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Rowan Algie, Rest In Peace – A Tribute to a Visionary Headmaster

Mr Rowan Algie, B A, M Ed. Requiescat in Pace

Sunday 10 December 2017: It is with profound sadness that we learnt today of the passing of Mr Rowan Algie after a short illness. Headmaster Jan de Waal, Wynberg staff – past and present, Old Boys, and our extended Wynberg Family, express our deepest condolences and support to Rowan’s wife, Rosemary, and the Algie family.

Mr Algie’s Memorial Service will be held on Friday 15 December at 10h00 in the Somerset West Methodist Church.

A Tribute: Rowan Algie, WBHS Headmaster 1984 – 1992

When I heard the news that Rowan Algie was critically ill, I went for a walk on our Clovelly mountain thinking of the journey he and I have walked together. I was his first management appointee in January 1985. I had been teaching at Plumstead High School when he and Chairman of the Governing Body, Henry Cawood, interviewed me for the post of Vice-Principal which became available when Jim Mathew retired.

Ray Connellan often said that every Wynberg Headmaster for whom he worked was the right fit for the time and every one in his own way took the school forward. Rowan inherited a school in 1984 from Neville Blackbeard which was well run – it was disciplined and ordered. Without doubt, over the next nine years, his vision and energy took Wynberg up to the next level.

On my walk, I mentally started listing all the innovations he brought to Wynberg during his nine year tenure. There is no doubt that these innovations put Wynberg on the path to become the school it is today. More importantly, was his spirit of open-minded thinking which allowed these innovations to happen. This rubbed off on so many of us. I can state without fear of contradiction that we who followed in his footsteps, Bruce Probyn, myself, and then Jannie de Waal, have reaped the benefits of the seeds he sowed all those years ago. To change the metaphor, others are sitting in the shade of the trees he planted.

I think that the concept for which he will be most remembered is that of the Four Pillars – Academics, Culture, Sport and Service. These pillars put flesh to the bones of an holistic education. Every school now uses these words, but Wynberg lived them.

I remember well those countless Executive meetings discussing academic standards at Wynberg. We tweaked here and there; we changed systems; we asked every staff member to tutor individual matrics on study methods; we took top academic boys out of class for enrichment; we had the SURE reading period where even the secretaries had to drop everything they were doing and do Silent Uninterrupted Reading for Enjoyment; we looked at different ways of reporting back to parents which gave a more accurate assessment of the pupils. He was never afraid to innovate and slowly but surely our academic results started to improve. Just look at our matric results today. I know where it started …

I remember the Open Days where we opened the school to parents and they could come in and see the school in action. They could see their son’s books and discuss what they saw. They could wander into classes when we were teaching, sit at the back of rehearsals, listen to boys debate or practicing on the piano. It was wonderfully refreshing and transparent. It sent the message to parents that they were part of the son’s journey through school.

In sport, he opened up free choice for the boys with no sport being protected. Controversial at the time, but today no-one bats an eyelid about free choice as all sports are flourishing at the school. We all enjoyed the Derby weeks which he instituted with our traditional rivals – SACS, Rondebosch and Bishops. Not only did we spend the week engaging in cultural activities before a sporting weekend, but we also engaged in inter-staff sport – touch rugby, hockey and squash. We even played a regular soccer game against the Rondebosch staff in which, thank goodness, at least Gordon Taylor knew what he was doing! The good relations which we enjoy between the staff of these schools today can be traced back to these occasions.

Initially sport / culture / service were run by one person on the Executive. Today they have grown to such an extent that three people are required to run them AND they are stretched. Vetta Wise, as Director of Music, voice tested every Standard 6 boy in order to start a choir. Rowan’s legacy lives on…. just look at the choir today, 70 boys strong – not to mention the outstanding vocal ensemble which is so highly sought after at functions. Choir evenings were started where the Swiss Choir and the Welsh Choir were invited. Now it has become so big, we have it in the City Hall. The tradition of all choirs finishing off with one mass item has continued – and what a spectacle it is on the City Hall stage.

We started music concerts with the piano in the middle of the hall and a spattering of parents and teachers watching boys tentatively playing various instruments. From that has developed what is today’s Nussbaum Concert which proudly puts Wynberg’s musical talent on display. There are innumerable bands today and the school has done a number of tours showing them off round the country. Most years see us displaying our talent at the Grahamstown Festival and the annual Eisteddfods always reward Wynberg boys and the bands with diplomas. It was also under his tenure that Honours / Blues / Colours were awarded for the first time for Cultural Activities.

The Supera Moras (All Rounders) Tie was Ray Connellan’s idea but Rowan supported it whole-heartedly. It is still one of the most prestigious ties of the school. Boys who wear that sought-after tie today are quality Wynbergians who fulfill every hope that he had of an holistic education for Wynberg boys.

He expected every boy to do a service activity which is now generally accepted as a fact of school life. Our Service Pillar exemplifies the point that all boys at heart have empathy and are willing to give of their time freely and generously.

I have often quoted Plato – in English – who said that education should take place amongst beauty. He took over a campus that was newly constructed and still largely bare of vegetation. Between his wife Rosemary and himself, he literally sowed the seeds of what today must be one of the more beautiful school campuses. I know how many hours and days the two of them poured into the fields and the gardens of the school. The construction of what is today the Jacques Kallis Oval is largely as a result of his foresight and energy – although we cursed him at the time for the sand the southeaster blew over our cricket practices on the top fields! He handled, with tact and dignity, the challenges of the neighbourhood who were objecting to these developments, some of whom had themselves photographed in the press tied to trees that were scheduled to make way for the cricket field. Can there be a more beautiful cricket field, with more spectacular views, in any school anywhere? It is more than apt that the Pavilion on this field was named after him. I shall always retain the picture of him sitting on ‘his’ bench on the top of the bank below the tennis courts quietly enjoying the play below.

There are also other vignettes I shall retain of those early years. He inaugurated the ‘Sorry’ Award in the Staff Room for the teacher who had committed the biggest faux pax of the term. The first winner was Andy Todd who, early in 1984, invited the new headmaster to an early morning Sunday rowing practice with the boys at Zeekoeivlei. He had barely stepped into the boat when Andy, not realising he was there, swung round and knocked him flying into the water with his paddle. A suitable baptism to his headmastering career at Wynberg and for Andy, a worthy Sorry Award in the Staff Room the next day.

Neil Crawford loves to tell the story of his impassioned and fiery speech to the school one assembly about litter. Dramatically he emptied a bag onto the stage of all the litter he had collected after one break. One Castle Lager bottle (why couldn’t it be a Coke can?) did not settle with the rest but rolled inexorably and slowly to the rim of the stage where it hung in the air before crashing to the hall floor. Fearful of looking at his glowering face, not a boy laughed. Neil says he bit his lip so hard that it bled to prevent himself from laughing and to ensure a straight face. No-one will ever forget that assembly and I have no doubt that everyone who was in the hall that day, still pick up any litter they see – a tribute to the lessons they learnt all those years ago!

When he appointed me to the staff as a vice-principal, I found that he had instituted the concept of a school executive with responsibilities and portfolios. I joined the ranks of Wynberg stalwarts – Ray Connellan, Kobus Blom and Alf Morris – who, when they eventually retired, had served Wynberg for a cumulative 106 years. In our weekly meetings, we discussed, we argued, we plotted, we planned. These fruitful debates continued on our annual three-day planning weekends where we marooned ourselves at some faraway venue, at which a suitable braai area was an essential feature. Round a roaring fire, we continued our earnest discussions late into the night. We all had our own portfolios, but he gave us the scope to rise above those and to see the bigger picture. Valued lessons were learnt and absorbed during these interactions.

All the teaching staff were given opportunities to grow and develop and many future educational leaders cut their leadership teeth in a Grade Head position. At the same time, the regular Staff Development sessions were a vital part of his education plan as he encouraged all teachers to grow, to develop, to improve.

The school today is his legacy. He put in place systems and structures – all of which are still very much in evidence. Early on in his tenure, he drove the idea of a school song to which Jim Goodacre, deputy Principal of the Junior School, penned the words. The one line ‘Brothers in an Endless Chain’ has resonated with generations of Wynberg boys since then and it is a tribute to him that this was the line chosen to be the title of the 175 History of the School. Boys of his era readily return to support the school and there is always a good sprinkling of them at Old Boys’ Dinners.

One of the tasks he gave me in those early days was to institute a Standard 9 Leadership Camp. Now four Grades have camps during the year and they really play a valuable role in the building of spirit and relationships among the boys.

Hundreds of teachers, pupils and especially the Littlewood boys owe him a huge debt of gratitude for the opportunities which he gave them and the example he set of commitment and hard work which was an inspiration to the rest of us. He took the school in a new direction and enabling those who followed to stand on his shoulders and continue the good work.

An example of this are the 175 Celebrations held in 2016. When we started the 175 planning in 2010, I took as a starting point his notes on how the 150 Celebrations were run. The fact that he ran these celebrations while the school was preparing to open its ranks to all races, bears testament to the quality of his organisational skills. What a special honour to be Headmaster of Wynberg in its 150 celebrations closely followed in 1992 when the school returned to its 1841 roots and opened, once again, its doors to all South Africans.

All those who were lucky to experience Rowan Algie’s vision and drive will realise the debt that the Wynberg of today owes him.

Rose, Debby, Jenny, we mourn with you in your loss. Thank you for sharing him with us. You can be content that he added value wherever he went. We applaud him for his contribution to education at large and to Wynberg in particular. He never stopped loving his family. Even though he left Wynberg 25 years ago, he never stopped loving the school. The Wynberg Family stands together with the Algie family at this time of grief.

Keith Richardson
WBHS Headmaster, 1999 – 2015

Mr & Mrs Algie at the unveiling of the 175 Frieze depicting the Four Pillars of Wynberg, 5 November 2016

Mr Algie’s favourite poem, ‘The Man in the Glass’ (Originally called, ‘Guy in the Glass’) by Dale Wimbrow, (c) 1934

When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.

For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.

He’s the fellow to please – never mind all the rest
For he’s with you, clear to the end
And you’ve passed your most difficult, dangerous test
If the man in the glass is your friend.

You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.

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