Obituary - John Macrae

7th January 2011 at 00:00


When John Macrae first walked down the corridors of Borden Grammar, at the age of 11, he had little idea that he would still be pacing those same corridors half a century later. In total, the physics teacher spent 44 years at the Kent grammar: seven as pupil and 37 as teacher.

John Macrae was born in 1941. As a schoolboy at Borden, he was taught by George Dawkins, the charismatic head of physics. Mr Dawkins inspired in his young charge not only a keen love of the subject, but also a desire to teach.

Mr Macrae did leave Borden briefly, studying physics at Reading University, followed by a short spell working as a physics teacher at Maidstone Grammar. Then, in 1964, George Dawkins resigned. Within two years of becoming a teacher, Mr Macrae was back at his alma mater, this time as head of physics. He would not leave again until he retired.

He was, colleagues felt, a natural teacher. There was the fondness for tweed jackets with leather elbow-patches, and the ease with which he took to his nickname, "Kipper Macrae". But he also exuded calm affability in the classroom: there was no doubt that this was where he belonged.

His manner was often informal: he would, for example, explain that, when an atom of uranium is split by a neutron, the product is fission chips. On another occasion, he persuaded a teenage pupil to verify Newton's law of cooling in front of an open window in winter.

But there was no doubt that he cared deeply about the boys and their schooling. He regularly offered extra-curricular coaching in maths, and was particularly keen to help brighter boys make full sense of the curriculum. Teaching was never a drudge for him; instead, he willingly poured all his energy into the job.

Pupils, meanwhile, knew what was expected of them in his classroom and, on the whole, obliged: most genuinely wanted to avoid displeasing "Kipper".

He similarly earned boys' goodwill by setting up an amateur radio club, an off-shoot from the amateur station he ran in his spare time (much to the chagrin of his neighbours, who claimed he was simultaneously scrambling their TV signal). To Mr Macrae, this station was invaluable: he used it to keep in touch with Borden old boys around the world.

It was not the only one of his hobbies to appeal to teenage schoolboys. He had a fondness for Jaguars, and at one point bought TV comedian Ronnie Corbett's second-hand car. When sixth-form boys went for a weekly cycle ride through Kent lanes, Mr Macrae would accompany them in his Jaguar, checking that they had not abandoned their bicycles midway.

He had settled in Sittingbourne with Barbara, who worked for the chief executive of the local council. Together they had two children, Karen and Ian; both children went on to become Borden pupils.

In the 1970s, however, he decided to leave the school, applying for university lectureships in education. Ultimately, though, he could not bring himself to accept any job offers: he was too much the consummate schoolmaster to leave the chalkface. Instead, he was promoted, first to head of science, and later to deputy head. He had a prodigious memory for every Borden boy, new and old - a skill that guaranteed he was always called on to write sixth-formers' university references.

Such was his memory that, when the boy who had been forced to shiver in front of an open window in the interests of Newtonian physics contacted him after 20 years, Mr Macrae upbraided him for only scoring 14 out of 20 in the subsequent test.

Eventually he did retire, in 2001; it pleased him immensely that his successor as head of science was also a Borden old boy.

The decades at Borden were not an anomaly: everything he did, he did with commitment. For example, when his daughter Karen was diagnosed with meningitis, he began working with the borough's local health committee, eventually becoming its chairman. And, in later years, when he developed an interest in his Scottish ancestry, he did so enthusiastically, buying a house north of the border.

Similarly, friends say, he willingly submitted to treatment after treatment following his diagnosis with cancer. This was, however, to no avail. He died this autumn.

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