Hero photograph
Photo by Kathryn Eagle

Mr Gary Lennon: My Time at St Bede’s College – An Oral History Transcript

Clare Wilkinson and Gary Lennon —

As part of the Archives project which aims to establish a strong bank of historical information about St Bede’s College, we have now started an ‘Oral History’ collection.

This focus involves interviewing Old Boys about their time and experiences at St Bede’s College. The interviews are conducted by Emily Rosevear (SBC Archivist) with all interviews recorded, transcribed, and preserved in our Archives. We hope that over time these transcripts will show patterns of how the experiences of Bedeans may, or may not, change over the history of the College.

Emily has now completed six Oral History interviews. The very first of these interviews was with Mr Gary Lennon on 30 March 2022. Below we share some of that transcript and Gary’s experiences at St Bede’s College.

What was your first day at St Bede’s like?

I started in 1953 and I can clearly remember my first day. We had lunch. Sat down for lunch outside the old block going down to the bell tower and Father Bill Spillane came round on duty and introduced himself to the boys and as he went past, we gave our names so when he got to me and he said “what's your name?” and I said “Gary Lennon, Father” being a very well-mannered Loreto Old Boy and he said “Lennon? You're not any relation to old Herb, are you?” and I said “Yes, I am. I'm young Herb” I said, “I'm his younger brother.” “Well,” he said and he grabbed me by the throat and started to throttle me in front of all my peers sitting there having our lunch. This is the gentle Father Spillane. He said “I always wanted to do this to old Herb.” So that was my introduction to St Bede’s, my first day there in 1953.

How did you get to and from school?

I rode my bicycle and we used to leave home and join a caravan that came through from Riccarton. The Riccarton boys came – Riccarton Road, up Idris Road, through to Papanui and out on the bike along there, they would be joined by others on the way through. So, we tagged on, I think about the corner of Idris Road and Blighs Road and biked to school there.

Did you have any favorite teachers?

Yes! I modelled my style on Father Charlie Devonport, so he taught me English for two years, he was the Discipline Master, a geographer by trade but he taught English very very well. And Claire and I went to go see him down at Nazareth in his declining years and his brain was still as sharp as ever. So, when we went in to see him, I said to him “I don’t know if you remember me Father” and he gave me a quick glance like that as if I wasn’t worthy of any longer look and I said “this is my wife Claire,” and he out the side of his mouth said “I don’t know why you married him I only taught the slow ones.” It was a great introduction wasn’t it? So great sense of humor. He was feared, ‘Charlie Gangster’ was his nickname. Feared but very fair. Ahead of his time you know we got criticized for corporal punishment and the like well it wasn’t always the case I can remember one day finishing up in his office upstairs, at the top of the stairs, heading over to the corner where I was to be caned, pulling out my shirt, started to bend over and Charlie said “What are you doing Lennon?” I said “Well you're going to cane me aren't you, Father?” “No” he said “I'm not going to cane you.” He said “I'm going to get you to empty all the rubbish tins.” So, I spent an hour after school emptying rubbish tins, I learnt there were other ways of punishment rather than corporal punishment.

Can you talk a bit about your time playing rugby at St Bede’s?

So, I was a mad keen ruby player, but not the right size. And having been from Ashburton, when we came up, I went to Loreto and that was a soccer school. So, Sr Mary St John coached us at soccer … her technique was to have a whistle and a stick and she made us into very efficient football players, but I didn’t know the rules which got me out of favor a fair bit because I didn’t know anything about soccer. … At St Bede’s I was in the Bantam II’s my first year and the, I remember going back proudly to Loreto to tell Sr St John I’d scored a try in my first game back playing rugby which “I always wanted to play Sr but you wouldn’t let me” and we beat St Andrews at St Andrews and there is nothing quite as sweet as beating St Andrews at St Andrews. The next year I rose to be the captain of the Lightweight III’s, which you will now notice we’ve gone from twos to threes, I'm going down. Fred Crombie coached me there, he wasn’t a great coach, I wasn’t a great player so we were a good combination. And then I think next, we went to the heavyweights. Rugby was compulsory. I think I was in the fifth fifteen about then and just adequate … and I finally reached my peak in 1957 in the Third Fifteen and got to be a reserve for the second fifteen – or played at the end of the season when they were short for the Second Fifteen and scored a try. It was a try against Christ College on Number One which pleased me greatly but I didn’t get on too well with one of the Christ College forwards and he was bigger than I was, so Father O’Connor had shown me how to protect my eleven-stone-seven frame, you know, if things got vigorous with a certain tactic which wasn’t quite within the rules. But he was looking out from Durham and I caught his eye upstairs there and he was watching the game and I thought to myself, this could be the time to, you know, to try this tactic on the five-meter lineout. So, I did and that Christ College boy, unfortunately fell the wrong way and lost a wee-bit of blood and took umbridge at it. Then later on, I’m pretty sure that’s where my deaf ear came from, that guy kicked me in the head I'm sure of it, but never mind that was my peak.

What was Sports Day Like?

Our big day was Sports Day which was in October in those days. - Everybody in sports uniform, the band led the parade and all the rest of it and that was our show day really, the Sports Day. I was the drum major my last year at school, they had me because I was the only one who knew a note of music, so I was put in that position and I was very ineffective to start with and I was trying to learn what to do, I didn’t know much about it. I was an ordinary foot soldier suddenly promoted because I was a prefect to Drum Major. And I distinctly remember we used to practice on Cranford Street marching up and down … and I had the stick out in front, whatever it was called, and I used to twirl it around and I thought, [I might try to] throw it in the air and catch it, so I tired once and I bloody near skewed the Drum Major behind me when it come down nowhere near where I was. I don’t think he was ever keen on me twirling again.

Can you describe the ranks system?

Yes. So, at break we used to line up in the quad … in the winter time, I’m not quite sure if it was all year, we used to have phys ed first and one of the prefects would take us for basic phys ed and then at the end of break we would have ranks and Father would call the ranks from up there and he’d have the list there of things of things he was reading out and the prefects would line us up in them, and they were a pretty sort of efficient way. And then we would walk off to our classes under the administration of the prefects. So, they were the notices of the day and when it came round to my taking of them the worst thing was to be able to read the teachers writing, you were trying to decipher the teachers writing up there under some sort of pressure and trying to keep an eye on the lads downstairs too and all the rest of it. But they were a part and parcel of the place, we didn’t have form meetings or those sorts of things in those days.

How did you come to teach at St Bede’s?

There are a couple of versions to this story. The Gazette came out in October when people at teachers' college were entitled to put in for jobs at that stage, so October 1974. The gazette arrived and the headmaster Rex Harper who had been my boss up there, a Boys High man, we had a lot common, you know the same style of education which will get me onto special character later if you go along those lines. The gazette arrived and he read it and he said to me “Did you put this advert in the gazette?” “No” I said, “What advert?” He said, “St Bede’s are looking for a Head of History, extra circular activities ... required … starting next year and all the rest of it. PR two with the inuendo that a change in administration style they were doing there at St Bede’s.” I said “No, not bad but I didn’t do it.” At the time I had my eye on fourteen acres of land just outside Harden because I liked the country just a little bit better than my wife did, and my wife had no intention of staying in the country, which we had came for two years to start with. But anyhow I said, "Well I’ll give him a ring and go and have a yarn to him.” So, I gave Darb a ring and was welcomed very well at St Bede’s and had a chat to him and said what his thoughts were for St Bede’s what my ambitions were and all the rest of it, you know to see if we could gel together sort of style. He said, “right well it's good to see you again,” I said, “good to see you, Father.” …. Then a letter arrived from St Bede’s in the mail the letter said, Welcome Gary to our staff we look forward to seeing you coming down and all the rest of it. Shivers, you know, how can he welcome me to the staff I just went to have a look at the … No inviting me down for a formal meeting and all the rest of it and well go from there and sort out shifting arrangements. And so, I came back to St Bede’s. We negotiated things as time went on. “Do I get an office?” And he [Darb] said “Yes you get an office up there” But it was the fifth-year common room that I was given as an office which didn’t help my standing with the fifth-year lads, and my teaching room was next door room 13 and so I was left to keep a paternal eye on the top of Brodie you know it became my sort of a patch.

What does Special Character mean to you?

I'm a firm believer every school has a special character. Everyone's different, they have their strengths and education is made up of three parts: pupils, staff, and its buildings. It depends where your emphasis goes …. But I firmly believe that depending on who is there and the motivator is the Principal, Rector whatever you like to call them these days, drives that special character.

What was the school spirit like?

I was House Master of Regnault for several years at St Bede’s and in fact the other pupils didn’t always like us terribly much in fact they had a chant, because our colors were red, “We’d rather be dead than red.” So, the four of them used to try and gang up on us but we had a good spirit to get back to your word there. The spirit, it could go a bit far. It got competitive. Instead of building school spirit … we sort of didn’t help integration of the school spirit in that respect but it was fun. But we were talking about the fun days and the sports days and those sorts of things, swimming sports days, athletic sports days, there were about eight sports or activities the Houses were involved in from debating right through.

Do you have any particular memories of students from your time teaching at St Bede’s?

Well, my job. The emphasis was pastoral care. So, my job was actually the Discipline Master if you’d like to use that phrase. Lots of the students I dealt with needed help which comes to the sort of thorny question of corporal punishment and all the like of it. Corporal punishment was of the time, what was used and we were just coming out of the war years remember it was a different society we were in and it was accepted. Sometimes it may have been a little brutal, not very often, in fact very seldom. … and I strictly remember in 1987, the first world cup year, the boys were bunking classes and like, and some of the first fifteen decided they would watch a replay somewhere and I found out so I caned them. And I can remember the lock saying the only reason you caught us was because you’re bionic now.

If you would like to be involved in this project, or would like to suggest a Bedean who would be a good candidate for an interview, please contact Emily at Erosevear@stbedes.school.nz or phone Clare Wilkinson on 03 375 0647 Ext 850.