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Sunday Times STLive By - Chris Barron, 2010-10-17

Obituary : John Ince: Legendary headmaster

John Ince, who has died in Cape Town aged 74, was a teacher and headmaster generations of pupils will never forget. He was associated for almost 60 years with Sacs, where he was enrolled as a boarder at the age of seven and where he began his extraordinary teaching career.

JOHN Ince, who has died in Cape Town aged 74, was a teacher and headmaster generations of pupils will never forget. He was associated for almost 60 years with Sacs, where he was enrolled as a boarder at the age of seven and where he began his extraordinary teaching career.

When the headmastership fell vacant he applied, but was not successful. Instead, he was appointed headmaster of Camps Bay High School in 1977.

Camps Bay was so determined to get him that the school board bypassed the usual, cumbersome bureaucratic procedure with its endless short-listing and vetting by the Education Department. They informed the department that Ince was the man they wanted, and they would settle for nobody else.

It was an inspired choice. Ince turned what had been an unexceptional community school into one of the most sought-after schools in the province.

His pupils worshipped him. He made them believe that their welfare mattered to him more than anything else, and it did.

He found it almost impossible to pass a pupil without greeting him or her by name and seemed always to know everything about them.

There were no second-class children in his eyes. He didn't mind if your passion was surfing, rugby, chess, cricket or beach volley ball, as long as you gave it your all. It didn't really matter to him if you came first or nowhere.

What mattered was that you did your best.

One of his Camps Bay High pupils was the world-record-breaking swimmer Lewis Gordon Pugh.

Sacs rejected him and Pugh has thanked God for it ever since. Pugh's parents, down from Johannesburg, had heard about an inspirational headmaster called John Ince. He saw something Sacs did not, and took Pugh on. It was a life-changing experience for Pugh.

Ince became president of the South African Teachers' Association when he was 48 ,but suffered a crippling stroke soon after and was forced to retire from Camps Bay High in March 1989.

Though never able to use his left arm again, he recovered sufficiently to rejoin Sacs as teacher/counsellor at the junior school where his empathy, boundless energy and passion for teaching continued to change lives around him.

He became executive director of the Old Boys' Union, and built an international network second to few others. He never hesitated to call on his old boys, many his former pupils, for favours, invariably for somebody else. And he never took no for an answer.

He phoned the CEO of a big timber company, saying he'd found him the ideal employee. The CEO, a former pupil, made it clear he had absolutely no vacancies. An hour later Ince was shown into his office with the would-be employee, another Sacs old boy, and wouldn't leave until the CEO gave him a job.

His prodigious memory for faces, names and personal circumstances did sometimes let him down.

He'd phone a frenetically busy former pupil to say there were three things he needed to tell him. An hour later he was still trying to remember what they were. It was a measure of their boundless affection for their old teacher that none of them put the phone down on him.

He once forgot where he had left his poodle. This precipitated a panic-stricken late-night hunt that ended only when he remembered he'd locked it in his office at school.

Ince was a single child, born in the Eastern Cape on May 28 1936, and brought up by his mother, Girlie, who was a formidable influence and took him everywhere on the crossbar of her bicycle. His father deserted them when Ince was too young to remember much about him.

He was educated at the University of Cape Town and St Andrew's University in Edinburgh. In addition to Sacs and Camps Bay, he taught at Dulwich College in London. Ince, who had a quadruple bypass after a heart attack in 2008, is survived by his wife, Correine, and two sons.