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News > OBs Remembered > RIP - John B Cook (HM, 73-82)

RIP - John B Cook (HM, 73-82)

A man that always saw the good in his pupils
John B Cook (HM, 73-82)
John B Cook (HM, 73-82)

John Barry Cook: Headmaster, 1973 - 1982

Born 9th May 1940 - Died 1st March 2023

Tribute given by Richard, Su and David

Dad wasn’t convinced about having a eulogy at his funeral. In his last few days, he said ‘Don’t worry about it; just put my CV on the back of the order of service’, or ‘programme’ as he liked to call it. All 3 of us were rather unsure about this, and we spent time persuading him that those present would like to know more about his life. And eventually, we reached the point we are at now, with his blessing. We would like to thank all of you here today most sincerely, as well as those joining us online. Your support is hugely appreciated.

Born on May 9th 1940, at a nursing home in Gloucester, his parents Bert and Rene, were struggling for inspiration for their child’s middle name, so they settled on the name of the doctor who delivered John Barry Cook. He grew up in modest but comfortable surroundings at 29 Merevale Road Gloucester, joined in the family 3 years later by brother Peter. Dad performed well enough at Longlevens Primary School to make it into Sir Thomas Rich’s Grammar School, where he developed his love for science and sport, representing the school’s first teams in rugby, cricket and athletics. His skills had been honed with his brother, turning all available spaces at home into sporting arenas. The final ball of one garden cricket match saw Dad needing a four to win and, winding up for a final flourish, he only succeeded in edging a ball right through the dining room window. This persuaded him that he had a better future as a wicket keeper. On New Year’s Day each year, the family had a conference to decide the destination for that year’s holiday.  Many trips were spent in guest houses at coastal resorts in southern England and Dad always played the role of chief organiser for any children on the beach wanting to join in a game of cricket. They became more adventurous over the years and took several holidays to Europe, including one to Austria. Dad’s 3 words of German somehow convinced a waiter that he was fluent, and the waiter paused for Dad to order for the whole table, but the truth was soon out. The closest Dad ever got to mastering a language unfamiliar to most of us was in the stand known as The Shed at Kingsholm, the home of Gloucester rugby, when he would oooarrr about elver eaters and The Wurzels. Nobody from his family had ever gone to university, so it was with great pride that he set off to King’s College, London to read physics and maths.

Dad was a bit of a Mummy’s boy. Whilst he quickly settled into university life in International Hall, he didn’t want to cut himself off from home comforts entirely and sent his washing back home every week. It was returned clean and ironed, always with a chocolate bar wrapped up inside. He made his mark in the tennis and badminton clubs, whilst doing his best to break the record for the longest ever stay in International Hall (which he believed he still holds). For reasons we do not fully understand, part of his course involved looking at rock samples under a microscope, sharing facilities with students from LSE. The students were put in pairs and Dad was coupled with a geography student from LSE called Vivien Lamb. That coupling proved to be a rather more permanent fixture than anyone had imagined at the time.

He did well enough academically (getting a 2i) to earn funding for a PhD in biophysics at Guy's Hospital Medical School in London. His research involved looking at the effect of radiation on cancer cells, which was cutting edge science in the 60s. And it was during his PhD that he took his first steps into communicating his passion for science, lecturing at the Royal Veterinary College and at Guy’s Hospital Medical School. His relationship with Vivien flourished throughout this time and she was treated to romantic dates at the likes of Lord’s and Wimbledon, gaining an appreciation that any future life with Dad would involve a fair amount of watching sport. However, this did not put her off and they were married on August 1st 1964 in the Chapel at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, where Mum’s father was the Dean. Mum and Dad have been extraordinarily good at keeping in touch with their friends from their school and university days, and many join us today in person, or online.


The married couple moved into a small flat in Blackheath and, in 1965, having completed his PhD, Dad had decided that teaching was for him, and, without any formal qualification, he was offered a job as a physics teacher at Haileybury. The headmaster at Haileybury clearly saw something in Dad and was so impressed that, after just one year of teaching, he was offered the position of Senior Science Master, much to the bemusement and disappointment of many of his more established colleagues. He eagerly set about promoting science within the school. In those days, Classics was king, but Dad was frustrated that many pupils were leaving school without an O-level grounding in all 3 sciences. He had one of his ‘ideas’ and before long he had persuaded the headmaster to give science an extra period a week and invented a new O-level in ‘Combined Science’, which soon got examination board recognition. It was adopted as the course of choice by a number of private schools. The state schools were rather suspicious of anything that came out of private schools and steered clear of it but, after some time, the state system pretty much mimicked Dad’s exam and introduced Double Award Science, which is now sat by hundreds of thousands of pupils every summer.

In 1967, David was born, followed by me in 1969 and Richard in 1972, a year that saw Dad getting a little restless and, never one to think small, he skipped the whole Deputy Head idea and applied for Headships. The governors looking at one such application were intrigued at the bravado and ambition of this 32-year-old science teacher and, having added him, in the word of the Chairman of Governors, as their ‘wildcard’ to a longlist of 10 applicants, they were sufficiently impressed to shortlist Dad, and then offer him the post of Headmaster at Christ College, Brecon, starting in January 1973.

Dad embraced Welsh culture which, in the 70s, was very much rugby focused. His first school purchase was a scrum machine and a former 1st XV prop forward recalled to us his memory of Dad summoning him into his study after he got a little over enthusiastic in his efforts to dominate the opponent. Play hard, but play fair was very much the message; one that Dad stuck to in his life. Another recalled how Dad had interviewed him, refereed his rugby matches, taught him both physics and basic sex education, which, in his words, was quite a revelation for a boy from the Valleys! Dad came to be considered as something of an ‘Honorary Welshman’ and it seemed fitting that he died on St David’s Day, represented by daffodils among today’s flowers around the church.

Always the workaholic, Dad took up roles on a plethora of committees, including chairing the HMC Academic Policy Committee and being a member of the Governing Body of the Church in Wales (which included electing an Archbishop and two bishops), as well as numerous examination boards and schools (16 in total). For someone whose singing voice was the antithesis of an angel’s (not that that ever stopped him blasting out lyrics), it is somewhat ironic that he was featured on BBC’s Songs of Praise, with him choosing what will be our final hymn in today’s service.

Never one to stand still, Dad was offered the Headship of Epsom College in 1982 and the family made the emotional move from Wales to Epsom, whilst keeping ties with Wales through the purchase of a holiday home in Pembrokeshire, a county visited on most family holidays.

During his time at Epsom, Dad tackled problems through his own personal blend of logic, charm, diplomacy and stubbornness. He forged strong relationships with local Prep Schools (being a governor of many of them), pupil numbers grew, and the building projects began, all funded without any borrowing. But whilst bricks and mortar can be the more tangible representation of a Headmaster’s legacy, it was the way that Dad had such a positive effect on a personal level with so many people that he will be remembered for. We have been bowled over by the heartfelt content of the many messages we have had from so many former pupils and colleagues.

Some of the reflections dwell on seemingly trivial, but still-remembered acts of kindness, whilst others recall life-changing advice and encouragement to pursue dreams. Dad knew his pupils and, when teenagers behaved out of character, he was quick to spot this, get to the root of any problem and give them another chance. Many former pupils whose careers now have a hugely positive impact on society were set on their paths by Dad not over-reacting but seeing the best in people and wanting the best for them.

Having burned the midnight oil in 20 years of headmastering, Dad felt that he had given all he could to the job and entered some form of semi-retirement in 1992, moving to Bagshot. In their 30 years here, Mum and Dad have built many friendships, initially through this church, which has been so important to them, but also with neighbours, and through golf. Dad also had a particular affinity with the many lovely staff at Waitrose, especially those with the power to add yellow labels to discount groceries! They were so often prepared to stop what they were doing and talk over life with him, which was a particular godsend during lockdowns.


Dad had a keen sense of duty as a global citizen, and it had troubled him a little that he had devoted so much of his life to the relatively privileged world of private schools. He took on a part-time role as Director of the Inner Cities Young People’s Project, fostering relations between pupils from very different backgrounds, and he regularly helped at the St Botolph’s project for the homeless in East London. He joined The Worshipful Company of Barbers, chairing their 700th Anniversary Appeal that raised over £350,000 to fund outreach work to help pupils in under-performing schools in London boroughs gain places at medical school. And he was Chairman of Trustees for CHASE, playing an instrumental role in setting up the first children’s hospice in Surrey. CHASE has now become Shooting Star, one of the charities that Dad asked for donations to be made to.

In 1995, he took up the post of Principal of Cumberland Lodge, an organisation that had royal approval to act as a centre for academic debate to try to find solutions for national and global problems. He found himself regularly introducing delegates to Queen Elizabeth II and her mother after Sunday chapel services.

Dad never really retired, and he set up an Educational Consultancy. But he and Mum now had more time to embark on numerous trips to see the world: Australia, New Zealand, the Galapagos Islands, Panama, China, Sri Lanka and, of course, the Cook Islands, to name but a few.

Given how hard he worked as a Headmaster, it is hugely to his credit that in no way did we ever feel that we had an ‘absent father’. He would nearly always be home for the family supper to discuss how our days had gone, before returning to his desk. He would do his very best to support us in whatever production or sporting fixture we were involved, battling his emotions during Brecon High School v Christ College fixtures and St John’s v Epsom matches.

In his later years, with more time to devote to doing what he wanted, he very much played the part of the proud and genuinely interested Dad and Grandpa. He loved following my rugby exploits, and trying to learn more about the world of business. Su’s rise through the world of private schools, culminating in her imminent Headship, brought him immense pride; whilst Richard’s apparent lack of ambition remained an enduring mystery to Dad, but he did love mulling over life with him, particularly while on their annual trip to a Lord’s test match. He took huge pride in his grandchildren: James, Lucy, Toby, Ben, Charlie, Sylvie and Amélie. He was a great supporter of their various exploits. But beyond the spectating, Dad also loved talking to his grandchildren: finding out about how today’s youngsters see the world, hearing about their hopes and aspirations, and throwing in his own healthy dose of opinion and advice for good measure. He would often comment how easy his grandchildren were to talk to, but it probably didn’t occur to him that it was his approachability and interest that made him very easy to talk to. And he entertained them too, perhaps most memorably when preparing his signature cocktail ‘crème de menthe frappé, Gloucester-style’ by launching himself off a chair to crush the ice, whilst screaming out West Country yokelisms.

As Dad said his goodbyes over the last week of his life, he was very much at peace with himself, supported by his faith. He kept his humour throughout: when he asked me to shave him, I saw the opportunity to cut his eyebrows too, but I was gently put in my place and told, “No, otherwise God won’t recognise me”. We were pleased that he summoned up the energy to be successfully transferred from Frimley Park Hospital, where he was so well looked after, to Thames Hospice, and we had a very positive two days there with him, reminiscing about a life well lived. He was even delighted to indulge in a brandy from the 6pm drinks trolley on his penultimate evening.

Dad achieved so much in his 82 years. He had no pretensions and treated everyone equally, whether he was meeting people in the Royal Box at Wimbledon or chatting with a homeless person at St Botolph’s. He had an astonishing memory for names and faces, and when he bumped into former pupils they were always amazed how much he remembered about them, often many years after they had left school. His sage advice; his understanding of the individual and what would be best for them; his good humour; his presence and personality. The whole package, which very much included the support of Mum by his side, leaves so many people so grateful that they were fortunate enough to have known the character that is John Barry Cook.



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