Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Making of a Sportsman

My Dad was a school master [his choice of job description], a man of letters, a lover of books and language. He headed up the PE department in an inner London school and he had a life-long passion for fitness, and games. Even in his old age he loved to play scrabble, or even snap. This week I had the privilege of celebrating his life by presenting the Joe Wilson memorial cup to the sportsman of the year at Ernest Bevin College – the school where he taught in the ’60s, ’70’s and early ’80s. This was at the school’s first dedicated sports awards evening and it was full of accounts of competition successes, but in line with Dad’s philosophy, the PE teachers and coaches also described the inclusively of the games activities and how pupils are encouraged to join in whatever their level of skill.

I don’t know whether Dad’s inclusive ethos came from his father’s commitment to service, community and swimming (he was an Ulster Presbyterian of the old school and a cavalryman in the Great War) or whether it was from Joe's time in the Army. I suspect it was a bit of both, but I shared a war story, illustrating the tough times Joe’d had during his early twenties.

My Dad joined the Irish Guards during the 2nd World War – when he was just 19. His platoon was in Normandy being shelled and they were pinned down in shallow trenches.

Terry shouts from a neighbouring trench "Hey Joe: Got any matches?" Terry had received 200 cigarettes from his Mum that morning.

Joe says, "Yes."

"Could you bring them over?  I've cigarettes and no matches."  
Joe says, "Well that's tough luck! If you have no matches you can come over here for them."
"Ach Joe, we're gettin' shelled!"

"I know. Bring your smokes over here."

German shells are thumping around them. Terry needs a smoke badly. So he crawls over to Joe’s trench and they light up. They’d smoked maybe half a cigarette when they heard this thing coming. The sound of it, the scream of it. They hit the deck, there was an awful explosion right near by. It must have been a 120mm shell. They look out to see a big pall of smoke covering Terry’s trench.
Terry says, "It went into my trench ... thank goodness I came over …"

"YES, if I’d gone over there, the two of us would have been mincemeat!!”

 The Irish Guards were often in the thick of it and only a handful of the original volunteers survived the war yet despite the carnage there were still times when nothing was happening. They had to wait. Joe and his platoon-mates seem to have filled that time with sport. It kept them fit and must have helped stop them thinking of the horrors they’d been through and what was to come. Maybe that’s why Dad’s philosophy was just to get on with life... and enjoy whatever time you get. Dad stayed in the Army – in Germany – until 1946 and was apparently pretty hacked off when he was demobilised – it meant he missed competing in a big inter-service swimming gala, in Cologne.
Irish Guards 1st Company Christmas 1945 - Joe has the ball
Water polo 1945 - Joe is 3rd from the left

Joe was a disciplinarian though – in an era before corporal punishment was banned. He delighted in telling a story about a colleague, Reg. It was the first week of a new academic year and rumour reached Reg of an especially riotous class, full of wild and demanding boys. Reg decided he wasn’t going to have any trouble from them. On his first lesson with them he flung open the classroom door and stormed in with a cane in his hand looking like thunder. He said nothing but stroke up to his desk, slammed the cane down hare and glared at the class. He must have looked homicidal. Then he started his lesson. He was treated with respect verging on awe and never felt the need to use the cane or even threaten anyone.

Current teachers, of course use different techniques to gain their pupils attention and respect, and one of Dad’s big things was to give lots of awards, medals, colours and certificates. I was encouraged in this way and still proudly keep my award for having swum 50 yards, when I was seven.

Joe was great in encouraging his pupils – as well as his family – to try new stuff, and not be afraid of messing up. A favourite expression was, ‘Go on – give it a go!’

I believe that my Dad encouraged loads of people to try things even if they weren’t sure they’d make a success of it. He knew that small victories and successes give you something to be proud of – and when you feel good about what you’ve achieved, it allows you to make a success of yourself.

 I’m proud therefore to celebrate such success by awarding the first Joe Wilson memorial Sportsman of the year cup. I hope it will inspire more boys to aim higher in the coming years.

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