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Obituary - Wilfred Atkin, 1920-2011

Wilfred Atkin was a man shaped by experience. Born into Depression-era poverty, witness to death and violence during the Second World War, he became determined to devote his life to helping others.

And so the Lincolnshire headteacher quietly coached class after class of deprived pupils to the educational success that he believed would change their lives.

Wilfred Atkin was born in July 1920, the son of a Leicestershire day labourer. He was the first child; by the time four more had arrived, there was no room for Wilfred in the house and he was sent to live with his grandmother.

At the age of 11 he won a scholarship to the local independent school, Loughborough Grammar. His father insisted he turn it down: even the cost of uniform and books was more than the family could afford. Unable to bear her son's tears, however, his mother quietly signed the acceptance form. Wilfred's career as a public-schoolboy had begun.

It was not, however, an easy time. Wilfred simply did not fit in with his more moneyed classmates: he was the only pupil to do his homework by candlelight, the only pupil to pad his disintegrating shoes with newspaper. It was only his natural sportiness - he played in football and cricket teams - that saved him from years of bullying.

Without funds to support himself through college, he left school at 16 and took a job as a clerk in an engineering factory. In 1942 he was drafted into military service.

As an artillery spotter, he was sent behind enemy lines in North Africa. Crossing the desert at night, he and his comrades were ambushed by Germans, Lance Corporal Atkin's gun knocked out of his hand by an enemy bullet. He led his men to what he thought was safety. When the sun rose, however, he realised that they were in the middle of a minefield. Singlehandedly, therefore, he led them out again, earning a mention in despatches. Later he was sent to Italy, participating in the 1944 battle of Monte Cassino.

The war had a profound effect on him. He had witnessed its full horrors; now he wanted to do something good. Always a religious man, he considered joining the clergy but was equivocal about the church. Instead, he decided to train as a primary teacher.

Primary teaching was the only option available to a man with no A-levels. But it was also the right option. Primary education had won him the scholarship that changed his life. He wanted to help other children change their lives in a similar way.

Beginning his career in Leicestershire, he met Lesley Stafford, a local English teacher. Both were from impoverished backgrounds; both believed education was the key to a better life. They married in 1950, and moved to Lesley's home town of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. Their first son, Simon, was born in 1955; Nicholas followed six years later.

Mr Atkin found a job teaching juniors at Gainsborough's North County Primary. It was a decision of convenience initially, but it was one that suited him. North County served a deprived area: many of its pupils came from backgrounds similar to his own. Mr Atkin, therefore, had the ability to ensure that education benefited them the way it had him.

Still carrying himself with military bearing, he did not drink, smoke or swear. His sole vice was a dry sense of humour, with a predilection for acid putdowns. He was always friendly, but also guarded: he was a difficult man to get to know. Much about his early life remained unspoken and unknown.

He remained a keen sportsman. As well as introducing shinty - a Scottish version of hockey - to North County, he was an enthusiastic follower of Gainsborough Trinity FC. He was equally interested in the arts: he published several children's plays and was a founding member of Gainsborough's arts centre.

Eventually Mr Atkin was promoted to deputy head, and served as acting head for two years. But, under a contemporary rule that classroom teachers should never rise to head in their own schools, he was overlooked for permanent promotion. Instead, he took a sabbatical, studying towards a BEd at Bishop Grosseteste College. This degree was a source of great personal pride: the realisation of an opportunity he had been denied as a young man.

In the late 1980s, Lesley suffered a stroke. Her husband nursed her until her death in 1990. Afterwards he travelled regularly to Spain, where a friend lived, learning the language and exploring the country.

Parkinson's disease eventually ended these travels. Wilfred Atkin died on 17 February, aged 90.

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