Remembering the old school days - Brigadier Brian McMahon

By Brian McMahon | Posted: Tuesday July 31, 2018

I was very fortunate that an accident of birth had me born in Dunedin in 1929 in Nurse Rosss maternity home on the corner of Elm Row & Arthur Street, just 300-meters from the OBHS memorial gate.

This ‘accident’ enabled me to have a good OBHS education, to attend the Otago Medical School, and to eventually graduate. As a result I have been able to enjoy the great privilege of membership of two of the greatest of international clubs. The first, the profession of medicine that gave me such privileged entry to the second, the profession of arms.

I write as your recently retired Life Governor, a post that I was given by the Old Boys’ Association on the death of the Very Rev. Dr. Jack Somerville ONZ, CMG, MC in October 1999. I had already been Rev Jack’s deputy for several years and he had instructed me well in my duties.

Jack attended OBHS from 1925-28. He was Moderator of the General Assembly 1960-61 and Pro-Chancellor of the University of Otago 1970 to 1976, becoming Chancellor from 1977 to 1982. He was also a much-loved Master of Knox College at a time when two of my student sons lived there.

We often spoke about the place education and its institutions occupied as the means by which leadership in the community is stimulated and directed. Education is centered above all on the fact that institutions such as Otago Boys’ High School and Otago University are for people, for understanding, for enlightenment and for truth.’

I was a pupil at OBHS from 1943 to 1947.

These were the Kidson years and spanned the critical WW2 years and their immediate aftermath. The naivety of teenagers had many of us who were high school boys in the 1940’s hoping that the war would not be over before we had our chance to join. This anxiety had nothing to do with patriotism, but was all about our perception of the opportunity for adventure, all in the face of the regular morning assembly announcements by the rector of the names of Old Boys who had been killed, wounded or taken POW.

Visits to the school by such distinguished Old Boys as ACM Sir Keith Park of Battle of Britain fame, Lindsay Rogers the guerilla surgeon, Dr.X of Yugoslavia fame and Charlie Saxton the All Black and member of the Long Range Desert Group in 1946, only served to enhance our disappointment.

I can remember quite well the individual boys who were the ‘good’ Prefects in my time, just as I am sure that you can. Mine from as long ago as 1943, and I have to say too, that many of them were the role models for me that were so lacking in the Staff at that time. Names such as Ted McCoy, Bob Fraser, Ted Lovett, Watson Barkman, Colin McIntosh and Nigel McPherson come to mind, nor will I ever forget my classmate Jack Chin’s oration on the life of Sun Yat Sen, that won him the Oratory prize for that year, the Wilfred Simmenauer rendition of Finlandier on his cello, and the Warsaw concerto played on piano by Ray Windsor.

Bullying or ‘social unkindness’ using the new PC language, has always been an issue in all parts of society, and of course our own OBHS was no exception. Not too long ago I spoke to one of my former classmates and suggested that he write down the name of the school bully he remembered from our school days, and I would do the same. 70 years after leaving school we both wrote down the same name, and of course I won’t divulge that name.

OBHS encouraged us to have ambitions and I am sure that most of us were ambitious.

I once heard Lord Cobham our Governor General in the 1960’s say that without a measure of honourable ambition few young men are likely to do great things. Etymology can give the clue to social trends, and just how the meaning of the word has changed.

Originally it meant a horizon coming as it did from the word ambit.

Then Shakespeare has Brutus justifying the murder of Julius Caesar by saying that he was ambitious:

“As he was valiant I honour him

But as he was ambitious I slew him.”

The Oxford Dictionary in 1607 defined ambition as, “the strong desire to anything creditable.”

A few years later it acquired the meaning, “ostentation or state of pride.”

The present edition of the Oxford Dictionary defines the word as, “the eager or inordinate desire for honour or preferment.”

Not too many of us would be keen to accept that definition in regard to ourselves these days, and of course our ambitions did change with the years. Young boys think about being Train drivers, Firemen, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, then as we get older ambition may have directed us towards law, medicine, dentistry, commerce, the church, teaching, or even just a job! OBHS was well placed to foster our ambitions.

I spent more than half of my working life in the Army, and it was that experience that gave me some insights as to what it must have been like for a young country boy to find himself thrust into a dormitory full of strangers, and into a school where there were more boys than he had ever seen in his life. I certainly appreciated the description of his early days at Campbell House, which was so eloquently given by Walter Rutherford at a mini reunion held in Alexandra in May 1998. The message was clear, life was not easy, nor was it comfortable. Yet, most of the boys survived to acquire an education. They also acquired other less tangible things that were equally important and long lasting. Making friends, learning to live a community life, retaining individuality, yet moulding it to harmonise with others. Somehow we had to learn how to accept success with modesty, and defeat and failure with good grace.

My contemporaries will remember that Rector Kidson did not approve of over ostentatious expressions of joy at a sporting victory. He said that we should ‘glow inwardly’.

It was important to understand that self-discipline must be part and parcel of self-expression for the maintenance of good health of mind and body. All too often these days it appears that many individuals seem to believe that they have the unlimited right to change their behaviour, the moment that they have changed their minds.

I see that the purpose of a school such as our own OBHS is to educate young men so that they may cope with the here and now. It also has the duty to make them worth educating for the rest of their lives. Knowledge should never be an end in itself; it is merely the key that unlocks the door to understanding.

I need to mention that very special part of our school, variously named over the years as the Rectory, Campbell House and School House. I was never a House Boy, but I did have a close association with a number of them as a result of regular visits to an Uncle who lived in Central Otago. They were a very cohesive and loyal group.

There is a real need for all of us to know more about the ways, in which our friends work and play.

This gives us the understanding and appreciation so that we can seek opportunities for the cooperation, which is so essential for community living. The Boarding House in particular provided a focal point for the acquisition of such knowledge. God evidently didn’t believe that all of us should be rich, powerful or famous, but I do believe that he did intend that we should all be friends.

In 1978 while I was posted to Singapore two of my sons spent 1978 and 1979 at the School House and in recent years, 2009-2013, two of my grandsons who lived close by the Boarding House established a similar rapport with the House Boys, much as I did 75 years ago.

When I began to think about our teachers I recalled with both clarity, and a real sense of embarrassment, that as a 17-year-old adolescent schoolboy I was rather stupid, confused, insecure and indecisive. Then by age 40 I felt that I had become quite wise, more prepossessing, self confident and assertive.

But by age 65, I was once again just a tad stupid, confused, insecure and indecisive. It seems such a pity that maturity should have only occupied such a short break in my adolescence, and even worse, that the boon of youthful vigour should all be wasted on the young!

Perhaps then the behaviour of some staff members of my time can be explained in a similar way!

My feeling about Teaching these days is that it is a profession that in general, tends to be grudgingly recognised and inadequately rewarded.

Dealing with human material is always difficult and fraught. Any of the teachers’ foibles and emotions will never escape the sharp eyes of young students that face the teacher day on day.

During the war years many of our teachers were old men well past their prime and would have been long retired if war hadn’t intervened.

There were very few staff member role models for young boys among them at that time in the School’s History. There were exceptions of course, and things certainly began to change in 1946 and 47 with the return of our men from the war.

A sense of humour is essential if the teacher is to survive. Some of the old men who taught me probably once had such a sense, but by the time I, and my classmates faced up, that sense had largely withered and died from overuse!

Stan Botting a WW1 veteran was a man who engaged in significant community voluntary work outside of school, becoming president of the NZ Rugby Union.

Yet he was a bully in the truest sense of the word, and using his bizarre teaching tool of ‘rounds’ he was able to go year on year just repeating more of the same. Mick Watt had earned an MC for bravery in WW1 and I suspect that he too didn’t ever revise his lesson plans during his last few years. In mid morning his main job seemed to get the kettle boiled for the staff morning tea!

His brother Arthur ‘Dreamy’ Watt had been a man of outstanding scholarship, but the onset of deafness and even a touch of dementia meant that most of us didn’t gain too much from his French classes. The Rev. John ‘Blobs’ Anderson simply read from Holmyard inorganic chemistry text, and on our entry to Stage One Chemistry at OU we quickly realised just how deficient his teaching had been.

However when speaking of the teaching staff from the 1940’s I am conscious of the aphorism taken on board from Bill Laing who introduced me to Latin, and as result made me much more interested in English, my own native language.

‘De mortuis nihil nisi bonum’. Of the dead nothing but good.

Then there was Dr Keith Sheen. How fortunate we were that the Humanities departments at Universities hadn’t expanded, where talents such as his would now be in high demand. He was a quietly spoken gentleman who taught in a student friendly Socratic style

You may well gather that I don’t believe that I was much influenced by my teachers at OBHS, my influences came as I have already said at the hands of my fellow schoolboys, and from the mentoring by some of my more senior school friends.

Yet I have to qualify that statement by saying that it was Rector HP Kidson who had the most profound influence on my life, and he still does. Not from my schooldays though. In those days I made conscious efforts to avoid contact with him. One never wished to come to the attention of Rector Kidson for whatever reason! At that time he was just a stern, austere man who rarely, if ever smiled. My recognition of his outstanding character came much later.

He retired in 1947 and moved to Wanaka where he lived with his second wife. His first wife had died during WW2. He lived there in genteel penury in the beautiful stone cottage that he built at Beacon Point.

In 1962 he became my patient when I was the doctor at the Cromwell Hospital. Another OBHS Old Boy, Victor Pearse, who was at that time a Senior Surgeon at Dunedin Hospital, referred him to me. I had been his House Surgeon in 1954. In short Victor had told him that his Central Otago based Old Boys, Brian Hay and myself, would take care of him. As a result of the referral I performed two operative procedures recommended by Victor, with Brian as the Anaesthetist. During his inpatient treatment we became friends, and I realised for the first time just how badly I had misjudged this unique man, and what a bonus it was to belatedly come to know him.

However the point of this anecdote is that when I decided to leave Cromwell in 1966 to join the regular Army and to become the RMO of our NZ Infantry Battalion in Malaysia, Bob Fraser, who had been one of his favourite and outstanding Head boys, and I, spent an afternoon at Mr Kidson’s cottage in Wanaka with him saying goodbye.

McMahon he said, ‘would you promise to do two things or me’, ‘Yes Sir’ I said.

‘I would like you to promise me that you will keep a daily diary, and that you will write to me from time to time’.

I still keep that diary, and how I wish that he had put the same proposition to me in 1947. Of course I may have ignored the request at that time!

We exchanged letters on a monthly schedule for several years, more frequently when I was serving in Malaysia and Viet Nam. Then when he had his stroke his wife wrote to me and said that while he couldn’t now write he could still speak well and that she would take his dictation, and our contact continued.

His letters would always begin, ‘Dear McMahon, and mine, Dear Sir’.

Finally a letter came from an OBHS classmate, Rev. Archdeacon Bernard Wilkinson in April of 1971, at that time the Vicar of the Upper Clutha Parish, informing me that my old Rector was dead and that he had buried him at a private cremation service in Dunedin attended by some 24 mourners including the then Rector, Head Boy, and President of the Old Boys’ Association.

Although the passage of time has dimmed my memory I believe that my thoughts as I write, are not too dissimilar from that day in October 1999 when I was promoted from deputy to become the Life Governor of my school

The convention of the day seems to suggest that one should feel humble when one is honoured by elevation to the post of Life Governor of one’s old school. However I have to be honest and confess to being guilty of the sin of pride.

It is impossible to live in Dunedin and not be aware of the Otago Boys’ High School every day, occupying as it does, the high ground above the city. I will remain ever grateful to my high school that set me so firmly on the path that has allowed me to enjoy a satisfying life in my chosen professions.

It is this gratitude that encourages me to support the ongoing endeavors of my old school.