Plied with politics

13th February 1998 at 00:00
Donald Hughes was headmaster of Rydal school in Colwyn Bay, a single-sex boarding school I was sent to at the age of 13. In those days Rydal school drew a large proportion of its students from North-west England; only a small minority of us were Welsh.

Most of my generation at Rydal would agree that Donald Hughes was the person they respected the most. He wasn't distant, like some headmasters; he was a very warm personality.

The school had fewer than 300 students, so it was possible for the headmaster to know all the pupils and to take an active interest. He had a very analytical mind and he was interested in politics. I was a blossoming Plaid Cymru supporter even then; he was a Liberal, so we had a number of lively arguments.

Rydal school was a Wesleyian foundation, and Donald Hughes had strong religious convictions. The school also had a strong sporting tradition, particularly in rugby. I was not a good rugby player; I was too slow to be a back, and too small to be a forward.

But I was very keen on soccer. Although Mr Hughes disagreed with my sporting preference, he would arrange for us to play. It was more important to him to see somebody doing something they enjoyed than to have their interest throttled because it didn't fit into the mainstream.

He was tall and slightly spindly, with grey hair. He had a gentle manner; in many ways he was a classical gentleman.

He created standards that people wanted to respond to. There was no corporal punishment at Rydal; he didn't need it to maintain discipline. I think it's better if standards can be created by personal influence and not by "Do as I say, not as I do".

It was in the sixth form that he had most influence on me. I can remember him talking about the need to think logically to a conclusion. At that time I was playing around with political ideas, something he encouraged. He would gently chide me and pull my leg, and force me to argue my case. I remember being ill with flu in the sanatorium - he visited me and started arguing, just to test how ill I was.

Donald Hughes was a housemaster as well as headmaster, and for Sunday teatime he would invite half a dozen or so pupils to his house to hear a guest speaker. On one occasion the guest was the late George Thomas, who went on to become speaker of the House of Commons. I think I was invited to have a go at George. I asked him why he didn't support the campaign for a Welsh parliament, and I remember him sitting up sharply and looking at me in a way he would do many times afterwards and saying, "My boy, we have a parliament already".

One case gives an insight into Donald Hughes's personality. There was a fellow in the same year as me from West Africa called Tommy Fletcher, whose education Mr Hughes had personally helped to finance.

Tommy became captain of rugby and head boy; at that time for a school like that to have a black boy as head boy was very unusual and raised a few eyebrows among the more reactionary parents. But the fact that Donald Hughes went out of his way to help Tommy showed his genuine liberalism in action.

He was killed in a car accident a few years after I left the school. A book about him was pubished by the school as a memorial tribute. Whenever I talk with my contemporaries it is never very long before his name comes up.

Dafydd Wigley is leader of Plaid Cymru and Member of Parliament for Caernarfon. He was talking to Harvey McGavin

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