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The wonderful life and times of Ron Spathaky

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A FORMER French teacher at Portadown College, Ronald Victor (Ron) Spathaky has died at the age of 98 - he passed away peacefully in his sleep in a care home in the village of Burwell, Cambridgeshire.

Mr Spathaky packed a wide range of activities into his long life, including six years at Portadown College (1950-56) when it was at Bann House in Bridge Street and Donald Woodman was Headmaster.

Few at the College will realise what an exciting life he led - his war record, the fact that he married his wife Kath in secret during a lunch break and they went back to work. And recently his son Michael hit the headlines when - having been widowed - he married his old Portadown College girlfriend Marian Mitchell in 2007.

A devoted son, and a proud to have been a student at Portadown College, Michael has written the following tribute to his father, who was quite a character -

Ronald Victor Spathaky was a French teacher at Portadown College in the early 1950s. He was a poet, polyglot, yogi, French teacher, advocate of Steiner, pioneer of Interlingua, romantic, philosopher, loving husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

He was born on November 22, 1914, in Cardiff. His parents were Clara, a professional pianist who played for the silent films, and Albert Spathaky, a cinema manager.

The family left Cardiff when he was about eleven and Albert’s work took them to different locations in rapid succession. Ron talked about the Gower Peninsula, High Wycombe, Cromer and Sheffield. When his parents moved yet again, from Sheffield to Warrington, he lodged at a friend’s house so that he could could continue in the Sixth Form at Nether Edge Grammar School. He showed academic prowess across the board and developed an interest in left-wing politics.

He excelled at sport, becoming Victor Ludorum for two years in a row. In one school holiday he cycled from his parents’ home in Warrington to Paris and back. He went on to read French and English at Sheffield University spending several months of his degree course at the Sorbonne University in Paris. As a result even French people have described his French accent as “impeccable.” He served a sabbatical year as president of the Sheffield Students’ Union.

Ron’s first teaching post was in Brighton where he was soon mixing with local left-wing activists including the Cree family who were from Sheffield themselves. They were prominent in the Co- operative movement in Brighton. Here he met Kath Cree who was just eighteen years old and he became a lodger in the Cree household.

Kath was a pharmacy student at Brighton Technical College, undertaking the three-year apprenticeship at Boots the Chemist. She and Ron were married in Brighton Register Office during their lunch break on 21 December 1937. The was no fuss - no parents or photographers were present - and they both went back to work in the afternoon. Secrecy was essential as female pharmacy students were not allowed to be married. I guess that Ron’s intellectual idealism found a foil in Kath’s working-class realism. The College authorities found out Kath was married during her final year and she was banned from attending lectures. However she was able to take her finals, in a bomb-blitzed building in London,and became a qualified pharmacist. Their first child, Michael, was born in 1942.

Ron served in the 8th Army in World War II, teaching languages in the Parachute Regiment. He served in Normandy, across North Africa from Morocco to Egypt and in Palestine, ending the war as a Captain. He was demobbed in 1946 and Mike, then not quite four years old, remembers walking with his Mum down Hangleton Road, Hove, to meet his Dad, a tall figure in black boots and khaki uniform.

Jean was born in April 1946 and a few months later the family moved to Smethwick, near Birmingham, where Dad had taken a teaching post. After four years Mum and Dad started applying for jobs far and wide, eventually in 1950 landing a post teaching French at Portadown College, a grammar school in Northern Ireland.

They lived at first in a small farm cottage at Ballinagone and then in a new house off Killicomaine Road. Ron threw himself into the life of the school and community. He was not just a French teacher; he supported the debating society and school sports, oversaw the production of the school magazine, acted as business manager for school plays and introduced ballroom dancing classes.

He helped to organise school trips to France and Germany. In the town he acted in amateur drama productions and became recognisable driving his Norton 500 motorbike with its large Swallow two-seater sidecar. He and Kath followed their love of the countryside by taking Michael and Jean out at weekends on picnics in the Mourne Mountains or to the coast near Newcastle. In 1954 their third child David was born. The family remember their time in Ireland as a happy one, mainly because the College was such a friendly community under the leadership of Headmaster Donald Woodman. Donald and Flora Woodman became Ron and Kath’s warm friends, Kath and Flora continuing to correspond for fifty years.

Portadown College in that period (1950-56) was in Bridge Street by the River Bann and many pupils of have fond memories of “Mr Spathaky.” Margaret Page of Cowra, New South Wales, remembers travelling home in the sidecar of his motorbike one wet afternoon when she had stayed behind after school. Michael Gordon remembers, “a very fine man who kindled my interest in languages from the age of 11.” Don Anderson says, “He was a splendid and inspirational teacher with an original mind.”

In 2005 Gloria Hunniford recalled that Ron Spathaky taught her to dance at Portadown College. “He was a wonderful teacher and a superb dancer,” she said, “It was like riding a bike and it all came back to me for the TV series (Strictly Come Dancing).” He taught French to Olive Mitchell (now Bright) for the whole of his six years there and she studied it later at College in England. Derek Walker remembers Ron Spathaky’s support of the Debating Society and “how debating in PC had given me confidence.” Stanley Robinson wrote, “I remember his class as one I looked forward to - he always seemed to be smiling.”

In 1956 the family returned to England where Ron became Head of Languages at the newly-created Thorpe Grammar School just outside Norwich. He later became Deputy Head Teacher and retired in 1976 after twenty years at the school.

In Norwich Ron and Kath joined the Unitarian Church and later the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). An avid and wide reader Ron was an idealist, always seeking ideas that would promote the betterment of mankind. He became involved in the environmental movement and was Secretary of the Norwich Ecology Party, the forerunner of the Green Party.

Dad had a wide interest in linguistics and was a pioneer of the international language Interlingua. From 1955 to 1960 he was editor of Currero, the official magazine of the Interlingua World Union. He spearheaded the founding the British Interlingua Society in 1956 and was a co-author of the English–Interlingua Dictionary.

He was a poet for almost all his adult life. His pen was particularly active at Christmas and birthdays. In 1994 family members collected over a hundred of his poems and published them as “The Stream Flows On” for his eightieth birthday. The collection can now be found on the Internet. Ron and Kath were enthusiastic caravanners and travellers, both in the UK and abroad, especially in France. After retirement they took on a six-month stint as wardens of a caravan site on the Ile d’Oleron.

In 1993 they moved to Histon near Cambridge to be nearer their daughter Jean. They became regular attenders at the Friends Meeting House at Hartington Grove, Cambridge. Ron maintained good health through regular walking and swimming. He kept his brain active by reading and voluntary tutoring for the University of the Third Age. Age-related macular degeneration slowly affected his sight and by the age of 90 he could no longer read or write, but with the help of friends

who read to him he was still able to prepare his U3A classes. Loss of sight was a difficult burden for one who had loved reading and writing all his life but he bore it stoically and with good humour.

Later they moved to Chesterton and just over a year before his death they took a flat in a Care Home in Burwell, the village where Jean was now living. Ron died peacefully in his sleep. Although frail and with his faculties declining, especially his sight, he had no life-threatening illnesses until an infection laid him low just before Christmas. He will be missed by Kath, their children Michael, Jean and David, his seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, the spouses and partners of these descendants and his many friends.

As he donated his body for medical research Ron will not have a funeral but a memorial service which will be on Saturday February 2 at the Friends’ Meeting House, Hartington Grove, Cambridge.

 
 
 

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