in January 1965, so we were also philatelic neighbours.

The Society magazine had had a fitful life in its opening years. After a fifth anniversary celebratory first meeting in London it was decided to start a new series after edition 24: Volume 2. As Editor from mid-1972 he introduced printing as opposed to previous duplication methods. A particular concern for finished quality saw a chicken regularly donated for the printer. He set the high standard, for both content and illustrations, successfully and effectively maintained ever since.

He became Vice-President in 1974, succeeding to President for the first time in March 1975. He served till June 1976, the society’s annual meeting having been late that year to take advantage of the sea air in Herne Bay as guests of the then Treasurer David Malyon. Les remained Editor (Committee members regularly doubled up as President!) However, mindful of the then regular AGM competitive displays, as Editor he decided to introduce a prize for literature, and the Gróf Trophy for Literature is still awarded annually for the article that year members vote the best published. He also designed the Society’s badge, representing a watermark amalgam.

After edition 24 of Volume 2 he started a new set, Volume 3 and thus to develop 24 editions per formal volume. He had also been very successful, due no doubt to his business acumen, in generating good advertising that helped pay the magazine costs. He had advised or directly helped publish special handbooks by members such as Ernest Homolya’s ‘Hungarian Airmail Postmarks’. In 1978 he greatly contributed to an edition presenting Hungarian history. Later came the definitive handbook of ‘Hungarian Airmail and Flights’ by member John Latham, which was translated into Hungarian and remains the major authority. Volume 3, No.11 of March 1980 was his final one.

In 1981, he became Vice-President, then President again, but even after ten years Les was still not listed as a Society officer. Editors who followed him have tried to follow and extend the standard of scholarship and composition he set, contributing his own deep knowledge of Hungary when article writers were few. A wide range of news, events, stamps, postal history, exhibitions poured from his typewriter, enhancing society well-being and sustaining membership.  

He was very proud of his Hungarian roots. He had a special interest in the 1956 Sopron overprints that came with the revolution during which he and countless others escaped. The ‘K’ registered letters and Hungary’s ‘Recorded Delivery’ service were subjects of informative articles. He discovered and explained a hitherto little-known special Road Patrol Courier Mail in Gyula in 1944 when normal services in eastern Hungary were impeded by advancing Soviet and Romanian forces. It was a service entirely conducted on foot, and covers carried a scarce special marking.

Always proud of Hungary and things Hungarian, but also of the Society, he introduced us to the British-Hungarian Friendship Society with a society display for them. He was President for a third time in 2004. Able to speak Hungarian and English, his translation skills and knowledge of Hungary were editorial assets. Only this March his insights informed two items in our magazine. His father had been a schoolmaster and, during compulsory Hungarian military service, Les had taken a great interest in maps. When in England this became a long pursuit searching for as many different maps of Hungary as existed.  Les was a scholar, skilled in cartography and research techniques and was elected a member of the Royal Geographical Society.

His living space at home was adorned with many framed, rare examples of the great early European map-makers - such as Ortelius - and he ultimately donated some 500 or more unframed maps to Sárvár. Born two days before Christmas in 1933 in nearby Szombathely, he looked after the collecting interests of a friend there. His family endured the hardships of the war, including the awesome struggle to survive the inflation years after defeat. Les told of his father collecting his wages in early 1946 in a large suitcase, which was empty on reaching home from buying a few vegetables and some bread for the family. A rail ticket could double in price on the day before starting the return journey! His book describing the postal history of Sárvár - long the family home and of which he was just as proud - is remarkable for its detail, including evidence from surviving postmasters of practices pursued by earlier generations.

The AGM location had become an issue after long years in Birmingham. We had tried the Commonwealth Institute in London, and sharing a meeting in Leeds with two other central European societies - the embryonic joint meeting since held for many years in Bradford, now growing (hopefully!) to twice a year. Les found us a venue at the Spreadeagle in Thame three miles from Chinnor planned as a full AGM and open day.  AGMs then followed at the Sports Centre, Rycotewood College or the Town Hall, the latter becoming the usual venue apart from one in Grandborough, Dick Frost’s home village. Snowed off in 2018, the AGM this year was lost in anticipation of the imminent Covid threat to public gatherings.

Les had been prominent in our Society’s major celebratory events and with several others displayed in our 1971 exhibition and the international 1871 centenary exhibition in Budapest celebrating what was still believed to be Hungary’s first stamps. He joined the scientifically specialist philatelic research society, MAFITT, as member no. 42, and was widely known and much loved and respected within Hungarian philately and its many celebrated collectors.

Sadly, his death coincides with a long-growing sense that we need somewhere more accessible by public transport and so Thame seems to be ending with Les. He has faithfully booked it without fail every year, been there to open the doors, arrange the room, make the coffee, buy the biscuits. We shall miss his wonderful “Hail Fellow, Well Met” personality greeting us as friends and enthusiasts. To read more about his life, go to grof.co.uk

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