News, Culture & Society

EXTRAORDINARY LIVES: J.R.R. Tolkien’s friend who fled from the Nazis as a schoolboy 

 My teacher Eric 

Eric Stanley was the last of a dying breed, the gentleman scholar who personified the classic image of a benign, absent-minded professor, but who was possessed of a razor-sharp intellect.

As a lecturer and then professor of Old English, Eric was beloved by colleagues and students alike because he personified a bygone age, when slower clocks struck happier hours. Indeed, he was a dead ringer for Mr Chips, the boarding school master played by Robert Donat in the 1939 film Goodbye, Mr Chips, who was as devoted to his pupils as they were to him.

Eric was my supervisor at Oxford in the mid-Eighties and we remained dear friends until the day he died. Always elegantly dressed, he was a man of impeccable taste who stood out because he was utterly unconcerned with the issues that pre-occupy so many of today’s academics — ambition, promotion and the size of their pension.

Lecturer, Eric Stanley was beloved by his colleagues as well as his students

His absolute focus was his students, encouraging them to believe that their ideas had the capacity to change the world.

Many who came under his guidance, first at Birmingham, later at Queen Mary College, London, then during his two years at Yale, and throughout his tenure at Pembroke College, Oxford, thrived on such academic nurturing and remained close to him.

In 1977, he was appointed Rawlinson & Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon — following in the footsteps of his great friend, JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord Of The Rings.

Eric forged friendships wherever he went because his intelligence was not just academic, but deeply intuitive. He knew what makes human beings tick, and in that, too, he was an uncommon man.

He was among the most quintessentially ‘British’ people I have ever met, brilliant but modest, bold but reserved, personally stoic but endlessly compassionate towards others.

His achievement as a teacher of English was all the more remarkable because he began his life speaking another language.

Born in Germany in 1923, at the age of 11 he and his family fled Nazi persecution to Britain — a subject he was always reluctant to discuss.

He excelled at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Blackburn and then studied at University College, Oxford, before embarking on an academic career.

His refugee experience gave him a deep and abiding appreciation for the liberties the British take for granted. He loved his adopted country and was always grateful for the opportunities it gave him. He became a devout Anglican and a lifelong parishioner at St Giles Church in Oxford.

In his wife, Mary, a neurologist, he met the love of his life. They had one daughter, Ann (a forensic psychiatrist who sadly died last year after a long illness) and two grandchildren and their 50-year marriage was an outstandingly happy one, ended only by her death in 2016. They shared a love of Italy, its landscape, wine and art — he amassed one of the finest private collections of Renaissance prints — and drove there every year on holiday.

After Mary’s death, though in his early 90s, Eric carried on the tradition. It typified his enduring passion for life, and his determination that adventure always trumped practical concerns.

His death, at the age of 94, has broken an irreplaceable link with the past and its values, as the flags flying at half-mast over Pembroke College acknowledged.

  • Eric Gerald Stanley, born October 19, 1923, died June 21, 2018, aged 94.

My mother RENEE 

By Kelvin Rzepkowski

My mother Renee never had a piano lesson, but as a youngster she learned to play by ear. And on September 2, 1945 — the day World War II ended — she brought her street in West Bromwich to a standstill.

When the news broke, my 18-year-old mum got her three strapping brothers — she was the eldest of six — and some friends to take the family piano out into the street, and she started playing and singing popular tunes of the day such as Happy Days Are Here Again and The White Cliffs Of Dover.

In the end, hundreds of people turned out, with the street closed off for more than an hour.

 Renee Rzepkowski and her husband Karol Rzepkowski, was a Polish soldier

 Renee Rzepkowski and her husband Karol Rzepkowski, was a Polish soldier

Charismatic and with a wicked sense of humour, my mother was a law unto herself, defying her parents to get married in secret. My father, Karol Rzepkowski, was a Polish soldier who’d come over to fight for the Allies after the Nazi invasion of Poland.

They met at a dance at the local community centre. The band was playing Glenn Miller’s In The Mood as he asked her to dance.

He was in his uniform — she always liked a man in uniform — but performed the traditional Polish Polka Dance, rather like Irish line dancing. This made her laugh and soon his warmth, kindness and carefree ways captured her heart, so she took him home to meet her parents.

Her father, though, refused to let a Pole through his door and would not countenance them getting married.

Few women back then would have dared go against their parents’ wishes, but my mother knew my dad was the one for her. And she was right — they were together for 45 years until his death. But they had to wait until she turned 21 to marry and didn’t need parental permission.

There were just two Army friends of my dad’s as witnesses, and they could scarcely afford a celebratory drink afterwards.

When they went back to my grandparents, her father said: ‘I told you not to bring that man to my door again.’ Mum replied: ‘He has to come back now — he’s your new son-in-law.’

Life was tough — within two years there were three children, twin boys and then me. We were living in one room and Mum had to use a friend’s oven to cook — the Sunday roast would not be served until 7.30pm because she had to wait our turn for the cooker.

Sadly, they experienced some discrimination as a ‘Polish’ family — not least from neighbours who showed their dislike by cutting down Mum’s washing line on several occasions, leaving clean clothes on the ground.

My parents were hard workers — my father did long shifts at a steel rolling mill, and Mum was a machinist spring-maker.

And she was soon playing the piano in local pubs to earn extra. She became a local celebrity who could go into any pub in West Bromwich and be assured of a double brandy or Irish whiskey on the house. We called her the Queen of Dudley.

Her fame grew when she later appeared as a contestant on programmes such as Family Fortunes and The Generation Game — the TV people said her bubbly character was made for television.

On Family Fortunes, Les Dennis persuaded her to sing Pennies From Heaven. Her favourite moment, though, was when Jim Davidson said to her: ‘I hear you love a man in uniform, Renee — I’ve got a special one for you.’ And in walked Blakey from the hit comedy On The Buses. Even as life got easier, she never forgot how difficult it could be for others. One neighbour, Mary, struggled to make ends meet with five kids. Unknown to us, my mother brought Christmas gifts for the children for years — until one day, years later on Christmas Eve, carol singers knocked at the front door. It was Mary’s kids — all grown up with gifts and flowers to say thank you for all she had done over the years. I never saw my mother cry — but she did shed a tear then.

After my dad died in 1993 she was, for a time, a shadow of her former self. But being Renee she carried on — still the mother figure to her six kids, 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. She lived at home until she died at the age of 90 — as independent-minded as always.

  •  Irene (Renee) Rzepkowski, born January 16, 1927, died March 18, 2017, aged 90.

My husband David

By Lynda Ede

Shortly after David and I moved to the Fife village of Windygates six years ago to be near our three grown-up children, a local woman, who introduced herself as Ruth, knocked at our door selling raffle tickets for an old folks’ function. David offered to help out, and that’s when the fun started.

Ruth had lived in the village for years and knew everyone. If someone was in trouble — through ill-health, loneliness, a bereavement, or financial problems — David asked her to tell him and he’d send a basket of food, a ‘pamper’ box, or sometimes money, to help them out, or cheer them up.

He insisted, though, that he didn’t want anyone to know he was the village’s ‘Secret Santa’. Ruth — whom he sometimes described as his ‘Little Elf’ — would do the deliveries, but occasionally I stepped in. I took a box of goodies to one elderly lady who had been unwell.

David Ede had been in the Merchant Navy and worked his way up through the ranks to gain his Master Mariner’s Certificate

David Ede had been in the Merchant Navy and worked his way up through the ranks to gain his Master Mariner’s Certificate

‘Isn’t that marvelous,’ she said, ‘but who’s it sending this?’ I told her I didn’t know. ‘I wonder if he is married?’ she replied with a twinkle in her eye. ‘I’ve no idea,’ I said, trying not to smile, ‘but I’ll ask.’

The sad thing is that David never saw her face, or that of any of the others whom he helped, but that was just how he was — generous, thoughtful and very modest.

It was how he and his brothers had been brought up by his wonderful mother after his father died when he was just three.

‘If you can’t do a good turn,’ she taught him, ‘don’t do one at all.’

Those words never left him.

I met David in 1986 when he rang the office where I worked to speak to my boss. We chatted while he waited to be put through.

I remember his exact words: ‘how old are you?’, ‘are you married?’ and ‘will you come out with me?’ He arrived with a single red rose to take me to my first-ever meal in an Italian restaurant.

David had been in the Merchant Navy and worked his way up through the ranks to gain his Master Mariner’s Certificate. He left the sea when he was granted custody — very unusually at the time — of his three small sons following his divorce. We married three years later.

I loved him more than anything in the world. He bore his three last years of ill-health, more or less housebound, with good humour and died at home with his sons and grandchildren around him.

I placed a single red rose on his coffin. It was only after his funeral, that the village finally learned the identity of its Secret Santa.

  • David Ede, born March 28, 1939, died June 21, 2018, aged 79.


My mother Hazel

 By Philip Turner

Travelling to Argentina in 1954 took two days, a terrifying flight in a rickety DC6 — and a lot of courage. But my mother did it, despite speaking no Spanish, having little money and her three young sons, Malcolm, Tim and me, to consider.

But she was following our father Robert who’d moved to Buenos Aires to take up his dream job of becoming an international football referee with the Argentine Football Association.

And within a few years, she had created a wonderful life for us all there, establishing a very successful English language school.

Hazel Turner set up the Liceo Britanico teaching English as a foreign language in Argentina

Hazel Turner set up the Liceo Britanico teaching English as a foreign language in Argentina

Born in Halifax, Yorkshire, in 1920, Mum won a scholarship to attend Princess Mary High School. Her father died before she was born so she and my grandmother were very close, and boyfriends were discouraged. But one Saturday in 1938 when she was 18, Mum met my father at the Alexandra Dance Hall.

As my father, an engineer, was in a reserved occupation in wartime Britain, they were able to get to know one another before marrying in March 1940 and settling in Illingworth — until that move to South America.

When my father’s two-year contract came to an end, they decided to stay. He began teaching at a private English school and mother set up the Liceo Britanico teaching English as a foreign language. By the Sixties, it had four branches, 35 teachers and 2,500 pupils.

But my brothers and I were growing up and moving away. So in 1976, my parents sold their beautiful home and left a thriving business to return to the UK, and settled in Surrey, where they ran a small boarding school.

Dad died at the age of 92, after 71 years of marriage and she lived another six years. She would have been proud to have notched up 98 birthdays. She’d been born in a leap year, on February 29, and always said it was very unfair — so every four years, the family gave her an extra special day!

  • Hazel Turner, born February 29, 1920, died March 18, 2018, aged 98.



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