A couple of years back, I visited Jack Bremner, my French teacher at Westlake Boys High School in Auckland from the early 1960s in Dunedin where he moved as Rector of Kings High School in the mid 1960s.
It was a real treat.
We’d vaguely kept in touch over the years (I went to school with his son Trevor, so the relationship was a bit more than teacher:pupil), but the last time we’d actually seen each other was in 1971 or 1972.
He died in May this year, aged 96 and his daughter Rennie asked if I’d care to share something to be read at the celebration of his life on 14 October.
I rated him massively and I never really knew why until I sat down and put pixels to Cloud.
You’ll perhaps understand what sort of man he was from the commendation that won him the Military Medal in Italy as a sergeant at the age of 23
You’ll all know him as “Jack”To me, he’s always been “Mr Bremner”.My name’s John Burland, but he knew me as “Jonty”.And the Bremners are the only people left to call me that.Mr Bremner taught me French and hockey at Westlake Boys High School in Auckland – Trevor and I were foundation pupils in 1961 and through our friendship, I was privileged to experience Mr Bremner at closer quarters that I would otherwise have.The Bremners lived in Tui Glen Road in Birkenhead, we lived in Gladstone Road, Northcote, never separated by more than a 20 minute walk through Kauri Glen Bush. The traffic was bidirectional, Trev’s visits sometimes with Rennie in his slipstream.The thing that struck me then and has remained with me was his vibrance and focus, his direct manner and his aura of competence. They’re traits that I’ve since recognised in the best CEOs I’ve worked with in the aviation industry.Mr Bremner had them in spades and – coupled with his brisk military gait – he was a force to be reckoned with.But the thing that stuck with me most is his report of his time in France after being awarded a Wolf Fisher scholarship in the early 1960s.He told of the phone number he’d been given to call when he arrived in Paris that responded with a recorded message. He needed 3 calls and a pocket full of centimes to decipher it.He said “I quickly realised that I spoke French, but not their French…!”Years later that resonated with me, newly transferred to Lufthansa’s main base in Frankfurt in 1974 with a year’s Hounslow High School German evening classes under my belt.I spoke German, but not their German…He also spoke of the magical foodstuffs that he’d encountered. (This was at a time when cheese in New Zealand came in 1lb blocks of “mild’ or “tasty”.)“They have this cheese over there called camembert and it’s so soft in the middle that you can eat it with a spoon”Our small (2000 year old) village is about an hour’s drive north of the Alsace-Lorraine border and we’ll zip down there every 6 weeks or so, taking a short cut through France to the Burda art museum in Baden-Baden and filling the chilly bin with magical foodstuffs at the Leclerc supermarket on the way back.We’ll be in the cheese department, looking for Saint Felicien (even runnier than camembert) and I’ll murmur “They have this cheese over there…” and my long-suffering wife Ali will shake her head and complete with “that’s so soft that you can eat it with a spoon”We visited the Bremners early last year and laughed about how things like this become hardwired into your life.Then he told me another tale.“In 1965, I was marking UE(University Entrance) papers when a fellow marker said “Oh, Jack, I’ve just got a Westlake dictation here. J Burland”“Well, you won’t find any mistakes in that” I said “And I was right”Then he said – and this is over 50 years later – “But Jonty, your composition was very disappointing”A few days later, he wrote“I did appreciate the effort you made to come down and see me, Jonty. After seeing you, when we were at the supermarket we decided to buy some camembert and I am looking forward to eating it with a spoon!Thanks so much for coming,Jack”So I guess now I can join you in calling him “Jack”.Someone at Kings – in disbelief that he hadn’t gone on forever – wrote:“Gentleman Jack. Old-school Jack. Major Jack. He believed in a world of respect for others and love for all.”That’s my Jack, too.