|9 Jun 2021|
On 13th June, 1972, Cordy Wheeler died, 49 years ago, that is.
Who was Cordy Wheeler? Cordy Wheeler was the man who saved his school (this one) from extinction. Rare for a man to be able to do that once. Cordy did it twice.
The school magazine – the Register, as it was then known – published an obituary, naturally. It is noteworthy, not only for the rare merit of its subject, but also for the generous mood in which it was written.
Cordy, born in Ilfracombe in 1884, came to the school in 1895. His connection with West Buckland remained unbroken till he died in 1972 – a span of 77 years. As a schoolboy, till 1902, he won every prize, colour, and distinction the school had to offer. He returned to serve for a while on the staff, whence he moved to teach at Blundell`s till 1911. From then until 1914, he studied at Oxford for an honours degree in Theology. In between times, he had also served as Secretary of the Old Boys`Association (the OWBA came much later, with the advent of girls), and in 1905 he was appointed to the Governing Board, which he continued to serve for 57 years, eight of them as Chairman. He fought in the First World War, reaching the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, winning the DSO and the Greek Military Cross, and being mentioned in despatches.
After the war, he resumed teaching, and became Headmaster of Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, where he reigned for 23 years. And just by the way, he was also a president of the Old Boys` Association, Member of the Admiralty Naval Entry Selection Board, and caretaker headmaster of West Buckland (at the age of 68) when the then Headmaster, Sam Howells, died in office in 1952.
Now – the two dramas. Saving the school from closure – not once, but twice. The first time he was still a pupil, albeit Head Boy. The Headmaster, after a big dispute, had left, taking half the pupil body with him to set up another school in Barnstaple. The numbers fell to barely more than thirty, and there seemed no other option but closure. Cordy went to Lord Fortescue to plead with him to change his mind. And he did. Alas, the success did not last long. The new Headmaster put off a lot of parents by his harsh discipline, and numbers fell once more.
A majority of the governors were in favour of closure again. By this time Cordy was a governor himself, and had been teaching at Blundell`s for two years, where he had become friendly with Ernest Harries, a fellow-teacher there. He induced Harries to accept the challenge of rescuing the school, and persuaded the rest of the governors to agree to it. With success. Harries remained as Headmaster for 27 years. Cordy`s courage and judgment were vindicated.
The man who wrote about all this was in a perfect position to do so. He was Michael Roberts, who had come to the school only a decade after Wheeler, He too, Roberts, was to serve West Buckland for over 70 years. (See the Archive Lockdown Letter No. 9 – ‘Putting something back.’) So they must have worked together for a very long time. Clearly they developed a very strong regard for each other.
Roberts, by now a governor too, was able to witness and appreciate the enormous amount of work that Cordy put into the titanic task of making good some at least of the appalling damage and neglect brought about by the Second World War – repairing, building, renovating, raising bank loans, generally keeping up everyone`s spirits – and keeping the ship afloat. In his visits he put great effort into getting to know staff – of all kinds – teaching, support, domestic. He even found time to pay visits to retired school retainers. Roberts went with him on these trips more than once. ‘It was heartwarming,’ he said, ‘to see the delight and pleasure they gave.’
Roberts paid fulsome tribute to Cordy`s kindness, industry, leadership, wisdom, capacity for friendship, and towering integrity. Everywhere he inspired trust, affection, and respect.
Roberts concluded his obituary with the line, ‘Seldom, if ever, has any school owed more to one man.’
It is a pleasure to bestow a compliment; it is a pleasure to receive one. But there are times when it is an equal, and moving, pleasure to witness such a handsome, open-hearted compliment being paid by one person to another.
Berwick Coates, WBS Archivist