A nod, a smile, and a wink
I was once asked to give a presentation to a group of aspirant teachers, sharing what I had learned about the qualities needed to become an effective member of a senior management team in a pupil centred school.
When I sat down to prepare for the meeting, I realised I had to look no further than John Dames, who has died this week, after a typically courageous and uncomplaining battle against illness.
In the late 70s, I was a second year probationer teacher at St Thomas of Aquin’s High in Edinburgh, when we heard we were getting a new Depute Headteacher. It was unsettling news for youngsters who were just beginning to feel comfortable in the profession. What would he be like? Would things change? Would we get along with him?
Then he arrived and was introduced to us. He seemed very young – to us a good thing – and resembled a cross between Jimmy Carter and Robert Redford, which gave him an immediate presence.
All we really knew was that he had come from a school in Dumfries, and the scarcity of informaton, of course, fed our curiosity. Over staffroom coffee, the chatter was consistent: “Have you met him? What was he like? Will he be ok as Depute?”
Quickly he became visible around the school – always crucial for a successful manager, and the reports developed a pattern: “I saw the new guy, he nodded at me, and smiled, then he winked.”
At the time, and even written on the page just now, that seems like a strange introduction. However, as we were later to realise, it was a typical “Damesy” way of being friendly, and as his initial introduction to most of us, it was highly effective. When we came to deal with him more formally on school business we felt comfortable in his presence, and this was reflected also in his presentations to staff meetings, where we first became aware of his dry and self deprecating wit. Almost subliminally, I suppose, I started to understand a model of authority which came from calmness, shared concerns, and genuine care for colleagues and pupils.
What became very obvious, very quickly, about John Dames, was that he loved his job and he loved being around young folk – staff or pupils. He was full of energy and ideas, but never overpoweringly so, because he was a good listener and a man with a great capacity to seek consensus and advice. I always thought his authority came from the confidence of operating from the most positive of motives – concern for others and the determination to do as good a job as possible. John used no complicated strategies as a school manager, he expected high standards and strong commitment from those around him, and led by his own example.
He very soon gained the staff’s trust and became one of us, whilst retaining his detached position as Depute. I know from my own experience that such an approach brings extra demands, but also great rewards, if it’s successful. Because he was always honest and we knew he was operating in our interests, it was not difficult to move between the friend we laughed with in the pub after work, and the depute who might need to address a concern with us more formally in school.
He joined in with our staff social life and became a mainstay of the staff football team. He was a talented sportsman and played a variety of sports with the skill and dogged determination which reflected an earlier successful time as an amateur boxer. As a footballer, he showed skill, guile, intelligence and strength as a pacy overlapping full back with a full box of tricks.
When the headteacher who had brought him to St Thomas’s (Jimmy Barbour, a tribute to whom, sadly, I had to write earlier this week) announced his retirement, the staff were unanimous that we wanted John to get the job. This was not just a case of familiarity, it was a recognition that he knew what we were trying to build as a staff, and he had contributed hugely to the project.
There was a morning interview for the post, after which John returned to work, and, at the end of the day, he joined in a game of staff v pupils football on the Meadows at the bottom of the street. After repeated attempts to reach him, a secretary had to run down to the Meadows and shout that he was wanted on the phone by the Director of Education. Staff and patients at the Royal Infirmary opposite the school were then treated to the sight of a middle aged man trotting up the road in full Celtic kit to receive the phone call which would tell him he was the new Headteacher of St Thomas’s. Naturally, he returned to the Meadows, told us the good news, and finished the game. In the manner of his becoming a headteacher, he demonstrated how he would pursue the tasks the post demanded.
There were initial challenges for the new headteacher. The school roll, at around 600, was considered small for a city school. Pupils, staff and parents recognised this was an ideal size, especially as the school, with a catchment that ran from north to south of the Capital through the city centre, was truly comprehensive. However, local authority economics suggested the school should be closed. We felt this was unthinkable, given the education it provided to its pupils.
It was typical of John’s energy and vision that we would meet the situation proactively. We considered ourselves a community school in all but name, and we would “walk the walk”. In a series of innovative and sector leading moves we welcomed adults into our classes, offered evening and night classes, and instituted the city’s first complete 4th Year work experience programme with the support of our local and parental community. We made the point over and over that St Tam’s meant too much to Edinburgh to be lost.
So successful was the campaign that not only did we stay open but required an annexe at the former Jimmy Clark’s school overlooking Holyrood Park, to accommodate growing pupil numbers.
For me, it was an early lesson in what can be achieved by a school leader with total commitment and the trust and respect of his staff.
I saw it again with John’s promotion of Outdoor Education. All first year pupils would have a residential week away – an invaluable experience for both staff and pupils. Originally it was at Kinharvie House near New Abbey on the Solway coast. We all learned to share John’s love of the area and its heritage, and former pupils still talk to me about their times there nearly forty years later. The same is true of our second Residential base at Craigower Lodge in Newtonmore, where pupils and staff discovered the beauty of Speyside and the Cairngorms – and formed life long associations with the area.
Alongside this came steady improvement in academic results till St Thomas’s became one of the top schools in Edinburgh in this respect.
Invariably with John, his actions matched his words, and his total commitment to the school was reflected in the fact that his children attended the school and Mary, his wife, also worked there, showing that same caring approach, as a feisty and much loved advocate for the Learning Support department, which she led with predictable energy.
But it would be wrong to suggest it was all worthy intentions and hard graft. It was also a joy to work alongside John Dames. One Friday night in the pub ended with over a dozen staff crammed into his much loved beach cabin at Southerness on the Solway coast, and his children were accustomed to being woken late in the evening at home by various of their teachers arriving back from staff celebratory occasions. After one particular Burns Supper, the residents of this douce Morningside street must have been amazed to see three male teachers dressed as nuns emerge from the Dames minibus with flutes and a big drum! Don’t ask!
It was a beautiful home, made special by the strong family love it contained, but also by John and Mary’s long term project to restore its interior. None of us knew where they found the time or energy, but for a good few years we reckoned you could tell the Heidie was approaching by the distinctive whiff of Nitromors paint stripper in the air!
Though always and indisputably an East End of Glasgow man, John adapted well to life in the capital and clearly loved Edinburgh. Soon after his arrival at St Tams, pupils interviewed him for the school magazine and asked how he was finding life in his new abode. Typically, he pointed out that the school was in Edinburgh’s Tollcross, near the city centre, and he came from Glasgow’s Tollcross, in a similar position, so he already felt at home. His interests and learning covered far more than the world of education, and he could be fascinating when he shared his knowledge and discoveries, being always open to new experiences.
Like many men of his generation and background, he wouldn’t find it easy to talk openly of emotions, but his many personal and discreet kindnesses to staff members at hard times in their personal lives were a measure of the man’s fundamental goodness – and I write from my own experience.
Laughter was a mainstay of all John Dames activities – as was football. On one occasion he damaged his leg in a staff match. Typically he played on till the end, had his shower and drove home. It must have been very painful overnight, but he was at his desk on time next morning.
By break time we had convinced him to go across the road to Casualty to have it checked out. He returned at lunch time with his broken leg in a full stookie – and never missed a day at school. He had been away for around 3 hours, but in the retelling of the tale through the years, that was eventually refined to “no more than twenty minutes”! Such was his commitment to the school, many folk found that easy to believe.
He was a member of the idiosyncratic “Morningside Celtic Supporters Club” and an enthusiastic attender at their annual “Tommy Burns Supper”. The Celtic legend and John Dames had much in common – in their Faith, goodness towards others, and work ethic. We were delighted to arrange a letter from Tommy to John on one of his “big” birthdays, recognising his lifelong support of Celtic and his contribution to education.
Outside of school and family, one of John’s long term commitments was to our Thursday night five a side games which were played for over twenty years on pitches down by the beach in Portobello. Most of us who played were teachers or lecturers, and, though we would never have stated the fact, those games, and the pint in the bar afterwards, became crucial to our mental as well as physical well being. We would chat about a wide range of topics, often seriously, but frequently with underlying humour, and there we got to know John well. It was a situation in which he shone, being a natural raconteur, and employing his dry wit, often leaving us crying with laughter.
When we discovered that he had served part of his RAF service on Lewis, this was always referred to as “the time when he saved Europe single handedly, through his vigilance on the western seaboard, as one of the Brylcream boys.” He was often the only Celtic supporter in a group of Hibees, but, much as he had taken to Edinburgh despite his Glasgow roots, he avoided patronising us about our support for “the first to wear the green”, and developed an affection for the Edinburgh side. Often he would listen patiently to our Hibs centred discussion, before interjecting to steer us on to another subject. I remember his comment one night: “That’s fascinating, boys, but could we move on to something more interesting, please – maybe discuss how we do the ironing, for instance?”
Thursdays were sacrosanct, and future historians will marvel how, over more than two decades, there never seemed to be a St Tam’s school event on a Thursday night. Even when an event was arranged outwith his control, I recall, for instance a reception at the Civic Chambers, he would make his excuses and leave, determined to arrive at the pitches for our 9pm start.
It seems right to paraphrase St Thomas Aquinas, who memorably suggested: “Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine.” In our case the alleviation came through “a good game, a shower, and a pint of beer”.
In his retirement, he worked still for young people – on Rotary scholarships, and with the council pupil placement committee. He and Mary travelled widely in their trusty camper van, frequently to trouble torn areas on charity relief missions, where he would listen and learn, often reporting back to us on Thursdays after the football. There were romantic City Breaks as well, though these often seemed to be arranged in the vicinity of Celtic’s European ties.
Being a father and a grandfather was always central to his life, and, of course, the Thursday football continued. He played on into his 70s, still able to find a killer pass, or confuse an opponent with the drop of a shoulder. He added an additional skill to compensate for his advancing years. He would subtly handle the ball and play on straight faced. When we shouted for a foul, he would stop, turn with a look of complete innocence, spread his arms and ask: “What?” So polished was this performance that, in the end, we changed the rules, and “Damesy’s hand ball” became an accepted part of our game. We couldn’t resist the twinkle in his eye.
And now, it’s small moments I will remember.
In the 80s I ran school discos, and often the crates of singles would be left by the staffroom door. On one occasion, Mary looked down and noted the top single was Robert Palmer’s hit: “Johnny and Mary”. It was made even more relevant by the opening line: “Johnny’s always running around…” I think of him whenever I hear the track.
Late in life he and Mary moved to a flatnear the Meadows. I asked how he was settling in after so long in his other house. His answer reflected his lifelong commitment to education: “It’s nice to be opposite a school and hear the bells during the day and the pupils out playing.”
All who knew him will miss him greatly. All who have spoken to me about him in the last couple of days have used the same, accurate, phrase: “He was a good man.”
He was a man of huge integrity and a deep and abiding Faith, about which he was never ostentatious.
When he reached the gates of Heaven, I have no doubt they will have been opened to him, and I am certain he will have been welcomed in with a nod, a smile, and a wink.