Remembering Lawrence Montagu OBE: Shaping lives by shaping minds

Having only just read of the terribly sad news though Facebook, I can’t help reflecting on the death of my former School Principal Lawrence Montagu O.B.E. after a long battle against cancer.
My former Headteacher Lawrence Montagu who died last Friday
He was such a pivotal character during my formative years and I feel particularly melancholic at the thought that here was a man whose time among us concluded far too soon.

Thinking back, it was during the second week of October in 1984 when the coach, on its final leg from Birmingham, pulled into Gloucester bus station completing an exhausting 
23-hour journey from Galway City in the west of Ireland. For myself, aged 13 at the time, and my two younger brothers, this was a far more seminal journey than we could have imagined as we left behind our school-friends, neighbours and relatives to start our new life in England. Dad was already there to meet us off the bus and quickly transferred our suitcases (we were allowed two each) into a waiting taxi before heading straight out to St. Peter’s High School on the Stroud Road to meet with the new Principal and get signed up at our new school. 

Despite being worn out from the trip, we were ushered in and instantly made to feel at home due to the tremendously warm and friendly welcome we received from Mr. Montagu who was only six or eight weeks into his new job at the time. Despite the formalities, he was happy to have a little banter with Mum who explained that all three siblings were left-handed and the Irish term for it was ciotóg (pronounced kith-ogue).

Two things I distinctly remember about Mr. Montagu in that first encounter; one was his youth and the other was his accent. My previous Headteacher (Seamus Cullinane at the Athenry Vocational School) was in his sixties (quite ancient when you’re twelve years old), so to see this dynamic thirty-something at the head of such a big school really made quite an impression on me. It was clear that age was not a prerequisite for leadership and it spurred me on to be as ambitious as I dared to be.

As for his Liverpudlian accent, I found it both disarming and intriguing. Having just arrived from the so-called fields of Athenry, (and I was as green as the song title suggests) it was the first time I met someone with such a distinctive English accent that you could actually pinpoint their origin. I have since developed a deep appreciation for the myriad of accents found here in the UK and find myself imitating them during lighter moments or especially when I am daydreaming about one thing or another. 

08Jun04: Catching up on latest news, Larry Montagu always made time for his alumni.
During my school years, I was lucky to discover my passion for cooking early on and concentrated on becoming the best chef and patissier I could be after I finished my ‘O’ levels. Somehow it also seemed natural to pop in every so often if I was passing to see Larry as I came to know him in later years and give him an update. He would delight in hearing about my travels to Bermuda and of opening a business in Kathmandu. When I introduced him to my wife on one chance visit in 2004, he organised a pot of tea and cancelled a budgeting meeting he was due to attend at the town hall. It was this generosity of goodwill that I came to admire in him most, especially when I think of the pressure he was under in running one of the UK's top comprehensive schools. 

I was delighted for Larry when I heard he had been awarded an O.B.E. for services to education - it certainly came was no surprise as he really did deserve the accolade. In a display of sincere humility about his achievement he would joke about the letters possible standing for "Other Bugger's Efforts". Again, his self-effacing leadership style was to deflect that spotlight of achievement onto the people around him upon whose shoulders he stood.

All was not well though when he told me how he was forced into a leave of absence in order to be treated after doctors discovered he had developed Prostate Cancer. A major bout of chemotherapy and sheer willpower put it in remission and allowed him to return to work. Sadly however the cancer returned more aggressively than before and had visibly affected his appearance and health on my last visit to see him in July of 2012. He was upbeat despite, as he put it himself, being given fewer than five years to live by his consultant at that stage.

During that final chat with him, I found a man resigned to the ravages of his own mortality and taking each day as it came, knowing there weren’t many left. The fact that he devoted every one of them to the well being of St. Peter's school community is truly a remarkable and noble act of human compassion that will forever remain his legacy. 

I understand he was due to retire at the end of this academic year, but it seems someone up there had other plans and Larry was sadly taken from us this gone weekend. My thoughts go out to his family, colleagues and pupils who, like me, will find it difficult to understand why such sad things are meant to be.

There is no doubt that Lawrence Montagu had a profoundly positive influence on shaping the careers of dozens of teaching staff and shaping the lives of many, many thousands of schoolchildren lucky enough to attend St. Peter’s High School over the last two generations. You only have to to read this tribute here and the comments posted from past pupils on this story here to see what a profound effect he had on the lives of the people he touched.

Mr. Montagu will be sadly missed by us all. Me especially.

Rest in Peace Sir.