A social care pioneer from Denbigh told enthralled pupils at his old school about his father’s life as a lion tamer and how he was christened in a circus tent in South Africa.
Mario Kreft’s childhood memories were rekindled when he paid a return visit to Trefnant primary school – Ysgol Trefnant – which he attended in the 1960s.
Mario, owner of the Pendine Park care organisation and the Chair of Care Forum Wales, was a special guest at the school, where he toured some of his old classrooms.
The youngsters were thrilled by his tales of his own unusual childhood, having grown up as the son of a circus lion and bear tamer.
His dad, Franz Kreft, a native of Slovenia who died aged 90 in 2014, made history just over 60 years ago when he starred in the first ever live TV broadcast from Rhyl.
He came to Britain as a refugee after the Second World War and led a remarkable life travelling the world amid the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the circus crowd. He carried on working until he was 77.
The children also delighted in seeing photographs Mario brought along of his travels, including visits to South Africa, Kenya, his encounters with gorillas in Uganda and swimming with turtles in Madacasgar.
Mario, from Denbigh, who visited the school with his wife Gill, said he wanted to tell the children about their journeys to Africa because he knew some of the classes were currently doing a school project on Africa and its cultures.
School friends Lili Young and Millie Maxwell said they loved seeing the pictures of the giant turtles, which were “amazing”.
Lili said: “It would be great to one day visit Madacasgar myself and I know my mum would love it too as she is a sub aqua diver. It would be fantastic if she could swim with turtles like Mario did.”
One pupil, Ellen Wisby, aged 10, said she was thrilled to hear about Mario’s meetings with Masai warriors in Kenya, as her own family had once lived in Kenya for a short time when she was aged two.
She said: “We met the Masai tribesmen and were made honorary members of the tribe. I don’t remember very much of it because I was so young, but I would love to go back and visit one day.”
It was only the second time in 50 years that Mario had been back to the school where he was a pupil from about 1961 to 1965.
He said: “I returned for the first time last year to attend a school concert, which was wonderful, but this time I have relished having chance to look round the grounds and explore the old school buildings.”
He now hopes to maintain his links with Ysgol Trefnant which is more than 150 years old. The original schoolhouse remains part of the modern day complex and is used for music lessons and history sessions.
Mario said old memories were quickly rekindled as he entered classrooms where he used to attend lessons, and he was enthralled by the school’s treasured class photos from years gone by.
He and Gill also called in on a reception class, chatted to infants in an arts lesson and were impressed by the knowledge of junior pupils doing a quick-fire quiz.
Mario was born in Durban, in South Africa, and was the first ever baby to christened in a Big Top in South Africa when the service was conducted in the circus ring by the Bishop of Durban. HIs Godfather was a clown called Charlie Bale.
Though born in South Africa, Mario lived in Trefnant with his grandparents when he was a boy, having moved there after his father became a refugee of the Second World War.
He said: “My father was from east Europe, his parents were Slovenian. After the war, they had little left of their old life and my father had no job but he found work sweeping up in a travelling circus.
“He eventually became a lion tamer and bear tamer and spent many years travelling round the world with the circus.
“Mum and dad were married in Rhyl and I stayed here with my mum’s parents, which is how I came to go to school in Trefnant. I remember one day it snowed so hard that I was one of only three people who made it into school.”
Today the school has 91 pupils and a dedicated team of staff led by head teacher Mrs Sue Van Loock.
She was very grateful to Mario and Gill for taking time out to visit the school, adding:
“We often have parents come in to tell us about their different jobs but this is the first time we have had a talk like this from someone who actually attended our school in the sixties.
“We’ve all been interested in Marios’s memories of what it was like here in those days, and to hear about his life and travels since has been truly inspiring.”
Mario talked for 30 minutes to all the pupils in the school hall, answering questions and telling them about his lifetime of work in social and community care, along with his passion for conservation and the protection of wildlife.
On leaving Trefnant school, Mario went to St Winefried’s School in St Asaph, and eventually to college in Manchester.
For the last 30 years he has run Pendine Park organisation, offering residential and independent living care for elderly, disabled and vulnerable people across North Wales.
In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for his contribution to social care in Wales and last year he was named as Entrepreneur of the Year at the St David Awards.
He sits on the ministerial board overseeing the Sustainable Social Services for Wales Bill, and he is the care sector representative on the advisory National Partnership Forum for Older People.
Mario told the pupils that he does not consider his job as a chore because he enjoys his work so much.
He said: “I am very fortunate to be in a job which I love, and I have had the chance to choose the career path I want to take.”
When not working Mario and Gill travel widely.
He said: “We have been lucky to have journeyed to so many exotic lands and to have seen some wonderful creatures.
“My determination to see all these things started many years ago, when I was at school myself. I remember watching David Attenborough on television being filmed with gorillas in the forests of Uganda.
“We decided there and then that I wanted to do that too. I wanted to see the gorillas in their natural habitat, so I set out to make that dream come true.”
He told the children that if they worked hard then they would also be able to achieve their dreams, whether it involved travelling or developing their careers.