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Faith of our Fathers: Profile on Gary Lennon

David McCarthy —

The following exert on Gary featured in the 2011 St Bede's centennial publication.

In 1990, Gary Lennon, the lay teacher whose legacy and mana had reached or surpassed many of the Marists who had for so long been his role models, was half way through a 31-year career at the college – 36 years if his time as a student at St Bede’s are added. Lennon was the first non-Marist to assume the role of acting rector. Such an exalted position for a layman was partly a reflection of changing times, but also a measure of the Lennon strength of character and leadership, and the deeply imbedded Marist charism that came naturally to him.

The records show Gary Patrick Lennon was at St Bede’s for five years (1953–57), cutting a particular dash in the military arena, where he was literally the leader of the band. He recalls he was a good but not outstanding student and says his later masters in history with honours was the result of endeavour rather than quick absorption of information, although boys who ever concocted tales of explanation that under Lennon’s questioning suddenly seemed wanting in essential detail might have their reservations about that assessment. He gained Distinction with his Diploma of Teaching and later claimed honours in the musical examination field as well (ATCL).

At college he was a century-maker for the Third XI, which earned him promotion to the seconds. The top teams in cricket and rugby eluded him, something he later turned to his advantage in his own teaching and coaching days. He first made his mark as a teacher at Hawarden High School. The Hawarden–St Bede’s clashes had an extra edge in his time there, which covered over a decade from 1964, before Des Darby ‘fingered’ him as history and English teacher at his old college. He would later be head of department in both subjects. He was appointed senior dean in 1977 when that system was instigated and by 1982 was the senior master. He taught geography, music and religious education as well as his core subjects.

Lennon was a traditionalist rather than a reactionary. St Bede’s traditions were precious to him and he was bent on extending their influence to the next generation. But he also accepted and implemented some of the most far-reaching changes in the college history – he was highly enthusiastic once convinced of their worth. His teaching and administrative skills would have been largely ineffective, however, without his rapport with the boys – however ‘crusty’ he might sometimes appear to them. Lennon (sometimes referred to by the boys as ‘Lenin’ but never in his presence) was gruff and tough and sought respect rather than affection. But he was constantly interacting with the students and those two most important traits in earning youthful respect – consistency and fairness – earned their support in the end. He says his own schooldays were pivotal in teaching him these skills: ‘I was never really outstanding at any one thing at college, not quite in the elite bracket. Most boys were the same. It made me more aware of the ordinary kid trying his best without making big waves. They are the majority in any school, good all-rounders who basically wanted to do the right thing.’ An interesting side-line to that was his idea for a prefect’s group that did not include just the academics and sports stars. ‘I always liked to see those boys with a bit of maturity and common sense who weren’t winning all the prizes among them. They gave an important balance.’

For much of his time at St Bede’s Lennon drove the policy known as BDS (Bedean Disciplinary System), initially including the use of corporal punishment as a last resort. ‘It had gradually wound down as we found other and better ways to reinforce desirable behaviour. That is not to say a firm hand was not necessary. There are always those looking to beat the system. You have to have the right procedures in place to cope with all eventualities.’ He was the last teacher to cane a boy at St Bede’s. The boy concerned, Tom Gorman Jnr, was a son of a former Bedean contemporary and good friend. Father and son would both subsequently be presidents of the Old Boys’ Association. The irrepressible senior Gorman bought the cane in question at a fundraising auction and presented it to his son on his 21st birthday.

In the Darby era, Lennon began modernising some of the classroom approaches of his colleagues. His method included sitting in on classes, evaluating a teacher’s methods in case some suggestions could help improve their approach. ‘It wasn’t well received by a number of teachers. They weren’t used to visitors, especially the rector, in the classes and some resented it, quite frankly. But in return I insisted they come and sit in my classes and make any suggestions they thought worthwhile so they wouldn’t think they were being picked on for any reason. In the end we all got a lot out of that and once people got used to it they realised it could help.’ Long-time contemporaries Graham Lucas, Tom Sidebotham and George Young noted in their farewell article, ‘He asked more of himself than of others, he led by example, working sometimes seven days a week, starting with the ‘Earlybirds’ detention class, always called a spade a spade, never shirked his responsibilities. Neither did he confine himself to a few chosen areas. He was invariably a leader in the college fund raisers, studied music in spite of a moderate singing talent so he could pass on its riches to senior boys, and always there was Shakespeare for him to relish and his students to memorise. He pioneered rugby tours to Australia with the support of Gerry Mills, a vital base for the college success locally at its favourite sport.’

In 1991 Lennon was awarded a Woolf Fisher Fellowship to study pupil discipline and appraisal in Britain and America. In 2005 he was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to education.

After serving under Des Darby, whom he rated highly, and Gerry Mills, whom he regarded as ‘one of the great rectors’ for his style, influence and leadership, he assisted Brian Cummings through a complicated decade in the 1990s. It was not always a relationship made in heaven: both were strong characters with well-defined preferences and thoughts. But they made a special effort to make it work and work it did. Upon Cummings’ departure Lennon had an opportunity to apply for the position of rector, which would have made him the first officially appointed lay rector, but his application was more of a formality than an expectation. ‘I knew an application would be expected as an expression of interest but I also knew they would be looking for someone perhaps younger with a fresh look at things. I had been there a long time. I felt I should apply to be true to the position I held. I had had a very good innings and had achieved most of my goals. I wasn’t in any way bitter at being passed over. They made an excellent choice.’ True to his nature, Lennon stayed on to give his support to Justin Boyle in the changeover from Marist leadership of the school, which produced a number of challenges where an experienced hand was essential. Health issues began to intrude and the time had come to devote himself to other priorities. Yet he is never far from St Bede’s in spirit and it is as much a part of him as he is of the college.

Gary Lennon made his mark on St Bede’s with special qualities of drive, dedication, honesty of purpose and, above all, a burning desire that ‘his’ boys would leave its portals with the same fond, unfaded memories that had been his. Few of them forgot Mr Lennon, what he taught them and all the best things about a St Bede’s education that he stood for.

One Set of Eyes

One of the most famous of the many stories about Lennon is the occasion when he singlehandedly turned back a student protest at the college gates. A large group of students was intent on a public parade in support of secondary teachers over pay issues. The senior boys had a street march in mind, but GPL, as he was referred to by fellow teachers, was on his regular gate duty. He liked to ensure he was around when the boys were coming or going, assessing their adherence to the dress code. Identifying potential trouble spots and dealing with them before they expanded into problems was a key to the Lennon discipline structure. On this occasion one set of eyes challenged 100 but one set was enough, such was the mana of the person behind them. The student throng turned and walked back. St Bede’s was one of the few colleges whose student protesters did not appear in public that day.

- Faith of our Fathers. The History of St Bede's College 1911-2011, p348-351