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John’s legacy won’t be forgotten

A Personal View
A Personal View

When 2016 finally hauled itself across the finishing line of New Year’s Eve, many people said good riddance to a bad year.

Amid the political turmoil of Brexit and Donald Trump, it was a year characterised by a clutch of celebrity deaths.

Gone were David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Carrie Fisher, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Harper Lee, Victoria Wood, Debbie Reynolds, Arnold Palmer, Leonard Cohen, Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Michael and many others.

The media focus on this apparently relentless roll-call of the deceased can send out a misleading message.

It can make people think that the deaths of celebrities matter more than those of ordinary people.

In truth, death doesn’t discriminate. It takes the famous, the infamous and us – the ordinary people.

It makes few allowances for who we each are, how much we earn or own, or how well connected we may be. Death isn’t that choosy.

As someone whose parents both died when they were relatively young (in their early 70s) and when I was relatively young (in my late 20s), I remember the feeling of readjusting to the world without parents being there. The axis of your life somehow shifts.

The people we phone to share good, or bad news, or to quietly boast to are gone. Without them, we can end up feeling fragile, exposed and older.

It also makes us appreciate life all the more and the people around us.

The Latin phrase for this – as anyone who studied classics at school will know (I didn’t), or who has watched the film Dead Poets’ Society (I did) – is ‘carpe diem’. Seize the day.

We can’t know how long we have on this spinning blue planet, so we should make the most of every second. We should seize the day.

I was thinking of this because, at our school, we have just lost a very good friend. John Ottley was a student of King Edward VI Grammar School when the school was perched at the top of the Vinefields, off Eastgate Street, a school that was made up partly of boarders and partly of day boys.

From 1959 to 1965, John was one of its most memorable characters.

As a shy and studious young man, he showed a prodigious talent for music – in particular, as an organist.

Even then, his friends say, his hallmark booming laugh would echo around the school, just as it has done here over the 14 years or so that I knew him.

John was someone who stayed loyal to his school, to his friends and to Suffolk.

Living in the family home in Rougham, he continued to be the organist at the village church, a role he began when he was 11.

He was also the long-standing secretary of the Old Burians’ Association – the network of hundreds of former students of our school. With the skills and tenacity we would associate with a professional archivist, John would research former students, make contact with them across the UK and the world and – most importantly – interact with our current students.

When he took to the stage for the farewell Year 11 assembly last summer, he got an enormous cheer from 300 adolescents.

Sixth form students welcomed him to their Christmas show, joined his alumni committee and, on return visits from university, would take him out for lunch.

John talked of our school as a family, its collective membership drawn from students past and present.

John’s energy, optimism and enthusiasm inspired me then and inspires me now.

He was an embodiment of how some special people can speak across generations, leaving each of us who knew them feeling that life is a little better than we had realised.

Now, aged 69, he has gone. But his legacy to our school, to music in our town and to the fabric of Suffolk society won’t be forgotten.

John Ottley: thanks for the memories, the enthusiasm for life and the laughter.

-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds