Saturday, February 06, 2016
Vale Rod West
I have learnt this week of the death of Roderick West. His funeral was on Friday and it is one of those events I would have made every effort to attend, if I had not moved so far away.
His obituary is in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Rod arrived at Fort Street in 1957 as a teacher in this 3rd year of teaching. I arrived at the same time as a First year (now called Year 7) student. He was therefore just slightly more than 10 years older than me, not much today but a huge gap then. However this probably made him the youngest of my teachers at that time. He taught me Latin for 3 years and was the teacher in charge of the Inter School Christian Fellowship in which role he had a tremendous influence on me. He left Fort Street at the end of the same year as me to teach in the UK although I see he returned to Fort Street for 2 or 3 years, by which time I was also a teacher elsewhere in Sydney. He then moved into the Private School system, teaching his most illustrious pupil, Prince Charles in 1966 at Timbertop in Victoria and becoming headmaster of Trinity Grammar School. He certainly changed that school around, it did not have a very good reputation for a private school when I was still at school.
I, of course, idolised him as a student although today I might wonder whether his influence was so ideal. He was certainly one if not the most important encouragement for me to become a teacher. Although I was already well involved with my church, he certainly developed and deepened my involvement. In 1959, at the First Sydney Billy Graham Crusade, a large number of students from my year went forward and, although I doubt whether many are still involved in religious activities today, they still express great regard for Rod. As the article states, he has maintained close links with many of his students and he seemed to have a special interest in those of us from his very early teaching career. I feel the same, still being in close contact with some students from my first high school.
My later contacts with Rod have been brief. As youth fellowship leader in the Anglican church at Concord West, I invited him on behalf of the Rector to preach at the Evening Youth Fellowship and as I read the service I was proud to wear my recently acquired academic hood along side him although whether he wore the Sydney Uni BA hood which had inspired me or the London BD hood he gained later, I do not remember. It must have been in the late 1960's.
In 1975 I visited him at Trinity Grammar. He was in his first term as headmaster and had advertised a teaching position. I was struggling at a very difficult school after my travel leave in 1974. It was not an official job interview and I was reluctant to leave the State system (I did leave probably just 9 months later for the Catholic system) and he was still unsure as he had just taken on the role of headmaster and probably wanted to be perfectly correct in procedure.
I am certainly glad I did not move to a school in the Sydney Anglican diocese.
I visited him again some time in the 80's. I am not sure of the details but it was a result of some news of homophobia at the school which led me to write to him and tell him of my sexuality.
As the Herald article states Rod was "Evangelical in terms of doctrine but favouring a breadth of vision"
All I remember from the cordial meeting was his statement that he wished he had known when I was at school as he might have been able to help. Of course in those days I had no understanding of my feelings. Such matters did not get mentioned, certainly not in the Christian circles in which I mixed and not even in the press, except in very derogative terms. I had to study psychology at university before I had any understanding. And knowing what I do now, I am very glad I did not receive any of the help, however well intentioned, that was common at that time.
I met him twice since. First for the 150th anniversary of Fort Street in October 1999. I sat next to Rod at the dinner. I attended that dinner with my best mate from school days. Peter also became a teacher, of modern languages and later the Principal of a Christian school in Canberra so kept more contact with Rod. Peter was to die of cancer 5 years later and I know Rod went out of his way to meet with him at that time.
Then in October 2011, having moved to Dunedin, I flew to Sydney to attend a dinner as my year group of 1961 reached the 50 year mark. There were not many men there, none of my group but Rod was present and I am glad I met and talked with him. Most of the men were from the prefect and sports group and most had been in that cohort from the Billy Graham Crusade, They were still meeting regularly once each year with Rod but I now lived too far away to join them.
In the short speech Rod gave, he mentioned me as the only other teacher present, of course now also retired. I have no contact with any of my year group since Peter has died. I am still considering whether to contact Stuart, Rod's nephew but also a student in my last 2 years at Fort Street. He is a noted academic especially on Evangelical history but has been critical of some of it.
So I have mixed feelings now that I have a strong antipathy to anything evangelical and blame its teachings for causing me much misery. Rod was very much the focus for that aspect of my development but his friendship on later meetings show that his attitudes were broader than most in that camp. I know he had more influence on me than any other teacher, for much of which I am grateful and although I now have many doubts about that time of my life, I can never know what may have developed if Rod had not been such an influence.