Ivor Stowe in full flight at the Doonside Aeromodellers Club

Life-changing teacher

Dinoo Kelleghan

Ivor F. Stowe, says Joe Begnell, would have been pleased that a Doonside student who received a Stowe scholarship came first in English at the HSC in NSW.

“It shouldn’t happen with our low SES here but it did,” says Mr Begnell, principal of Doonside Technology HS. “He would have been intensely proud about that. Those were the sort of things he hoped for.”

Ivor, one of public education’s most colourful characters, committed tens of thousands of dollars to helping needy schoolchildren through funds and scholarships in at last five schools in western Sydney, where he lived and taught before his death two months ago, aged 90.

“I suspect that he invested a very substantial sum of his super lump sum in the scholarships,” said Mr Begnell. His school alone had a Stowe scholarship every year for the past nine years for a year 10-11 student.

Ivor (left) starts his scholarship fund in 1885 with $5000

Ivor had an “unending commitment to public education”, said Phillip Adams, who interviewed Ivor for the ABC.

He and a friend, Chris Dudley, helped special needs children develop motor skills from putting together boats and models with meccano sets they collected and stored at his Doonside Aero Modellers’ Club, son Tahn Stowe said. Literally hundreds of kids and others joined the club.

In his eighties, Ivor gave remedial classes to students to earn more money for his scholarship fund. He also set in hand plans to sell most of his vast collection of model aircraft engines — he had about 1800, treasures accumulated over 65 years, for which he had a worldwide reputation — for the scholarships.

“A fire burned in him that no one could ever put out,” said Mr Begnell, who met Ivor while both were teaching at Blacktown Boys High.

“He would ring me out of the blue and want to discuss a new way to teach reading. He was a thinker, a rarity when education is restrictive. If kids had ideas he wanted to test them, to encourage creativity. It’s very much a 21-century concept, to have creative team problem-solving. He was ahead of his time, employing these concepts when kids were seated in rows and learning was individualised and not a shared concept.”

Ivor Stowe enrolled at teachers college in 1948, studying to be a physical education instructor, but also took a degree at the University of Sydney and became an English/history teacher, working at Granville Technical School, Westmead PS and Blacktown Boys High. He found promotions hard to come by because of his combative relationship with the Department and retrained as a school counsellor, eventually becoming a District Guidance Officer in Sydney.

These are the bones of his working life but the real story of Ivor lies in the gaps, like in this comment by a fellow teacher: “He was a matchless personality. Who else could hold a whole school population fascinated by a flying display of model aeroplanes, bet the whole school at the swimming carnival that he could swim the length of Granville baths underwater and win it, or when his English class objected to having to learn 10 lines of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner undertook to memorise and recite it in a fortnight, which he did?”

Or this: “I still smile recalling your retirement … walking on your hands playing the mouth organ on Doonside High stage”, or the compliment inherent in the headline of an article written by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Letters Editor, who would read hundreds of thousands of letters, yet say: “Postscript: Ivor F, the contributor I wished I’d met”.

He was a rebel, changing his name from Ivor Francis Stowe to Ivor F. to publicise a fight for simpler spelling, standing as a candidate in every local, state and federal election in his area for 20 years to change the world (he was refunded his deposit only once; “In fact,” he told the ABC, “I’d be terrified if I got in!”).

Ivor hit the headlines early in his career with sex education, being used as a weapon by a Catholic MP against the Communist principal of his school in 1953. He was hauled in before the Department’s Regional Director and the MP. “Have you taken steps to acquaint yourself with the Departmental regulations?” they demanded, ordering him never to talk to schoolboys about sex. Those regulations could be summed up in a few lines, Ivor explained wryly afterwards: for all sex questions get in touch with the Father and Son Welfare Movement.

Ivor loved learning and the English language. His home had “shelf after shelf groaning with books”, Phillip Adams told ABC listeners. He was scathing about jargon, grumbling to the newspapers about a Centrelink reference to an “assistive” hearing aid and saying he wouldn’t want one because “I’d only be able to hear horrible-sounding words like ‘assistive’.”

He kept himself extraordinarily fit, running in the City to Surf 42 times from its inception, the last time when he was in his eighties.

Ivor would have been pleased about his death notice, republished as far away as the Northern Territory News: “… aeromodelling legend, WWII AIF veteran, raconteur, educator, scholar, life-changer for many. Last seen rising out of sight in a thermal until out of sight in his 90th year. RIP.”