Lives Remembered: Eric Dehn
Wednesday 09 December 2009
Eric Harold Dehn, my former colleague at Bristol Grammar School, was a remarkable man, of short stature but huge personality, who was born in 1916 and spent his working life between 1939 and 1976, apart from the years of the Second World War, as a French teacher at Bristol Grammar School. His teaching methods were idiosyncratic, conducting the whole of an 11-year-old's first lesson entirely in French and giving each boy a French name based on his surname, for example, but he gave the same care and attention to the pupil having trouble with French verbs as he did to the potential Open Scholar.
For 15 years he was an outstanding and much-loved Housemaster, equally energetic on the games field as in producing a house play. He knew how to get the best out of his charges, encouraging the faint-hearted and galvanising the slacker; when he showed anger it was simulated, never real, except on the occasion in 1956 when he came to blows with a colleague over the Suez operation, despite the other man being twice his size and a boxing blue!
His sense of humour was legendary, and after he retired he became a successful (and paid) after-dinner speaker. His preparation for this was a lecture tour to the US in the 1960s on an ESU scholarship, which he repeated in 1989; he had taken the first ESU school exchange party to Philadelphia in 1963. A great supporter of English as an international language led to his active involvement in the ESU for over 50 years; he was Chairman of the Bristol Branch for many years and later its President. He was also twice a Governor of the national ESU and was awarded its Churchill Medal for outstanding service.
For many years he was a familiar voice on Radio 4 as a reader on Any Answers; he was a keen golfer and Times crossword solver, the latter right up to his death. Letters, witty but always with a serious point, regularly appeared in the press.
Eric was the brother of Olive, the poet, and Paul, the writer. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and Oxford, where with a group of friends including Ted Heath and a future Bishop he persuaded the Cambridge table tennis team that they were their Oxford opponents. Only after winning 20 out of 21 games did Cambridge realise they had been conned! Joining the Army soon after the outbreak of war in 1939, he was captured during the British retreat to Dunkirk, escaped and got back to England in a fishing boat, later becoming an artillery instructor.
Eric was a most unusual and very talented man; his warmth and friendship will be much missed. Increasingly frail, he retained his spirit and liveliness of mind to the end. A celebration of his life held recently at the School drew over 200 people, including some former pupils and brought back many memories and anecdotes. He is survived by his wife, Joan, stepson Michael, daughters Jakki and Nicola, and several grandchildren.
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