Obituary: The Rev Philip Wetz

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The Independent Culture
MORE THAN Mr Chips and not only a remarkable Jesuit priest, "Willy" Wetz was a dynamo man, energising everyone he met with his enthusiasm for life and for success in the things which he judged to matter.

Father Philip Wetz SJ spent 35 years of his life either at Wimbledon College when it was still emerging as a newly primed grammar school under the 1944 Butler Education Act or later as headmaster of its preparatory school, Donhead. Generations came first to fear, then to respect and eventually, almost universally, to love him. Quick with his opinions and direct advice, Wetz could readily cut a boy down to size; yet he was always giving, rarely unkind.

Born in Walthamstow, east London, in 1910, Philip Augustus Wetz was the fifth child of Michael Albert Wetz and his wife Agnes. His father founded Unwins the wine firm, and as the business grew Philip was transferred for his last three years of schooling from the Xaverian College, Brighton, to the Jesuit public school Stonyhurst College, outside Preston. Always more interested in sport than books, Wetz played rugby at scrum half and began to develop a lifelong fascination for the game.

In three short years, the Jesuits had made their mark on him. For in September 1928, aged 18, Wetz joined the Jesuit novitiate at Roehampton. Two years' spiritual formation were followed by the long academic slog of Jesuit studies, until, in July 1941, Father Wetz was priested at Beaumont College, Old Windsor.

The following year he started his long connexion with Wimbledon College as master of Figures, the lowest class in the school. It was as if, in the intervening years of study since his own boyhood experience of school life, he had bottled up a supply of energy which was to last the rest of his working days. All was possible, everything must be attempted.

His early enthusiasm concentrated on his first love, rugby; and he was to build up a coaching expertise based on an intimate knowledge of the game which would become a legend. Not least was he feared and respected by his visiting opponent coaches, who viewed this diminutive figure, draped in a voluminous black coat, hat pulled down, feet clad in ex-RAF pilot boots, with something akin to dread. His second campaign was to revitalise the boxing club; while in summer, not understanding the finer points of cricket, his enthusiasm would turn to coaching athletics.

Wimbledon College had emerged from the Second World War into the welcoming arms of the 1944 Butler Education Act. A niche private school pretending towards Headmasters' Conference status, it had even supported a small Army Class since the First World War. Now it woke up. Father John Sinnott, its charismatic headmaster, was working closely with the Labour Minister of Education, Chuter Ede, to shape and guide Roman Catholic education in England and Wales into step with the new reforms. Wetz shared his vision. Moreover, he believed the whole man should be educated, not just mind, but heart and body too.

It was the beginning of a seven-year dynasty as sports master and general factotum in charge of the moral welfare of some 300 boys. The new 11-plus entrance exam meant the social mix of "college boys" was changing dramatically. Now the Donhead intake must learn to rub shoulders with lads from Morden and Merton. Wetz rejoiced in the challenge. He saw no distinction between a Catholic boy from Isleworth and one from Ashtead, Surrey; both would make good rugby players if pushed.

As a teacher, Wetz displayed uncanny skills at remedial maths. If a vital O level had been missed, he would be in the classroom the following year for a one-term crash course to set the score straight. "Don't worry about whether you can do it: just admire the logic." His success rate was universally high. He also taught Religious Instruction to the senior classes, choosing a richly human appreciation to the experience of Christian faith in preference to the penny catechism. "Just think what the Incarnation means," he would spell out. "God became one of us."

In 1955, after 13 years, his career as schoolmaster was ended by a posting to Farm Street as assistant Procurator (financial administrator) of the Province. But after a year he was flung back into the thick once more as Minister and Bursar of Heythrop College, the Jesuit seminary outside Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.

He was now in temporal charge of some 150 Jesuit students and their professors in philosophy and theology. The fabric of the house was badly run down, and, more critically, the catering arrangements were unsatisfactory, having descended to a dutiful provision of institutional dullness. "Good food costs no more than bad food," Wetz declared and set about raising the standards, certain that an army marched with its stomach. A noted early coup was to drive the house van across to Evesham in strawberry time and load up with a glut crop. No one before Wetz had ever thought of serving strawberries and cream at Heythrop.

His final surprise, in 1971, was to return to Wimbledon as Headmaster of Donhead, a post he was to enjoy for a further 20 years until his semi- retirement, in 1991 (aged 81) to become chaplain at Farleigh School, near Andover. At the Junior School Sevens, his stentorian encouragement could be heard once more urging his schoolboy side to ever greater efforts, to renewed concentration.

In 1996, he underwent a prostate operation and in the following year endured a hip replacement. His final years were spent once more in Wimbledon, where he kept a watching brief on Old Boy activities, attending the annual reunion in his wheelchair last October.

John Skinner

Philip Augustus Wetz, priest and schoolmaster: born London 17 May 1910; ordained priest 1941; died Kingston upon Thames, Surrey 15 December 1999.

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