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John Kempe - Headmaster 1968 - 1979

Members of the GA will be saddened by news of the death of John Kempe, who was Headmaster at Gordonstoun from 1968-1978. He passed away peacefully after a short illness aged 92. A Memorial Service for him will take place at St Mary’s Church, Ticehurst, East Sussex on Saturday 11 September 2010 at 3pm. All are welcome.

A Tribute by Georgie Middleton (nee Housman) - Hopeman 1978:

John Kempe - Former Headmaster 1968 -1979As Headmaster of Gordonstoun, John Kempe pursued and developed the core values set out by Hahn with vision and inspiration. He was a strong supporter of internationalism and Europe; as students we knew to care about international politics. He spoke out against tyranny and quoted that when good men do nothing, the corrupt and bad will take control. Personal involvement and engagement, as Hahn did against Nazism, was our bread and butter. It was heady stuff to know that standing up and speaking out was possible in youth.

His international outreach brought a range of interesting speakers, unusual then if more commonplace today. He used them to increase student awareness in politics and society: a Soviet Russian diplomat for reconciliation or challenge, Michael Bentyn for drug abuse. The school visitor programme was born out of his outreach philosophy and in the first term we had a poet staying in residence, thereafter an Oxford classicist, scientists and other intellectuals. Leading musicians like John Georgiadis of the LSO were frequent visitors.

He was strongly committed to the arts, the music department travelled with “The Magic Flute” and there was run of Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and choral works and symphonies. From his time in the RAF he encouraged us to “Reach for the Stars”, an idea he linked beautifully to the medieval belief in the music of the spheres.

Equality of the sexes was central to him; he believed in co-education. For me, enrolling in the second year of the intake of girls, the experience felt totally natural. The groundwork and commitment throughout the school under his leadership must have been extraordinary, because within three years the balance of boys to girls was 3:1, but it felt as if it had always been thus.

His hope was for excellence and for each child to discover and reach their potential through talent and hard work for the good of the community. One rebellious pupil who was asked to go away and think why they were at Gordonstoun, and whether they wanted to return, heard his message, “plus est en vous”, eventually becoming Guardian with a place at Oxford. He had the sensitivity to deal with teenagers.

The high standards he encouraged for academic and life success were founded on a strong personal moral code for Christians, Muslims and children of other faiths. Service to the community, the “trust system” through self discipline, and allocating each student a personal tutor were three pillars of his philosophy which Gordonstoun will thank him for and recognise as his strengths.

May 2010


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