Obituary - John Hickey 1924-2009

4th December 2009 at 00:00

Decades after being taught by John Hickey, former pupils were still turning up at his house to mend his roof or carry out odd jobs. Others asked the former headteacher to be godfather to their children, or sent him regular letters, updating him on their careers.

John Dennis Hickey was born in 1924, in the south Wales town of Merthyr Tydfil. From an early age music played a dominant role in his life. His first love was the violin, which he would practise while his father, with cotton-wool in his ears, murmured "that's lovely" at irregular intervals.

After service in the navy during the war, he trained as a teacher. In 1947, he took a job in the West Midlands town of Willenhall. He was not the only south Wales teacher on the staff: he shared a valleys connection with his colleague Patricia England.

The couple married in 1952 and subsequently had seven children. Helen, the eldest, was born in 1954; Paul, the youngest, arrived 16 years later.

On regular visits to Merthyr, Mr Hickey was required to change trains in Abergavenny, walking five miles between two stations. From these cross-town treks was born a love for the town. And so he applied for a post at Our Lady and St Michael's, a local Catholic school for pupils aged four to 14.

At first, he commuted to Abergavenny from Merthyr. On an almost daily basis, when his elderly car failed to start, a willing band of pupil volunteers pushed him down the hill, waving as the car kicked into gear.

Eventually, he and Pat moved to Abergavenny, and he was promoted to deputy head in 1957. With the raising of the school-leaving age, Our Lady became a primary. But Mr Hickey did not lose contact with older pupils. Instead, he spent his out-of-school hours running the local youth club, where participants knew him as "The Chief".

He resigned this chieftainship in 1970, when he was appointed headteacher of St Mary's junior and infants school, in Brynmawr. The commute from Abergavenny, he realised, would compromise his ability to serve the youth club. He had also recently begun to serve as borough councillor, which took up a significant amount of his spare time.

But, as head, he was fully invested in everything that happened at school. When a new building was constructed at St Mary's, he knocked down walls himself, on one occasion assisted only by a local priest and his nine-year-old son Brendan.

In 1981, the headship at Our Lady became vacant. His wife, Pat, had worked at the school since 1961, and had become deputy head in 1972. Now, Mr Hickey took up the headship, and husband and wife formed a joint senior management team.

He was renowned for his strictness, but also for a deep-rooted humanity. "He always apologised when he shouted at you," a former pupil says. On one occasion, a boy turned up late to school, soaked by the pouring rain outside. Mr Hickey upbraided him for his lateness, but punished him by making him stand in the corner by the radiator.

He was also a firm believer in making things happen for children and was so well-connected that it was rare he could not find a specialist teacher to meet a demand.

And, when it came to music, he was a specialist. He regularly oversaw school productions and played lead violin in the town's orchestra: pupils would spot him in the orchestra pit at the local pantomime.

In fact, he had a natural facility with any instrument: he taught himself the piano, and would play the organ during church services. Drinking sessions in the pub would often end in demands for him to sit at the piano and lead a collective sing-song.

He and Pat retired together, in 1989. But Mr Hickey continued to ply his two teacher children for details of their working life, offering advice on what they should and should not do.

And he maintained regular contact with former pupils. Some dropped by to sort out household chores or repairs. Others invited him to dinner, or wrote lengthy letters. His family lost count of how many godchildren he had.

Pat died in 2000. Nine years later, Mr Hickey was diagnosed with lung cancer; he was 85.

John Hickey is survived by his seven children and 16 grandchildren.

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