A Tribute to a Life of Service - Jack Saunders

Updated: Oct 15, 2019

John (Jack) Chapman Saunders 1919 - 2017

John (Jack) Saunders was a Commercial, English and History teacher, Sports coach, and Careers Advisor at Hawera High School during the years (1953 – 62). He was of small stature, and because of this was given the nickname of ‘Peanut’ by pupils. He had a booming voice and like several teachers was an ex-serviceman from WW II. He was the Commander of the Hawera High School Cadet Unit, a position he greatly enjoyed especially when the boys were all assembled for parade. His wife Wendy also taught at HHS, was Head of Home Craft and later the School Librarian. In 1963 he was appointed to the position of Principal, Ōtaki College where he remained until he retired in 1975. Wendy taught at the college too.

Jack Saunders was a very diligent Careers Adviser, as shown in the ‘Boys’ Careers Notes’ he penned each year for the School Magazine. As an example, in 1958 he said ‘Boy’s must make up their minds to do these three things: They must consider more carefully, the openings and advantages offering in the various fields of employment; they must make up their minds to stay longer at school; and they must be prepared to work with much more serious purpose than many have hitherto shown, in order to gain those specific qualifications that employers are now in a position to demand’.

And in 1959 he said the chief problem of the Careers Adviser was that of trying to ensure that every boy does go to employment for which he is suited. Boy’s often say, he said, when asked about what they propose to work at in the future ‘I haven’t a clue’. The point was ’that each boy ought to have a clue, several clues; and if he has not got one yet, then he has been careless about planning his future. How can they get a clue? In the same way that everything is discovered: by trial and error, by enquiry, by experimentation. They must go looking at jobs, take on part- time work, voluntarily assist workmen, ask older friends, pay visits to factories, do anything which is likely to awaken their interest’.

‘Boys who remain passive about their future, who sit back and wait vaguely for ‘inspiration,’ will find that their final employment will mirror their previous attitude. It will be aimless, colourless and futureless’.

And in 1960 he tackled the issue of the ‘safety first’ approach by some parents towards the careers they though their boys should choose. The ‘attitude of super caution discounted to a certain extent the natural spirit of adventure in youths and grafts onto them a ‘security consciousness’ which prevented them from fully exploring all possibilities of employment’.

He acknowledged that parents had been pupils who left school during the 1930s Depression, but queried how relevant this view was in the modern situation. Parents needed to apply ‘general considerations rather than a specific historical experience’.

In the 1961 School Magazine Jack was reflecting on the five years he had been Careers Adviser and said ‘I have been trying to crystallise the outstanding impressions of what I have learnt so that I might, if possible, be able to say something generally helpful for future students and their parents’.

He said that when he considered the question, the two key words that came to mind were ‘purpose’ and ‘realism’, the one primarily for the students, the other for the parents.

‘To make progress towards the qualifications needed for a career there must be a sense of purpose; a determination in the pupil that he is aiming for something and that he will prepare himself. I have seen numbers of students achieve academic success that neither they, nor their teachers, nor their parents, really believed was possible, by virtue of this purposeful, tenacious move to a clearly visualised goal. This, mark you, was not done by ‘swot’ alone. These people usually found time to contribute widely from their whole scope of ability in sport, music and cultural activities to the life of the school. What they did was done rationally. Their time was not hoarded, but expended; not lavished but distributed.

The other concept is, of course, a sense of realism. Purposeful activity and study has no real purpose if its ultimate aim is not realisable. It leads merely to frustration and bitterness. It is in developing a sense of realism about the actual potential of their sons and daughters that parents can do most. Nothing has frustrated me more than the parents who have either forced their children along lines of study which are clearly outside the scope of their ability, or have acquiesced tamely in their children’s abandonment of a course of study of which they are fully capable. The first is a form of cruelty which is all the more tragic because it is done under the guise of benevolence. The second is tragic because all waste is tragic, and in a world such as we live in, no waste is more tragic than the waste of human talents.’

There is relevance to many of his comments in 2019, some 60 years later.

Jack Saunders in 1940

His family emigrated to New Zealand, from Dysart, Scotland, with his father arriving first in 1920. The family followed in 1921 when Jack, (born 29 April 1919), was two years old. In an August 2014 interview, when he was 95 years of age, with Ian Carson, a teacher at Ōtaki College, Jack Saunders said that New Zealand happened to be the destination for his father because it was a New Zealand bound ship that had the only available berth at the right time. His father found work in Lower Hutt and this was where the family joined him. Jack Saunders attended Hutt Valley High School and then attended Wellington Teacher’s Training College.

In the early years of WW II he was sent to various schools around New Zealand as a relief teacher. By June 1943 he was in the New Zealand Second Expeditionary Force and served in the Solomon Islands as a radio operator in the Army Tank Brigade. He was back in New Zealand at the start of 1944 and in December married his first wife, Wendy Browne, in Timaru. The following year he was part of the NZEF that went to Egypt. By the time they arrived hostilities with Germany in that theatre of war had virtually ceased and he was able, in the evenings, to complete by correspondence the Bachelor of Arts degree. He returned to New Zealand in late 1945. Jack had in the meantime also gained his Bachelor of Commerce degree and Diploma of Education. He was obviously very diligent.

He and Wendy went first to Waitaanga, a timber milling settlement in the King Country, halfway between Ohura and Mount Messenger. The first son, John Saunders, was born there. The settlement no longer exists. In December 1947, they moved to Ararata, a dairy farming settlement just outside Hawera, where the twins, Ross and Euan were born. Jack was the sole teacher in the school of 25 or so students, most of whom came to school on horseback. After 6 years, in 1953, Jack took up a position at Hawera High School. They were very active members of St. Mary's Anglican Church.

Jack was proud of his Scottish heritage and that Kirkcaldy, where he had been born, was also the birthplace of Adam Smith, the Scottish political and economic philosopher and founder of free market economics, and Gordon Brown, a recent Chancellor of the Exchequer and British Prime Minister. His parents were Henry Saunders and Isabella Grierson Robertson. Henry was a miner's son and Bella was the daughter of a fisherman. Jack Saunders could, when he chose to, speak with a distinct Scottish accent and this provided great entertainment to his three boys.

John Saunders had no doubt that the hard times that his grandparents experienced, both in Scotland and in establishing their family life in New Zealand, living as they did through the depression, had a profound Impact on his father. And contributed greatly to the socialist principles which Jack adhered to and his support for the Labour Party.

During the school holidays, while he was teaching at HHS, using a collapsible caravan that he built himself, (with assistance from the woodwork teacher at Hawera High School), Jack, Wendy and the boys visited many parts of New Zealand. The school teacher was always prominent in him as he would turn travel into a geography or history lesson in each area visited.

After he and Wendy retired the life of service continued in Ōtaki. Sadly, Wendy died in April 1978, three years after retirement, but he remained there continuing to contribute to the community both through his church and the Citizens Advisory Bureau budget advice service where he worked as a volunteer for 13 years. His service was acknowledged with life membership of the CAB. Jack served two terms on the Ōtaki Borough Council, 1981 – 85, the second as Deputy Mayor. He was a founding member of the Rotary Club, being President for one year and the recipient of the Paul Harris Fellowship Award. Jack was President of Probus in its early years, and later made a Life Member. Given his interest in history he was a founding member and Patron of the Ōtaki Historical Society.

It was while he was Deputy Mayor that he met and subsequently married June Smith and gained a large family. He was enormously proud of the fact that he succeeded in having two wonderfully happy marriages, each of 30 years. His Christian faith sustained him when his son Euan died in 2008, at 60 years of age. Jack was awarded the Bishop’s Medal for his work with Ōtaki’s Anglican Church.

Jack died 21 June 2017 at the age of 98 years. His 22 July memorial service was held at the Anglican church in Ōtaki. Two of his former pupils from Hawera High School attended the service, Neil Taylor and myself. It was moving to hear the tributes from his two families. His nickname amongst June’s grandchildren was ‘Google Granddad’. This acknowledged that, with Jack’s vast reading, including doing the ‘Listener’ crossword each week, and memory - he could recite large passages from the works of Shakespeare and other poets - he could answer any questions they asked him.

At the 1994 HHS 75th Jubilee, when he was 75 years old, he greatly enjoyed meeting his former pupils and made a point of telling me, and this was over thirty years later, that my mark in School Certificate History was the highest any of his students had achieved. I said that it was his teaching that enabled me, and other pupils to achieve good results. An inspirational teacher, he instilled in me an enduring love for history. We used to look forward to his classes as they were always interesting and he had a passion for his subjects which rubbed off on the pupils. Peter Nightingale, who became a teacher too, was another pupil who expressed similar thoughts about him. Jack Saunders was an excellent communicator, and a humane individual who related well to the hundreds of students that he both taught, and gave careers advice to, during the 10 years he was at Hawera High School.

Infirmioribus Succurrendo Fortior

Strength through Service

Kia Kaha Te Awhina

Caption for cover photo: Left to right- Jack Saunders, Wendy Saunders, granddaughter Anna, Otaki 1976


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