Obituary - Ben Dudley, 1956-2010

14th May 2010 at 01:00

When Ben Dudley entered a classroom, it was always with a bang. Occasionally, there would also be a flash, or a whoosh, or a spray of water. But, mostly, there were just good old-fashioned explosions.

However, the science teacher at Bolton St Catherine's Academy was not all show. He was also, for many struggling pupils, a much-needed source of sympathy and understanding.

Ben Dudley was born in 1956, the son of a GP. In later life, he would talk about the patients who returned to his father for treatment after treatment: early on, he resolved never to be in their place. Colleagues do not remember him taking a single sick day.

From an early age, he had a keen love of science: he wanted to understand how the world worked, but also to pass on this knowledge to others. And so, after completing a chemistry degree at Salford University, he took a job as a science teacher at Ducie High School, in Manchester's Moss Side in 1982 (it became Manchester Academy in 2003).

It was at Ducie that he met Wendy, the school bursar who would eventually become his wife.

But he made an impression on other colleagues, too. Many admired his copious subject knowledge: he had not only read Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time but, unlike the majority of its readers, understood it as well.

He also knew that theories alone would not win over pupils: they needed sound and fury. One of his favourite classroom experiments involved mixing sugar with potassium chlorate: the reaction burnt brilliant lilac, exploding with a roaring flame, finally fizzling out with an unmistakable whiff of caramelised sugar.

Pupils warmed to his informal style. Mr Dudley regularly chatted about music with them: "I listen to two types of music," he would say. "Sometimes I listen to Frank Zappa. And sometimes I listen to Captain Beefheart."

Nonetheless, scientific knowledge underpinned all his lessons. Mr Dudley wanted his pupils to understand the role of science in human discovery, why it was vital to study the subject.

In 2004, after 22 years at Ducie, he applied for a job at Withins School (later Bolton St Catherine's Academy), in his home town of Bolton.

He brought his explosive style with him. Before starting at the school, he bought several hydrogen-powered rockets. In front of pupils, and astonished members of staff, he set these off in the playground.

"Ben's Friday tray" quickly became notorious among colleagues: anyone seeking a literal flash of classroom inspiration need only borrow his tray of combustible chemicals.

But there was more to Mr Dudley than explosions. He set up an after-school table tennis club, and entered teams for the Bolton league.

This club was not merely a means of winning trophies: it was also a place for disaffected pupils to find somewhere in school where they, too, could fit in. Teenagers who struggled to form relationships with other staff members tended to find that they had no such problem with Mr Dudley.

One Year 8 boy was repeatedly disruptive in the classroom. But attending the table tennis club, he was disciplined and dedicated. And so Mr Dudley was able to suggest, subtly, that he might want to apply that same discipline and dedication elsewhere.

His social openness was not confined to pupils. While most science colleagues were content to hide behind stereotypes in their departmental staffroom, Mr Dudley forged friendships across the school. Lunchtimes were often spent listening to the cricket with a group of like-minded teachers from different departments.

The table tennis club often kept him at school until 10pm. Nonetheless, he regularly returned home and rustled up elaborate meals: he loved trying out new recipes, often travelling to Manchester to source ingredients. Departmental dinners at the Dudley home were a highlight of the Bolton St Catherine's social calendar.

Given his fondness for late-night, spice-laden meals, no one was particularly surprised when he began to complain of indigestion during the last week of term. But the problem went deeper: on the first day of the Easter holidays, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 54 years old.

Ben Dudley is survived by his wife, Wendy, their three children and three grandchildren.

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