Obituary - Rosemary Clarke, 1954-2013

18th January 2013 at 00:00

Rosemary Clarke was not someone people thought they might have met. If you encountered the director of Bookstart, you always knew it. Frankly, colleagues said, she was a force of nature.

Rosemary Cunningham was born in Liverpool in August 1954. She was, in many ways, the stereotypical Scouser: earthy and straight-speaking. After completing a degree in education studies and sociology at Worcester College of Higher Education, she held a range of jobs, working for the charity Save the Children, running her own wedding floristry business and serving as a lay inspector for Ofsted.

Then, in 1998, she joined reading and writing charity Booktrust. At the time, Booktrust had successfully piloted a small scheme in Birmingham, which gave free books to babies under the age of 12 months. Mrs Clarke's job was to extend this scheme nationally.

From the outset, she proved up to the task. Anyone who met her was left in no doubt as to why babies should be given books, even before they could read. Her passion for the project was unequivocal and immediately infectious. She could walk into a meeting with government or health-care officials and persuade them of the urgent value of her work. She had the same effect on her own colleagues.

Dressed in heels (even the spare pair of shoes she carried would be "comfy heels"), large earrings and silver jewellery, she was an undoubted presence. She spoke to strangers as though she had known them all her life, scattering her conversation with jokes, many of them off-colour.

Such were her levels of energy and dynamism that she was incapable of doing something half-heartedly. When meetings took her team on an overnight visit to London, it was Mrs Clarke who insisted that a long work day should be followed by a ride on the London Eye or an evening at a musical. And her impeccable preparation for meetings often included baking sponge cakes for colleagues.

Baking was her way of relaxing. But she also found satisfaction in creativity. Her desk was well-decorated, with photo- graphs of her grandchildren hung at jaunty angles (though she bridled at the idea that she might be a "typical granny"). Even her mid-meeting doodles were notably artistic.

Eventually, Bookstart expanded, spawning similar schemes for toddlers and older children. It spread not only throughout the UK but also overseas, requiring Mrs Clarke - now Booktrust's director of programmes - to travel to Colombia and Taiwan. Inevitably, she would return from such trips with carefully selected, handmade gifts for colleagues. But there was always more she could be doing: a project for children whose first language was not English, a project for teenagers. In 2010, her consistent efforts were recognised with an MBE.

After a short illness, Rosemary Clarke died on 6 January. She is survived by her husband, Paul, and her children, Paul and Caroline.

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