19th June 2009 at 01:00

Roger Sherriff, who died last month at the age of 86, was the last headmaster of Melville College in Edinburgh, and a significant figure in schools for nearly half a century.

An imposing 6ft 3in, he also embodied characteristics associated with much that is best in education: boundless enthusiasm, intellectual curiosity, a lifelong love of learning and a host of eclectic interests, which he promoted to all whom he taught.

Schooled at The Edinburgh Academy, the son of a schoolmaster there, Roger Sherriff's education was interrupted by the Second World War in which he served in the Royal Air Force. He participated in the Allied advance across Europe from 1944 onwards and, typical of the man, learned and became fluent in Italian and German in the process.

His facility for the mastery of languages and the assimilation of cultures other than his own saw him gain a double first in French and Spanish from Cambridge University after the war. He could also get by in Serbo-Croat and Romanian, and disciplined himself to read novels in his four strongest modern languages, in rotation, throughout his life, in order to retain his fluency in each.

He brought his hunger for broader horizons first to Birkenhead School and then to Leeds Grammar School, where he served as head of modern languages, before a spell at George Watson's College in Edinburgh. In 1962 he became headmaster of Melville College, a boys' school founded in 1832 by a Victorian of great vision, Robert Cunningham, whose interest in languages (one of the founding purposes of the school) was no less or greater than in his multilingual successor.

Roger continued in this role until the successful merger of the school with Daniel Stewart's in 1973. In the newly-formed Daniel Stewart's and Melville College, he served as deputy principal, proving his inestimable worth as a true team man until his retirement in 1982.

As a head, Roger promoted, both by example and his instruction, interest in, commitment to and discipline in learning as the means to success and fulfilment, but he also encouraged a rich enjoyment of life through pupils' exploration of all facets of knowledge, academic, cultural, spiritual and physical.

He would today be regarded as a traditionalist, but he reasoned, with good cause, that annual rituals and traditions were important in providing links with the past and a familiar, secure framework in which a school could change confidently and flourish all the while.

Respected by his staff for his fairness, consistency, joie de vivre, and dry humour, Roger is remembered fondly by many of his former pupils.

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