Obituary: Gordon Dean 1920-2009

4th September 2009 at 01:00
Adi Bloom

For Gordon Dean, Latin and Greek helped to illuminate the subtleties of the English language, as well as the origins of western culture and civilisation. So the former head of classics believed it was a genuine loss that his subject was ultimately dropped from the mainstream curriculum.

Born in 1920 in Lincolnshire, Mr Dean was one of five children of a GP. After school, he read classics at Cambridge for two years until the Second World War intervened. He enlisted as an officer in the 16th Punjab Regiment, and was mentioned in dispatches for bravery. But this was not something he ever spoke about - he would merely say that he "did this thing on a hill".

In part, this reticence was down to modesty, and in part it was a response to the horror of war. What he saw during his service was overwhelmingly distressing, but it also convinced him of the value of helping others. And so, when he returned to Cambridge, it was with a newfound ambition to teach.

During his training in London, he stayed at the Mary Ward Settlement, where residents were provided with cheap housing in exchange for community service. There he met Rosemary, a hospital social worker; they married in 1948 in Tunbridge Wells, where Mr Dean had found his first teaching post. Two years later, the couple moved to Northampton and Mr Dean took a job at Northampton Grammar School. He was to stay there for many years, and was eventually promoted to head of classics and head of sixth form.

In large part, the decision to remain in Northampton was taken for his family: three daughters and one son were born between 1950 and 1957, and he did not relish the idea of disrupting their lives. He was not an ambitious man and did not crave personal status.

Instead, he had a deep, abiding love for teaching, and for his subject, believing that Latin and ancient Greek could help to uncover layers of meaning within English. His thinking tended towards the philosophical. He enjoyed deciphering what ancient writers were trying to say and often explained to his daughters the shades of meaning within a single Greek word, and the way English translations tended to bypass such subtleties. And he retranslated Greek poetry, attempting to capture nuances that previous translators had missed.

But his subject was doomed. In the mid-1970s, Northampton Grammar became a boys' comprehensive and demand for classics trailed off. So Mr Dean retired at 60, sooner than he might have chosen. Yet the independent sector still needed classics teachers, so he continued to teach, first at a local prep and then at a private school, as well as providing private tuition and coaching reading at a local state primary well into his eighties.

He believed strongly that the young and the old were too often separated from one another, and that this separation led to mutual suspicion. So he did not just read to the pupils, he talked to them about his life and theirs.

Along with such cerebral pursuits, Mr Dean also valued physical activity. He loved roaming in the wilderness and was known for repeatedly dragging his grumbling children on over-lengthy short cuts or through fields of stinging nettles, in the hope of locating a deserted beach. However, a bicycle accident at the age of 87 seriously affected his mobility and hearing difficulties forced him to retire again at the age of 88.

Nonetheless, he remained intellectually active, happily debating religion, politics and social issues. And, poker-faced at the Scrabble board, he attempted to convince opponents that fabricated words genuinely existed.

As age caught up with him, however, he struggled increasingly with respiratory problems until finally, at the age of 89, he succumbed to pneumonia.

Mr Dean is survived by his wife, Rosemary, his four children and his eight grandchildren.

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