27th March 2009 at 00:00
Peter Sutcliffe, 1920-2009

It is relatively common for obituaries to report that someone lived a full life. In the case of Peter Sutcliffe, it is true. Before he even embarked on a teaching career that lasted 20 years, Sutcliffe, who died this month at the age of 88, had already worked as an RAF engineer during the Second World War, and as a Colonial Office surveyor, mapping unknown parts of east Africa.

Born in Yorkshire in 1920, he dreamt of being a pilot from a young age. He yearned for the freedom of the open skies and the ability to survey the world from above.

At 15, he enrolled at the RAF school in Buckinghamshire, later taking a certificate in aeronautical engineering. When war broke out, he still hoped to become a pilot. But the RAF needed engineers, so his ambitions were thwarted.

After the war, he returned to studying, reading maths at Manchester University. There he met Beryl, a part-time art student, and they married within months.

In 1949, Sutcliffe began working for the Joint Intelligence Bureau in London. But the job was more mundane than he anticipated and he swiftly moved over to the Colonial Office. This position required a return to university to study in order to qualify as a surveyor, so he enrolled on a gravitational physics course at Cambridge. This was followed, in 1952, by a posting to Kenya, where his job was to chart the country's unmapped extremes.

The couple's first four years were spent in Nairobi, where they had two children, Anne and Christopher. But Christopher was born with a hole in his heart and, despite a trip to London's Great Ormond Street hospital, died in 1956. The family then spent several years in Mombasa, where a second daughter, Julia, was born.

Kenya achieved independence in 1963, and the Sutcliffes decided to return to England. With two children and another on the way, Sutcliffe wanted to find a secure, stable job. His parents had both been teachers, as had his grandfather, so working as a teacher seemed a natural progression: he would be able to use his maths degree and pass on his knowledge to others.

In 1964, he was appointed maths teacher at Queen Elizabeth Grammar in Penrith, Cumbria. His third daughter, Sarah, was born later that year. He relished his new career, regularly choosing to spend his holidays marking exam papers. In 1973, he was appointed head of maths.

He loved the contact with pupils. He always respected teenagers, and they responded in kind. But it was the cockier, naughtier pupils who often made the greatest impression: he would simply say, "We're good friends now."

When he retired in 1984, he was one of the few teachers in school for whom pupils would spontaneously stand whenever he walked into a room.

Since his time with the RAF, Sutcliffe's desire to fly had remained undiminished. So, while teaching at Queen Elizabeth, he trained for a private pilot's licence. The venture proved expensive and he was eventually forced to give up. But in his retirement, without a young family to support, he requalified. He flew regularly, and only quit when he lost the sight in one eye at the age of 85.

Beryl died in 1989, but Sutcliffe maintained close friendships with many former teaching colleagues. He played golf and tennis with fellow teachers, and kept up with others through regular phone calls.

When he lost the sight in his second eye in 2005, he moved to Somerset to be nearer his family. But he remained active and alert. Ever the teacher, he encouraged one of the carers at his old-age home to take an NVQ. And he entertained fellow residents by compiling quizzes. To the last, he believed knowledge was to be shared with others.

Peter Sutcliffe is survived by his three daughters, his half-brother Charles and four grandchildren.

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