In memory of kindness to the last;Opinion

9th July 1999 at 01:00
The alpha and omega of an intensely sad few months for us at Forres Academy was symbolised in the funeral service for our rector, Alistair Maclachlan, who tragically died on June 19 after a brief and courageous fight against cancer.

Such a premature death, at the age of 53, has left me peering desperately through the prickly hedge of disbelief as I try to make sense of this loss. Searching for a thread of logic is fruitless, and I have in the end to fall back on the wisdom of the Book of Ecclesiastes which says that there is "a time to be born, and a time to die".

But Alistair was no ordinary man and, as a result, no ordinary rector. When news of his terminal illness was first broken to his staff, we could not believe that the final chapter of this exceptional man's history was about to be concluded. A great source of comfort to him was the huge number of letters he received which, I believe, unrestrainedly declared appreciation of his work in our school.

As with all great leaders, I could pay tribute to him by simply listing his achievements (and, believe me, there are many) but bullet points alone cannot contain the sum of his strengths. I am therefore choosing to focus on the human qualities which made everything else that he did possible.

Central to Alistair's leadership was the importance of people and he constantly looked to establish, maintain and improve relationships. His desire for a school founded on respect resulted in an open management style, where real consultation became the norm to the extent that colleagues in other schools commented and wondered how he achieved it.

In fact, such was his reputation that the weekend after his illness was first diagnosed, it took me more than two hours to go round my local supermarket because I met so many people who wanted to know how he was.

One of the accolades paid to Alistair at his funeral service was the fact that he came across as "a really ordinary guy". He had a capacity to communicate on a truly human level and yet was also referred to as "one of the leading educationists of his generation".

Installing transparent glass in his office door was one of many steps he took to emphasise his availability to us. I treasure many delightful memories of exchanges within that office. No one worked harder than Alistair but he always made time for people - demonstrating his wicked sense of humour and of course generating and sharing ideas. As our deputy head said, "he was at his most dangerous after two hours on a train with his laptop!" Yet he was free from arrogance and his disposition was one of equilibrium and dignity. That dignity was never more apparent than in the way he faced death. He was open about the cancer that would eventually defeat him. Conversing with him after his diagnosis took on a new poignancy as it became increasingly clear that he would not see the end result of many of his ideas and what struck me over and over again was how he worked so selflessly for his pupils, so many of whom attended his funeral - sad and pale but showing respect to the man who had always respected them.

Three days before his death, the Forres Academy staff spent some time with Alistair and his wife in his garden. For one last time he spoke to us and thanked us for what we had been to him. The sun was shining as we heard our rector wish us, as he always did, a peaceful and happy holiday. I said my goodbyes that day knowing that I would not see him again and, along with others, I wept for him, his wife and family and, selfishly for myself, as I thought of the school without him.

Later, reflecting on Alistair's influence on me, I read the words of Boswell: "We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is a last drop which makes it run over, so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over." I will always remember Alistair Maclachlan for his series of kindnesses.

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