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Remembering Jack Gibson

Date: 03 Feb 2005, Place:Nil

As Mayo Principal, he cared for the less fortunate
by Shashi Kathpalia
JOHN Travers Mends — “Jack” — Gibson came out to India in the 1930s as a teacher at the newly established Doon School in Dehradun, where he became a famed Housemaster. He taught there for several years and finally retired as a long-serving illustrious Principal of Mayo College, Ajmer. Well into his eighties, he passed away in October 1994.

Gibson was not only a distinguished teacher and principal but also a larger-than-life figure. Jack’s zest for life and ability to put his heart and soul, with rare passion, into anything he undertook were most infectious. Quest for knowledge to impart, punctuality, discipline, abhorrence of idleness or waste of any sort were germane to him.

The interests he helped develop ranged from mountaineering (acclaimed mountaineers referred to him with awe; Tensing of Everest fame, when a young Sherpa, climbed with him), photography, gardening to music. A world class fencer, he was also very adept at most other sports and competed fiercely.

Contribution to education in its widest sense — spirit of adventure combined with learning and, most importantly, as a moulder of character by example, of young men — made him a legend.

Without losing his upper class British moorings — Haileybury, Cambridge and Royal Navy background — Jack took to the Indian scene with no inhibition. He whole-heartedly engaged in Indian social and cultural activities by educating himself about those unfamiliar to him earlier. This was amply demonstrated by him elegantly wearing a “dhoti”, “kurta-pyjama” or donning a Rajput turban when the occasion required and celebrating festivals across communities with natural enthusiasm.

Despite his indifferent Hindi it was a treat watching him sing, with deep involvement, national songs written by poets as diverse as Gurudev Tagore to Allama Iqbal.

Once on a trek his group ran short of some essential rations, particularly potatoes. Instinctively, Jack decided to teach the boys mysteries of barter — he called it “economics”. He led the team to a nearby hill hamlet. In broken Hindi, Jack said to the local headman, “Hum Atta Tum Ollu!”

The crestfallen village head was quickly reassured that he was by no means an “Owl”. Negotiations followed and a bargain was struck. The boys got their supply of potatoes by parting with some flour which they had enough to spare. The villagers’ joy at this deal was explained by Gibson. “At high terrains good wheat did not grow, hence flour made from it was precious”. The potato-starved boys nodded wisely!

Hauled up by the Customs at Bombay airport for bringing in a large quantity of books, music records, film rolls and a most fascinating oakwood globe, a perplexed Jack explained that each time on return from England, he brought articles, not available in India, for the institution he headed. This led to further harassment. He insisted on seeing the senior officer and requested help, in his dilemma, to make a long-distance call. Surprisingly, the officer obliged only to be mortified at Jack asking for Pandit Nehru!

The P.M.’s secretary told the customs officer that for his own good he must pacify Mr Gibson and ensure he reached the railway station in comfort to catch his train with all his belongings. The terrified and confused officer, with two other colleagues, escorted Mr Gibson all the way to Ajmer! With a mischievous smile, Jack insisted no such facility was solicited by him.

At the Doon School, on a Sunday, Jack went into town to play bridge at the local club. On return, he passed by a restaurant noticing in it some familiar faces. A discreet enquiry revealed the youngsters had asked for beer. Jack marched in, cancelled the order, taking the “adventurers” back to school. The frightened boys awaited the worst. Gibson announced the punishment. “Write one page, without missing classes, on the science of Brewing and let me have it by tomorrow.”

Jack was impressed with the paper presented. He thought it was well-researched and intelligent. Promptly, Jack asked for beer to be served, inviting the lads to join him and quench their thirst! It so happens that one of the young men, probably the main author of the “treatise”, later established India’s largest beer and alcoholic beverages conglomerate.

Mayo had a venerable priest called “Shastriji”. One day Jack asked him if he was any connection of Lal Bahadur Shastri — soon to be India’s Prime Minister. The saintly man politely replied he had never heard of him and there was no question of a relationship — adding, with some pride, that he himself came from a highly learned and respected clan. Jack muttered, “Thank God, we already have far too many well-connected people around!”

Jack never lost the common touch and cared in an inimitable way for the less fortunate in the large community he presided over. Recipients of his concern were not made to feel beholden or awkward. Forever on the move in his famous jeep, and often on bicycle, one wondered if he ever rested. It was not due to absent-mindedness that he always left the keys to his vehicle in it. He did so, as someone might desperately need transport in an emergency.

Jack’s numerous achievements would have made even exceptional men proud. His appointment as the first Principal of the Joint Services Wing, now the National Defence Academy, when he himself felt it ought to be an Indian (i) was an honour. So was being personally conferred both an OBE by the Queen of the land of his birth and a Padma award by the President of the land he worked and lived in are minor examples. Lesser persons have been awarded far higher honours.

The writer taught at Mayo College in 1960-61 where he stayed with Jack Gibson and came to know him closely
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