GLOWING tributes were paid this week to former Drifffield School head teacher Mr John Harrison who died at home on Sunday after a long illness.
Mr Harrison, 85, was head of the school on Manorfield Road for more than a quarter of a century.
A funeral service will take place on Friday January 25 at Octon Crematorium at 11am.
Ross Weekes, friend and former school colleague, said: “Every once in a while a community is blessed with someone who is loved and admired and who makes a real difference. Such a one was John Harrison who has just died after a long and protracted illness borne with his customary bravery and good humour. Not only was John an exceptional head teacher, an exemplary community leader but also a warm and modest human being.
John came to Driffield in 1964 and was appointed to follow two much loved heads of the two Driffield secondary moderns; the girls’ school and the boys’, and combining them into one comprehensive school. He had the unenviable task of amalgamating the current staff with essential new appointments and welding one and all into a successful partnership. Despite the inevitable teething troubles John soon found a way to achieve this.
Bert Wingrave, Harry Benson, Mike Parker, Bob Dales, and Mike Windass, came to John enthused with the idea of the chance of a lifetime i.e. getting the school to rent a dilapidated forestry cottage on The North York Moors. This had just come onto the market and would soon be snapped up by a developer, unless an offer was made immediately. They argued that suitably ‘done up’ it would provide an ‘outward bound centre’ and a base for studies in innumerable fields. One of John’s strengths was that he had the vision to grasp such an opportunity. Staff and pupils put in hours of work and ‘Spiers Bank’ was soon ‘on the go’. When later the school was given the unexpected opportunity to buy the smallholding, John again unhesitatingly gave the go ahead standing surety for the property himself !
Such an act made everyone realise John’s absolute commitment to the school, to Spiers , to the community and obviously to the children of Driffield, thus the staff became united behind him. Due credit will be given to John’s trusty lieutenants in due course, but everyone associated with the school rushed to help in any way they could be they teacher, pupil, parent, well wisher. So many did their bit that it would be invidious to name but a few, although the beautifully made yet sturdily constructed furniture and fittings testify to the loving care and superb skills of a couple of so called ‘chippie’ cynics; Ray Poxon and Norman Jefferson.
Norman was a man of many gifts, one of which was drawing. He produced a weekly cartoon of work in progress at Spiers, usually featuring John Harrison, affectionately known as ‘JH’, in some Napoleonic, supervisory role. Not to upset the old man the eagerly anticipated, cheeky, irreverent cartoons were handed surreptitiously around the staff rooms to much hilarity. Imagine the consternation, the embarrassment, yet the ultimate delight that Norman experienced when he was summoned ‘upstairs’ on some pretext to discover one of his cartoons, enlarged , framed and mounted in pride of place on the wall above JH’s desk.
Before he retired JH had the foresight to establish The Spiers Bank Trust to ensure that this marvellous institution would remain independent in perpetuity, while still primarily serving the needs of the school and the community. Here again he involved a new, enthusiastic and committed generation in its preservation
Educational provision continued unabated under some outstanding teachers. Everyone got to know the school was succeeding academically as well as socially when pupils who had passed their 11+, like teacher Harry Benson’s son, Roger, opted to come to Driff rather than to a local grammar school. Nevertheless JH tried his best through the likes of Cyril Kitching, Isabel Hoffman, Wally Simpkin and Ben Fell to ensure that all pupils’ talents were catered for.
Realising that a school is often judged through its sporting prowess John continued to wholeheartedly support the high standards already achieved in swimming, athletics, gymnastics, hockey, netball, cricket and of course football, where the local legends Bert Wingrave and Cyril Kitching reigned supreme. However John realised that rugby had its place in the sporting curriculum too and encouraged its development first under Tony Wilson and thereafter by a series of top class coaches, who by necessity had to be first rate teachers as well. Although he had a great sense of humour JH was not amused when a wag at a rugby club dinner asked was it true that he advertised for his teachers in ‘Rugby World’? Funny though it was to the uninitiated, the point was that JH wanted all sports to prosper.
JH was a pioneer in fund raising . Generations will remember the sponsored walks. They were not gentle perambulations around the school field but 20 mile marathons. A lot of people initially opposed decimalisation, but not JH. One shilling a mile soon became 5p (or hopefully 10p) a kilometre. However he made the terrible mistake one year of changing his car just after a sponsored walk. It didn’t take the kids long to suggest the unthinkable. So imagine JH’s delight when he inherited his old Dad’s classic Rover which he then drove for aeons thereafter to scotch any further naughty rumours.
JH accepted wholeheartedly the idea of allowing all 1st year pupils the opportunity of going to London and spending a day in the science museums while the 2nd years had a historical day culminating in a visit to The Tower. The result was that he hired a train with carriages specifically for parents and friends to do their Christmas shopping at the same time. These annual Yuletide excursions proved further good earners for school fund.
One year after a happily hectic day in London, JH prevented the children climbing on board the return train for Driffield. He wasn’t going to let his students into unclean carriages. Despite the desperate pleas of the station authorities in the midst of the rush hour, JH stood firm, and surely, soon enough a new suitably cleaned train was provided. This tale led to one of the funniest poems ever recited by John Hughes at the regular school cabarets cum pantos where JH was always affectionately pilloried.
‘I’d be disappointed if I didn’t get some stick.’
Although over the years the school more than doubled in size, thanks to JH, his staff and the kindly Driffield aura, it always seemed to have a warm welcoming feel. JH always seemed to be available to everyone. In his early days before he could delegate such tasks JH spent hours on the telephone arguing the case why such and such a college and / or university should, indeed needed to, accept a student from Driffield School. Over the years he must have written thousands of references as well as providing an equal number of oral testimonials.
Eventually all good things must come to an end and in 1991 JH retired. A tease at County Hall now asked ‘ can we have our school back now please ?’ For John fiercely loyal to Driffield School, with the full backing of the governors, always carefully scrutinised educational developments and would only grudgingly accept innovations which were likely to benefit the students at Driff School.
When JH retired a new challenge awaited him. By now he had become an important figure at the rugby club. What impressed Steve Kitching and friends was that although JH took a great deal of pride in the performance of a club’s showpiece, the 1st XV he also wanted as many people as possible to play the game and enjoy the camaraderie. When there were too many players for five teams (plus a Colts XV, of course) JH somehow obtained regular fixtures for two parallel 5th teams. Didn’t he half make that old rugby club hum ! For he also knew every player, be they Colt or vet, by name.
JH had already been instrumental in purchasing the new pitches on ‘Mucky Dick Lane’ and installing floodlights thereon, now he had a new scheme afoot. He will be remembered most of all for his vision in advocating demolishing the old, increasingly dilapidated club house and somehow getting the money from heaven knows where for a new build. Older members who had at first blanched at the prospect stayed on board to put their hands in their pockets. With the support of a superb team the project was completed. Job done. Today the club house and grounds are a testimony to a man who had ‘the necessary’ to make yet another dream come true.
JH touched so many people in so many different ways that we can honestly say,
‘We shall not see his like again’.
Shirley Harrison, wife of 25-years, said: “He just liked people and he liked doing things that people enjoy and cover the skills of everybody. It wasn’t just intelligent people getting through their exams he was interested in - though he was thrilled by that - it was a much broader field. People always stop me in town and ask about him.”
Ian Toon, former deputy head of Driffield School, said: “Driffield has lost one of its ‘Greats’. John Harrison, who was Headteacher of Driffield School, left behind him a deep and lasting legacy which many of us would be proud of. It is a legacy which spanned a diverse community, stretching out widely from Driffield and across a swathe of East Yorkshire’s Wolds - a legacy which touched many facets of its people’s lives. Most notably John Harrison will be remembered for developing Driffield School into one of the top performing schools in the area and, during his time as its Headteacher, somewhere around 26,000 pupils will have passed through those classrooms, under his direction, inspiration and leadership.
“He first joined the school as Head of the Boys School, when it was a secondary modern, and when a fence separated the boys from the girls! From that time, he steered it through a process of metamorphosis to become a co-educational comprehensive school, and into the early stages of the successful school that he quickly made it into. Since those early years, JH demonstrated a remarkable fusion of educational philosophy and enterprising stewardship which nurtured its growth and developed its character, and set it on course to be the school we know and love today.
“Others will be able to speak of JH’s contribution to the sporting life of the community, particularly with regard to Driffield’s acclaim in the field of rugby, but, to those of us who were fortunate enough to work alongside JH as teachers, we will remember him foremost for his determination in achieving his educational goals. And his goals have provided many who still live in Driffield, and others who have moved elsewhere to other parts of Britain or around the world, with the education and the skills to become confident, successful individuals; caring and considerate members of society; and parents of children who will, in their turn, benefit from the start in life that we would wish for every child. Such is the legacy that good education can leave.
“As teachers, under JH’s dynasty of leadership, we were able to experience a joy of teaching that all would relish - and many would envy! His approach was to give each and every one of us enough ‘space’ to discover his or her strengths, but then to encourage you in developing them to the full. Perhaps that is in the nature of a natural sports coach - or a ‘life coach’ - but wherever his inspiration came from it allowed for ‘his’ teachers to feel empowered, and at the same time personally ‘accountable’. The sense of comradeship and team spirit that a school’s staff can feel cannot be underestimated, and the benefits to those they teach from feeling good about the subject they teach and about the children in their care, is the spin-off from those positive feelings. It was that great sense of belief, purpose and confidence that was perhaps the most enduring legacy that JH gave us and it is right that we credit him with those treasured memories.
It would be encyclopaedic to attempt to record all of JH’s achievements during his time at Driffield School, but it is quick and easy to say that they were all the result of his strength of personality, his clarity of seeing things as the really are, and his unflinching determination in succeeding at whatever he set his mind to doing. We are all the beneficiaries, and let us be grateful for what JH has left us.”
Frank Dowson, former deputy head at Driffiel School, said: “John Harrison was an inspirational leader who devoted the majority of his professional life to establishing Driffield School as a highly respected place of learning in the broadest sense.. From a small Country Secondary School he worked tirelessly to create an institution in which both pupils and staff were made to feel part of the great project. He recruited staff with care and moulded them into a team which was proud to be associated with his school.
His main interest was always to consider how he could improve things for the pupils and he was a great innovator. He encouraged staff and pupils to work hard at creating new opportunities and readily backed both pupils and staff who went to him with new ideas they thought would be beneficial to the school.
He was well respected throughout the county as an individual who liked to do things in his own way and he did not look kindly on those who tried to inflict their ideas on him. He stood resolutely against people with ideas which were contrary to his own philosophy and usually succeeded in getting his own way.
Driffield School has much to be thankful for that this tenacious dedication laid firm foundations for a successful institution which has served many students so well.”