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Walter Christopher Chapman

by
10 August 2012

The Revd Owen Vigeon writes:

CHRIS CHAPMAN, who died on 20 June, aged 101, was an Edwardian by birth, and remained one.

Born in Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire, he was one of those larger-than-life characters who influenced a multitude for good, especially the thousands of students who passed through his hands. By profession, he was a teacher of geography; but his career was interrupted by the Second World War. He spoke little about his experiences; but the impression was that he had had what is called a "good war".

He made a natural officer, and was heavily involved in the Italian campaign. His natural gregariousness meant that his army service made him good friends from circles that he would not have encountered as a schoolmaster, as I found when I first met him in 1958.

After the war, Chris secured a post as senior geography master at Roundhay Grammar School, Leeds, and found himself in the parish of St Aidan, where Philip Lamb was Vicar. Chris went to church on his first Sunday, and was invited to a social gathering at the vicarage after evensong. Helen Lamb presided over the refreshments. On being asked whether he preferred tea or coffee, Chris replied nervously: "I don't really mind." So Helen poured him a cup with half tea and half coffee, and said: "That will teach you to make up your mind in future". But it was the beginning of a long friendship.

Later, when Philip became Principal of St John's College, York, for training teachers, he invited Chris to be Vice-Principal. He accepted, and this became the substance of his life's work. They were chalk and cheese, not least in religion. Philip was a poet and dramatist with a radical take on things biblical and theological. Chris remained a dedicated churchman of Prayer Book Catholic variety.

In many ways, they could not understand one another; but perhaps it was the enormous difference in their spirituality and personality that made them such a good team - the dreams of Philip and the practicality of Chris.

Chris threw himself into making the college an effective educational unit. St John's was a Victorian church foundation for training teachers for the public sector. Students became used to the lecturer who always wore his gown and mortar board, with a light sprinkling of chalk, and the gown a little skew-whiff on his shoulders. Chris was expert at striking an attitude that would be noticed.

He was also a very good teacher; and it was his declared ambition to give the college a whiff of Oxbridge. It was important to him that it be recognised as academically serious. During his career, the college was amalgamated with St Hilda's, in Ripon, grew enormously in size, and adapted to being a unisex institution - a move that Chris viewed with apprehension. It is now York St John University.

Around 1960, the chapel was nearly full most mornings for assembly: attendance was officially not compulsory, but was expected. Although college graffiti might proclaim "Too many vicars!", more than one old student has confided in retirement how valuable he had found the Christian background.

In all this, Chris gave massive support by his loyalty to the regime. His personal Christian discipleship was obvious to all. The many changes that took place were not all to his taste, but he provided an essential continuity.

Chris was a generous and very kind friend. On Main Corridor, Chris, Leonard Poore, and I were residential tutors, who, with others, were responsible for college security, and monitoring students who returned after the main door was locked for the night at 10 p.m. My favourite memory is of returning one afternoon to hear Brahms's Second Piano Concerto reverberating through the college. The sound was coming out of Chris's study. He had bought a new-fangled stereo record-player. I asked him if it was his birthday. "No, dear boy," he replied, "just a little present to my self-esteem."

After retirement, he contracted testicular cancer, and had major surgery. It was a very testing and potentially embarrassing situation, especially for a single gentleman of ever-increasing age, but he turned the whole matter into a joke.

His personality echoed through former students' memories of their teacher-training. He keenly instilled old-fashioned virtues. Woe betide any student on teaching practice whom he caught not teaching in a jacket and tie.

But, even when he was being strict, there was always a strain of humour to his words. He could always say exactly what he thought without giving offence. His were a piercing intelligence, a broad sympathy for human frailty, an irascible wit, and, above all, a devoted loyalty to his college, staff, and Principal.

In his long retirement, he worked for the Friends of York Minster, and his many years of being the effective administrator of St John's College stood him in good stead. In recognition of his service, he was awarded the title of Provincial Lay Canon, which gave him intense satisfaction and also amusement. But his spirit must have enjoyed his requiem in the Minster.

Perhaps not even his great friend Lennie Poore knew the real Chris under the mask of cheerfulness. For he had a very private side. He will be remembered for his positive attitude to every facet of life he encountered: for his effectiveness as a teacher and administrator; for his devout Christian faith and devotion to the Church of England that he loved; for his refreshing refusal to suffer fools gladly; and for that constant glint in his eye that meant that humour was never far away. For Chris, life was always a joke, but always a very serious joke; because his God is a God who never stands any nonsense.

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