Obituary - Jim Tolman 1953-2010

11th June 2010 at 01:00

To his pupils, he was variously The Hoff, Mr T, Jimbo or The Tolmanator, best known for his ability to be frank about life, rugby and his fondness for pints and fry-ups.

But Jim Tolman was also the teacher to whom pupils unfailingly turned whenever they needed advice, support or inspiration.

Born in Bristol in May 1953, James Tolman developed his lifelong passion for sport while attending Colston's School. Before he had finished his A-levels, he was already playing for the Old Colstonians rugby club.

"Sport was his life," his friends say. It was because of its sporting reputation that he chose to study at Loughborough University, and it was in order to pass on his love of sport that he became a PE teacher afterwards. In his prime, he played rugby for Bristol. He also played rugby for his university team, and cricket for local clubs.

After graduating, he took a job at Portway School, later Oasis Academy Brightstowe. The school, near Bristol's docklands, serves a large council estate. But Mr Tolman enjoyed working with challenging pupils: while PE colleagues fretted about forgotten games kits and overlooked instructions, he displayed infinite patience and unflappability.

He regularly volunteered to teach the lowest-ability groups. Similarly, when pupils suffered bereavements or family difficulties, he would liaise with parents and pay condolence visits to their homes. Teenagers who had been fighting irreconcilably with their mother or father would talk to Mr Tolman, and suddenly see their parents' point of view. Disruptive pupils would emerge significantly calmer after a chat with him.

"All right, Jimbo?" pupils would greet him in the corridor. He was The Hoff because of his love of swimming; he was Mr T because of his physical presence; he was The Tolmanator for much the same reason. One boy, completing an English creative writing exercise about an inspirational figure in his life, referred to Mr Tolman as "the old git". Several other pupils, choosing to write about him for the same exercise, used purely complimentary terms.

And they all knew when to call him "Mr Tolman": their informality was born out of genuine respect. When he addressed an assembly, pupils hung on his every word. He grounded pedagogy in real life: lessons would often begin with an anecdote from his rugby-playing days. He would, for example, teach about sports diets by contrasting athletes' protein-rich regimes with the pints and fry-ups he used to enjoy after a game.

Both pupils and teachers saw him as the granddad of the PE department, a surrogate father for those without. Younger colleagues regularly dropped by his office: a few minutes talking to him would help them see the brighter side of a bad day. "When you're all going 'aargh', he just listens, he's just there," a fellow PE teacher said.

His likeability took him far. A favourite with staff working on reception, he regularly handed them scrawled, handwritten notes. These were invariably transformed into neatly typed letters by the end of the day.

Out of school, too, his reputation preceded him. When the local council built a youth sports centre, it was Mr Tolman they turned to for advice.

He continued to play for the Old Colstonians throughout his life, eventually chalking up more than 750 appearances for the club. Referees who did not know his name were clearly new to Bristol: he spent every game telling them - usually correctly - where they had gone wrong. Most dreaded being cornered by him after a match. Not so the players: with sufficient lubrication, he would regale them all with bawdy rugby songs.

Eventually, he was promoted to assistant head at Oasis Academy. The head valued his decades of experience at the school and regularly sought his advice on strategies that had succeeded or failed in the past. As always, though, he mixed responsibility with irreverence. "They all just talk about their weight," he used to complain, after meetings with the all-female leadership team.

Kidney cancer forced him to stop coming to school in November, but he insisted that he would eventually return. And, until the end, he attended every Old Colstonians match.

Jim Tolman died on May 18. He is survived by his wife, Jan, and his children, Joe and Katie.

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