Obituary - Mike Matthews 1945-2011

3rd June 2011 at 01:00

Most of Mike Matthews' colleagues and pupils remember his competitive streak: his love of football, pub quizzes and Grand National sweepstakes. But the Devon primary teacher was also a man of quiet patience, keen to nurture those pupils for whom academic or sporting success seemed an unachievable goal.

Michael John Matthews was born in Dartmoor in August 1945. From early childhood he was incorrigibly competitive, playing football, cricket and any other sport with a team to join. It was the teamwork that particularly appealed: as friends pointed out, he was a lifelong West Brom fan, so it could hardly have been the winning that mattered.

But teenage Mike was not merely interested in sport. He played guitar and enjoyed English and maths lessons. Primary teaching, therefore, was a way to combine these eclectic interests. And so he enrolled in a teacher-training degree at St Luke's, part of Exeter University.

As students, he and three friends set up a pop group, the Dancettes, modelled on the Beatles. They toured the local area, attracting a devoted band of groupies. One of these, Valerie Cheriton, struck up a conversation with the lead guitarist after a gig; they married in 1968.

Realising, however, that he was unlikely to match the Beatles' level of success, Mr Matthews took a job at Balksbury primary in Andover, in 1967. Here, his love for sport became immediately apparent. The instant the sun was shining, he would lay down pen and paper, pick up a bat and ball, and lead the children outdoors. Similarly, he was often in the playground at breaktimes, instigating games of football or rounders. It was no surprise to colleagues that he managed to maintain a year-round suntan.

While at Balksbury, Mr Matthews became father to three sons: Paul, in 1970, Mark two years later, and Steve one year after that. With a young family, he and Valerie were keen to move closer to their parents, and so he took a job at Barton primary in Torbay.

Bounding into the classroom with a twinkle in his eye, he brought sport into almost everything he did. His assemblies were invariably about football and, notoriously, he once insisted that all lessons stop so that the entire school could watch a World Cup match.

But his sporting interests were diverse: he also taught children to dosey-doe during country-dancing lessons. "The best country dancers were footballers," he would say, spurring a sudden surge of interest among the boys.

In the staffroom, too, he organised a sweepstake for any and every sporting event: the World Cup, but also the Grand National and Wimbledon. And he was invariably good-humoured. Every utterance offered potential for wordplay: if a colleague mentioned trees, for example, he might respond with: "Teresa Green?"

His new school served a relatively disadvantaged area, and many pupils had special educational needs. Mr Matthews proved himself naturally unflappable: he enjoyed the challenge of helping volatile pupils, and saw himself as a second father to them. He insisted in seeing the best in all of them. Through Mr Matthews' encouragement, for example, one pupil in his remedial reading group went on to play professional football.

He coached sport not only at Barton, but also throughout the Torbay area. Sport, he felt, should be fresh and interesting: he would regularly invent new games to be played alongside longer-established disciplines.

When the local cub-scout troupe was disbanded, Mr Matthews stepped in and, with several volunteer parents, set up a youth-group called "The Planets". As "Saturn", he organised regular weekend trips to Dartmoor, persuading participating children to hide in the boot of the car to keep entry fees down.

In 2000, Valerie died from breast cancer. Ten months later, Paul suddenly developed septicaemia and died. Devastated, Mr Matthews decided to take early retirement. But, after 30 years at Barton, he could not give up his involvement: he became school governor, and later chair of governors. He also continued to run sports days and to hold quizzes for staff.

Indeed, he retained his own competitive streak, competing in regular pub quizzes at his local, the Devon Dumpling. Though he no longer played football, he continued to play in a businessmen's cricket team. And he took up golf, thriving on his regular wins.

Few who saw him on the links would have known that he was ill. In fact, he had contracted stomach cancer three years ago. He died at the beginning of May; the Test Match Special theme tune was played at his funeral.

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