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Published: September 28th 2021
I have just learned of the untimely death of Mike Beal from cancer. Apparently, he died two or three years ago. He must have been no more than 65. Here are my memories of him.
Mike joined the staff of Old Swinford Hospital in 1976 to teach Science. His predecessor in the Science Department was Bob Boutland. It was my second year at OSH, and L.W. Sheppard was coming to the end of his long reign. Mike was a boarding master with whom I shared duties in Founders Building. He lived in Foster, where Peter Davies held sway, and used to walk over to Founders to do his duties. Later he inhabited the top-floor flat in Founders, before moving to Maybury, where he became Housemaster in 1987. Like me, he was young and in his first teaching job. Like me, it took Mike a while to find his feet and get a grip on the often unruly boys.
Unlike me, who stayed for 10 years, 7 of them in boarding (‘boardingdom’ I used to call it), Mike stayed at OSH for his entire teaching career, as a boarding master from start to finish. I have written elsewhere about how
glad I am to have escaped from OSH, which had a habit of wrapping its tentacles around many a teacher and not letting go. Ray Milner and Peter Davies spring to mind in this respect. However, horses for courses: I had the wanderlust and wanted to live overseas, whereas Mike was obviously happy to stay put at OSH.
Mike and I were poles apart in terms of interests, except for two things: rugby and folk music. I didn’t play rugby but followed the international game. I remember being mad at Mike at one of the staff quizzes for not letting me answer a rugby question when he knew only half the answer. The question was: who had captained and who had coached the British Lions in South Africa in 1974? Mike knew the answer to the first part, because Willie John McBride was one of his heroes; however, he did not know that the coach was Syd Millar. That cost our team a point.
After I discovered that Mike was a fellow folkie, we started going to the Woodman Folk Club in Kingswinford. The folk night was mid-week and broke the monotony of boarding school life. We used
to catch the Wolverhampton bus, walk to the Woodman, enjoy the music and the Banks’s bitter, before taking a late bus back to Stourbridge. I was never very close to Mike, but those weekly outings were the closest we came to being best buddies.
Apart from our excursions to the Woodman, Mike and I went drinking in Stourbridge – to The Bird in Hand, a Banks’s pub on Hagley Road, and sometimes further afield. Mike was not a real ale fanatic, as I was, and used to patronize the pub closest to OSH, The Shrubbery Cottage on Heath Lane, which I avoided because the beer was horrible pressurized M&B. Anyway, we both enjoyed the occasional tipple and chinwag. The talk would often be about school matters. I remember once, at the Bird in Hand, Mike and I were joking about slippering naughty boys, and some young women overhearing us took exception to our remarks. And I will never forget drowning my sorrows in The Bird in Hand after the disastrous first night of the school play I was directing: ‘Breaking Point
’. Mike was there with me, along with Bob Wood, my Head of English. Both of them were sympathetic,
Bob Wood even saying the performance had been “quite good
” - a classic case of damning with faint praise.
Mike and I both fancied the pretty young nurse, Vicky East, who lived in the top-floor Founders flat. We took turns at being alone with her, but neither of us got very far because the resident Lothario, Laurie Benge, wooed and won her. He had a car, which gave him a decided advantage over myself and Mike. I am happy that Mike eventually got married and led a semi-natural life, unlike all those old bachelor boarding masters who were married to OSH: Spud Bartlett, Griff Bradley, Peter Davies (to name but three). If you are wondering why I describe Mike’s married life as ‘semi-natural’, it is because a) being a boarding master ate into his free time after lessons b) working every Saturday morning meant that long weekends were impossible c) living in an all-male environment without girls to teach was unnatural. The financial benefits of being a boarding master at OSH did not, in my opinion, compensate for the loss of freedom.
Mike was a huge lumbering bearded man, whom the boys christened ‘Honey Monster’, after the cartoon character advertising breakfast cereal on TV during the late 70’s. We all had nicknames – mine was ‘Paddy’ – and ‘Honey Monster’ was actually quite apt, I thought. However, despite his size and his reputation as a fearsome slipperer, Mike was a gentle and good-natured soul.
Mike’s extracurricular school activity was coaching rugby and, later, sailing. I never attended the rugby dinner where Mike gave his first speech, but I remember Denis Haggett saying that he had spoken very well. He was not subtle in his use of language, but he had a youthful zest and plenty of anecdotes. One anecdote, which Mike repeated ad nauseam, was a quotation from his granny, who used to say: “Anyone south of the Humber or north of the Tweed is a barbarian
” (or something similar). Mike hailed from a village in Yorkshire, from the same area as Lance Naylor, another OSH stalwart.
Mike made a name for himself by introducing sailing as an OSH extracurricular activity. I remember a notice from Mike re sailing on the staffroom notice board. Dave Griffiths, who taught Rural Science, wrote on it: ‘Beal’s Boating Bonanza
’, which made us all laugh but made Mike furious.
Mike retired circa 2011, I think, after 35 years at OSH. I am surprised not to have heard about his death until yesterday (September 26th
2021). I came across a comment from Richard Ellis on the OSH Alumni website, next to a photo of Mike and Philip Hildesley (whose death I already knew about), saying that Mike had had a very short retirement before dying. I wrote to Richard Ellis, who replied that Mike had died of ‘aggressive cancer’.
I remember the death of Ray Milner, some years back, being a big OSH event, and I wonder if Mike Beal’s death – sadder than Ray’s, because Ray had a good long innings - received similar treatment. To have given 35 years of your life to one school is remarkable. I hope he was honoured with at least a speech. There should be something named after Mike – a boat, for instance, or a sailing trophy or a rugby cup.
As I say, I was not very close to Mike, but he was a good teacher and a good man.
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