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David Rhodes

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Founder's Day: Remembering John Corlette

 

How do you start a new school? Well, to begin with you'll probably need a few million dollars to buy a large piece of land and construct modern buildings. No self-respecting parents will be interested in sending their children to a school with poor facilities which can't compete with the best schools they already know about. As a matter of fact, there is a new school about to start in the eastern part of Holland.   It has superb buildings and equipment and, according to the brochure, will offer a first-class education. They have already appointed a headmaster, and are about to recruit staff and students, ready to open their doors in September 1988. I'm sure it will be successful.  I believe it will be run by an organisation which has already established about fifty schools, all doing well enough to provide the large amounts of money needed to start up this new one.

Not so long ago another new school started in a rather different way.  The founder was a rather sick man who had been fired from a previous teaching job for disagreeing with his headmaster.  He had also considerable trouble passing exams when a student himself.  He began by renting a room in a cheap hotel (using borrowed money, of course) and started with just one student whom he tutored in all subjects. (Not a very good formula for success.)   Against many people's expectations, however, and with many very serious setbacks along the way, this tiny school (if one could call it that) survived and prospered. In just a little over a year there were six pupils, and with more borrowed money, the founder was able to rent a whole house. It took a little over ten years for the number of students to increase to about twenty-five and for the school to make a small profit for the very first time. Happily, it has survived to the present day and now has about ten times that number of students, and although still small compared with most, it has become one of the best known and respected international schools in Europe.

Of course, I'm speaking about Aiglon College and about its founder John Corlette.  Unlike the school I spoke about at the beginning, which is due to open in September 1988, Aiglon had nothing going for it except the personality of its founder. That proved to be more than enough, however, and I would say that although Aiglon has changed in many ways over the years, it still owes much of its character to the special talents of John Corlette. So what kind of a man was he?  This is a tribute paid by an Aiglon parent from those early days, Sir Peter Smithers.

"When I saw Aiglon for the first time, it was a handful of cheerful young men and John Corlette, all falling over one another in a lovely cuckoo-clock chalet up in the meadows above Chesieres. They gave me a permanent impression of having just returned from the mountainside, to clear their consciences and please John by putting in a little study. The study was acknowledged to be important, but was still second to something else not easy to grasp, which made the place unlike any other school I ever saw.

"My wife had carried out a grand tour of the schools. There had been some depressing interviews on the trip. 'But,' she replied, 'one school is run by an extraordinary man; he only seemed to be interested in Denny as a person, and didn't bother to discuss anything else. I think it might be the place for our boy.' Indeed it was.  And that was the secret of Aiglon. 

"Now Denny is a major in the US Army with a row of decorations and citations for valour in action and skilled staffwork, with a Master's degree in Oriental Studies, a French, Thai and Chinese linguist, intensely interested in the arts and customs of the Orient, and with a splendid wife. But to him, John Corlette has always remained 'The Chief' - the man who showed him the way on the mountainside."

I'm reading from an account written by Patrick Roberts of Aiglon's first twenty-five years. It makes fascinating reading, and if you're interested and need a break from study some time, ask the librarian if you can borrow a copy.

Last Friday was 'Founder's Day'. The programme which came round the Houses said that its purpose, apart from being an opportunity to recuperate a little, was to give us an opportunity to think about our founder. I'm sure that many of you felt a wave of gratitude come over you as you lay in bed for an extra hour, but let's spend just a little time in this meditation thinking a little more seriously about the things he stood for. A lot could be said on this, but Sir Peter Smithers put his finger on an important point: "He only seemed interested in our son Denny as a person." John Corlette was many things, but he had this quality of being able to inspire both staff and students because he conveyed to them his real interest in them as people. Perhaps we should let him have the last word. I've read through many of his meditations recently. They are surprisingly varied, some spiritual, some very down-to-earth and practical, but all reflect his intense interest in his students - very simple but very effective. Here is an example of his personal warmth and affection for his students:

"There are a number of things which make my job worthwhile to me, and the principal one is to see boys making progress. .,. But one of the nicest things which happens to me is the letters I get from old boys. Knowing what bad correspondents boys are, I reckon that it is quite something that a boy should take the trouble to sit down and write to me, and I appreciate it very much, and when they say the nice things they often do, it warms my heart amazingly.

"The point is that these boys (who write), and many more, when looking back, realise what a tremendous lot they got out of the School and out of their time here" even 'when they thought they didn't like it. How much better it would have been if they had realised this whilst they were still here; how much more they would have enjoyed it, and how much more they would have got out of it.

"I realise very well how lucky I am to be working here in this marvelous place, with people like you, and with the splendid staff we have.  Eyen the unpleasant parts of my job, I realise, are an opportunity to improve my self-discipline and to learn how to do things better. I am very much aware of all this, and I often pause for a moment in the course of my work and my recreation to thank God for it.

"Are you as aware as you could be of all the blessings which you receive every day, whilst you are already receiving them?  Let us pause for a moment to count our present blessings, and to thank God for them."

On this Founder's Day, then, let us indeed pause for a moment to remember John Corlette, without whom we would not be enjoying all the other blessings we are so aware of in this place.

30 November 1987

David Rhodes                  Return to HOME

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