Western University, Department of Communication & Public Affairs
Westminster Hall, Suite 360, London, Ontario, Canada, N6A 3K7
Tel: 519-661-2045 • Fax: 519-661-3921
Staying Thirsty for Adventure
John Marcus Payne’s journey began alongside missionary parents in Nigeria, and brought him to a quiet, small town north of Chicago where he lives now with his wife and three children. But it’s the points in between that make Payne, LLB’73, a contender for the “most interesting man in the world.”
Born in Toronto, Payne was 2 when his family moved to northern Nigeria in 1950. His parents worked for Serving in Mission (SIM), one of the world’s largest evangelical missions. In the decade spent there, Payne fell in love with Africa. It opened his eyes to the world, and he wanted to see more.
Eventually though, the family returned to Ontario; Payne went to high school in Woodstock, completed his undergrad at McMaster, and then chose to study law at Western. He had three years of athletic eligibility left, and Payne figured a law degree would open doors for him.
“I knew what I didn’t want to do - end up at a major law firm, with a window on the 22nd floor, looking out to the building beside me, doing commercial real estate.”
He ran track under Bob Vigars and recalls winter training, running the tunnels from Law to Engineering. The experience led him and his teammates to lobby for an indoor track, resulting in the one found in Thompson Arena today.
After graduating from Western, Payne studied theology in England before joining Nigeria’s Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) as a law professor and assistant track coach in August 1974. A few months later, he found himself coaching ABU’s basketball team, despite his limited experience, and the team went on to win the national championship the same year.
Soon after, Payne was called upon by the Nigerian general’s chief-of-staff to coach the national team. Nigeria being a military dictatorship at the time, Payne’s protests that he was unqualified fell on deaf ears. “I did what I was told,” he says. The team won their way to the All-African finals in 1975. One thing leads to another, as they say. And in Payne’s case, another. And another. From 1976 to 1979, he played professional polo and articled at two law firms until Bell Canada picked him up in 1980 as director of contract operations, a go-between for Bell and the Saudi government. In 1982, he left Bell and the next year began working for the Royal Saudi family, helping to set up a telecomm company, HiCap (High Capabilities).
In 1987, Payne opened a chain of ‘Jumpers’ (English for sweaters) shops in England, and four years later, he set up an international consultancy, Parrington Associates; work he continues to this day. An early win for the company came in 1995, helping to set up Bharti AirTel in India, now the world’s third largest mobile telecommunications company.
It hasn’t been all work and no play for Payne. He bought into Tiger Tops, a tiger jungle lodge in the Chitwan Jungle bordering Nepal and northern India that had a fleet of domesticated elephants. He and some friends trained the mahouts (elephant drivers) in the fundamentals of polo, eventually establishing the World Elephant Polo Association. Payne wound up in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1985 for captaining the first world championship elephant polo team.
He got his pilot’s license at Toronto Island Airport’s flying school – in three weeks flat. He’s led safaris in several African countries, taken on commissioned photo assignments from Arizona to Zimbabwe and owned a polo team in England. He’s made a few treks to Everest Base Camp, where he has met and made life-long friends and business partners. Oh, and then there’s rock and roll. By chance, he met Ginger Baker, drummer for Cream, at a Nigerian gas station; they became friends and Payne taught him to play polo. Got Ringo Starr playing elephant polo, too.
For a man with a passport like John Marcus Payne’s, why settle in sleepy, smalltown Illinois?
Simple: Family and faith.
While he owes his adventuresome spirit to his parents, Payne missed out on knowing his extended family growing up. He vowed if he had children, they would know their grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. Life today in the Village of Glencoe (population 8,723), on Chicago’s north shore offers his children (ages 11, 10 and 9) that opportunity in spades.
With wife Virginia’s family nearby, it isn’t unusual for them to host Sunday family dinners for 30 or 40; and the Payne children see their grandparents weekly. Raised Baptist, Payne drifted away from his faith as a young man. “Then, in the mid-1990s, I realized there had to be more.” He began teaching bible school and today sits on the boards of two Christian organizations.
Payne applauds Western’s efforts to provide students more international opportunities. “When students go to other countries they need to remember they are there to learn. They have to be prepared, and observe. ‘You need water? I’m going to physically help you dig a well.’ That will do more than lecturing on the use of clean water.”
“You can’t stay in one place and have the kinds of experiences I’ve had,” Payne says. “It’s about being in the right place at the right time. And if someone asks me if I can help them design a widget, I say ‘Yes, of course!’ Then I look up widgets on Wikipedia,” he says, laughing. “I might not know today, but tomorrow I will be able to help you.”
Login to view and post comments