JOHN FREDERICK JAMES DOUGLAS 1929-2017
John Douglas was born on 5 December 1929 in Dulwich, South London. He had an older sister, Evelyn (or ‘Babs’ as she was known in the family), and a younger brother, Robert (Bob). John was very fond of both his siblings. Evelyn died in 1984 (aged 57) from an asthma attack. With his sister, as a 7 year old, John watched from his home the fire which destroyed the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in 1936.
From 1936 – 1948, he was a pupil at St Joseph’s College, Upper Norwood, which was a De La Salle school (meaning that it was run by a religious order). He was there for 12 years, apart from a year’s sojourn in the country at the height of the blitz (1940-1). Between 1948 and 1951, John studied geography at the University of Nottingham. On leaving he followed other members of his family before him, into the army. From 1951 – 1953 he served in the Royal Artillery, obtaining a commission (as a 2nd lieutenant).
In 1954, John entered the teaching profession. His first post was as a mathematics teacher at a small prep school in Henley-in-Arden. The headmaster of this school was devastated when, after a short time, this brilliant young teacher left, and took up a post in the Becket School, Nottingham (then, a direct grant grammar school in the care of the Augustinians of the Assumption). John was to remain in this school from January 1955 until his retirement in July 1998, over 43 years later.
Former scholars have been keen to share their memories of John as a teacher at the Becket.
Geoffrey Bond (OBE) was a pupil at the Becket School from 1951 to 1958. He writes:
'For much of that time I had the privilege of being taught Geography by John Douglas, as well as being under his supervision as the Athletics Master. John himself was an accomplished runner and ran for the University of Nottingham when he was a student. In a school full of black-robed priests, John, cut a figure of some awe, often wearing a smart double-breasted business suit worthy of Savile Row, white shirt and his Regimental tie with handkerchief in the top pocket. On one occasion we all put our handkerchiefs in our top pockets awaiting the arrival of John for a Geography class, to our sadness that day – he did not have his handkerchief in his pocket. He told me many years later that he had spied through the door what we had done and removed his handkerchief.
John was a great teacher and made his subject fascinating and took as much trouble with the boys who did not take readily to Geography as those who did. I always admired him for that. If he was not in his suit he was in a tracksuit and did much to promote athletics and gymnastics at the school, with boys going off to compete in county championships in their respective sports. To give you some idea of his athleticism, I vividly remember on one occasion, one of the senior school quarter-milers training with John running comfortably beside him, coaching him as they both ran together, it seemed effortless to John.
As we know, after the Becket School he went on to have a distinguished career as a travel writer and photographer, particularly in a country with which I have had strong connections, Norway, and his book ‘Norway’s Arctic Highway’ published in 2003, was a great success, he recounted his journey to the North Cape. I think he wrote something like 16 books, travelled extensively in over 60 countries in 4 continents and of course became a Director of Geo Group & Associates, working mostly in Africa.
Like everybody, I was devastated when John was struck down and became bedridden, a cruel fate for such an energetic, athletic and widely travelled man. I went to see John from time to time and it was extremely sad to see this great man so incapacitated, still radiating in conversation the energy he created for us in previous years.
I had the honour of entertaining him to lunch with the Judges in the Old Bailey London when I was Sheriff of the City of London in 2004 and from time to time in my home in Southwell. Both my wife, Dianora, and myself will miss his company, it was a great privilege to have known him and we shall retain very happy memories of our times with him.'
Paul Bradbury, who was at the Becket school during the '50s/'60s, also remembers John in his role as director of the school athletics team. Paul writes:
'I will always have great memories of him and the influence he had on me. I can't imagine anyone who attended the Becket during the 60's who did not respect John. He was a great teacher and a gentleman in everything he did.'
Another former scholar, Frank Iwanowski, was at the Becket from 1956-1964. While at school, he achieved national recognition as a hurdler, and was coached by John. He was also a sprinter and relay runner, and a member of the school football team. Now retired, he has taught French, taught English as a second language in different countries, and joined the Australian Airforce recruiting section, where he became a Squadron Leader.
Frank writes: 'JD - as all students, especially athletes, very affectionately called him - was one of those few people who you look back on with gratitude as having had a significant impact on your outlook on life, through his example, dedication and enthusiasm, his care for all students over many years, in fact I venture to say virtually his whole working life.
John's attitude reflected more than 'just' a job - his was a total commitment in contributing to the incredibly important formative teenage years of students. He was so much more than a teacher - he was a psychologist, psychiatrist and personnel manager who understood perfectly the requirements of students, ignoring his own aspirations, which in fact were simply to lay the basis for a fulfilling professional and personal life once we left The Becket. We actually understood that, to the point where JD never needed to demand attention, because of the respect in which he was held. Many, if not most of my teachers would have been horrified that I should become a teacher - actually it was John's example that I tried to follow, for a number of years anyway.
John embodied the atmosphere of a large all-encompassing family which The Becket was noted for during my time at the School. His ability to encourage, coach, cajole and ultimately praise the students, both academically and physically, exemplified all that should exist in education, at that level, in all teachers and schools. I recall with particular pride the fact that the school took on the rest of the county (Notts) at track and field and were victorious - this was down to John, and in some ways we did it for him, as just reward for his efforts although he would never have expected or accepted that.
Perhaps fortunately, I was able to visit him only once after he became inactive - that means I remember with gratitude the dynamic person who I think I knew well, but who knew me better! Thank you JD - you can justifiably, now comfortably - REST IN PEACE.'
Rod (GRC) White was a contemporary of Frank at the Becket, during the same golden period of the school’s astonishing success in athletics (and, incidentally, rowing). Like Frank, Rod was part of the athletics team for most of this time as a sprinter and a relay runner. He was also in the cricket and football teams.
He wrote: 'Mr Douglas set a standard from the first time I saw him (at The Becket in the late 1950s). He was - and always was - immaculately dressed. This was the outward appearance of a man who, in my experience of him as a pupil at The Becket, was dedicated and meticulous in all that he did. This characteristic was never more obvious than in his approach to the Becket Athletics Team, which, on occasion, took on the best both in the county and, as individuals, in the country. A seemingly simple example of this was that, by 8.30am on the morning after each of our athletics meetings with other schools or clubs, from which we would often arrive back at school after 7.00pm, there would be a list (typed by JD) publishing the full details of the individual results of every event from the evening before, including position and times/distances/heights etc, plus annotation of a school record, county or national standard where appropriate. We all benefited from this dedication and I shall remember him always as a man who was respected by both pupils and teachers alike.'
David McGawley, who was headteacher of the Becket School from - to – worked closely with John in his role as deputy head/head of upper school. David describes John as 'a multi-talented man whose faith and experience of our world enriched his teaching and informed the guidance which he so freely gave to generations of students regarding their educational and career options.
He was a loyal colleague whose wit enlivened many a meeting, but who would not hesitate to give uncomfortable advice if he thought it important to do so. He had an exceptionally sharp, critical intelligence but at the same time a tolerant, good-humoured appreciation of human character and idiosyncrasy. His was a generous and humane spirit.
Any attempt to list John Douglas' accomplishments runs the risk of serious omission: athlete, traveller and much published writer, photographer, aviator, teacher. the last mentioned was by no means the least important to John or the many who benefited from his influence. Requiescat in pace.'