Remembering Professor Roger Ainsworth

On 13th March, friends, family and colleagues of the late Professor Roger Ainsworth gathered in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, for his funeral. For those unable to attend, below is a transcription of the address given by the Reverend Dr Colin Thompson, Emeritus Fellow of St Catz.

We are here to bid farewell to one taken too soon from among us; here to mourn, because sorrow and grief are our good and proper response. None can feel Roger’s death more keenly than Sarah, Tom, Emily, Harriet, and the two little grandchildren who brought such joy into his life. But we are also here to honour a great and a good man, a devoted family man, and one whose service to this University in general and to St Catherine’s College in particular has been unstinting and exemplary.

I was privileged to enjoy a close and enduring friendship with Roger for almost fifty years, and today I speak of the man, because for all his distinction as an engineer, a tutor and a Head of House, it was his humanity, wise, warm and utterly without side, which was the foundation of all that he achieved and the reason why he was so greatly loved. We hope that Roger’s family will find some comfort and strength from knowing that the love they had for him was so widely shared. Truly, we are all the poorer for his passing.

Roger’s Welsh and Lancastrian parentage endowed him with the moral strength of generations of Welsh-speaking farmers and chapelgoers and a benevolent straightforwardness, qualities already apparent when I encountered him in his first year at Jesus College. From the outset he was a loyal and committed member of the community and a stalwart of the Chapel choir. After dinner, choir members migrated to The Grapes, where they joined in songs largely unsuitable for divine worship round a battered old honky-tonk played by an old guy in a red waistcoat and a black bowler and in the company of two elderly Welsh ladies called Sally and Mary who were very partial to the drinking of barley wine. He cherished such memories, as do I each time I walk past that venerable hostelry.

Like me, he was a grammar-school boy who benefited from the post-war educational settlement. We didn’t call it access in those days, but it was, of its kind. How appropriate, then, that he should have become Master of a College the origins of which lay in Victorian legislation intended to open Oxbridge up to less privileged students. He knew what Oxford had given him and held this to be so precious that it should never be taken for granted or squandered. Evolve, naturally; but do not forget where you have come from and why you are here. Tradition and innovation were not enemies, but friends, and vigorously independent colleges were not a threat to but a vital enhancement of the whole. He liked to quote Hector’s words in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys: ‘Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do…. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on.’ And pass it on he did, and, if we live true to his memory, so shall we.

He couldn’t abide pomposity or affected grandeur. Titles and distinctions, of which he could justly have been proud, did not change him and he was at ease in the company of people of all ages and from all walks of life. If Roger had a fault – though it was in essence a virtue – it was that he believed the best of people, assumed that they held to the same principles as he did, and trusted that they would abide by them. He was therefore disappointed, even angry, when experience taught him that this was not always so. Sometimes my phone rang – Roger telling me that his blood was boiling because someone or other was playing silly games or, worse still, being devious or placing convenience over principle. When it came to contentious matters of university or college politics he would characteristically say ‘I’m going to play that with a straight bat’; and that was absolutely the man, arguing from principle and saying it plainly as he saw it. He believed with every fibre of his being that power was only to be exercised with responsibility and at the service of the ideals of the institution, not, never, in order to enhance the standing of those who were entrusted with it.

Roger’s long tenure as Master has been a golden age in the life of St Catherine’s. He devoted all his energies to creating an environment of openness and trust, which in turn has enabled a flourishing common life and a clear sense of direction. His service to the University, too, was extraordinary, not least his many years as a pro-Vice Chancellor and as Chair of the Building and Estates Committee during a period of unparalleled growth in the University estate. He also served as a Senior Proctor and would have been amused that this service should take place on the day of the Admission of the new Proctors, since he knew all too well how very convivial the lunches that marked it were. Somehow, he found time to continue engagement with his own academic subject and to serve on public bodies, local and national. He was a brilliant fundraiser, not because he was a practitioner of the art of spin and the smooth tongue, both of which were entirely alien to him, but because potential donors could see how deeply this man of absolute integrity believed in the cause.

Each of us will have particular memories, vignettes of Roger: the unmistakeable figure making slow and stately progress on his bicycle; his love of gadgets and machinery; buying a very expensive lawnmower when his senior manager (Sarah, that is) was away; finding an old Danish stove on eBay and installing it in the family home.  His E-Type, Mr Jaggers, was a source of occasional pride but also frustration, because it sulked in damp weather. He’d tease us hopeless arts types with a twinkle in his eye as we struggled to find an answer to some technical question. He was kind and generous to the core of his heart. When I was marooned at home in the wilds of Otmoor after a heavy snowfall, Roger rang to enquire if I was all right. When I explained that I was completely snowed in he drove over in his Land Rover and made deep tracks in the lane at the back so that I could dig out my car and escape: Roger to the rescue, not for the first or the last time.

Music was important to him; after all, it was in the Jesus-St Anne’s Musical Society that he first met Sarah. He had a fine bass voice and was delighted to be told not long ago that he would be welcome to join the Cathedral choir when in St David’s – almost as thrilled as when years earlier in the college choir an undergraduate in the row in front told him that his voice made her knees tremble. He never forgot that. Nor will those present ever forget that evening of impromptu Gilbert and Sullivan in the Lodgings, when Roger was entertaining our Visiting Fellow Joseph Heller and his wife Valerie. Quite how it began I don’t remember, but once Roger and I got going we couldn’t be stopped and general hilarity ensued. It led to modest thespian glory, for twice we ganged up with undergraduates and performed songs from the Savoy Operas at Catz summer concerts – the Master of the College cavorting on the stage, and how the audience loved it.

Roger was a practical, rational scientist and he was also man of faith, a committed member of the Church of England. This was an integral part of him. Unbothered by doctrinal niceties, he felt strongly the importance of shared values and of belonging to a living tradition with faith, hope and love as its highest ideals, for they are the poetry and art and music of the science of the human spirit. That sense of belonging was central to him – in close-knit family life, in his college, with its rich diversity of subjects and students, in the university and the city, in the community of the Church. He loved as much the quiet of the termly Latin communion here as the animated singing of Welsh hymns at the Cymanfa Ganu in St David’s. Every year at the College Carol Service he read from the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, which tells of eternal being embracing temporal becoming through the elemental symbolism of darkness and light: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’. Many chapters later, as the Last Supper ends, John adds three short Greek words, ήν δέ νύχ, ‘And it was night’. He does not mean it happened to be dark outside. He means that everything that mattered seemed lost, swallowed up in the pervasive night of betrayal, suffering and death. We would not be human if we did not fear that that was all there was to our short span of existence. But in a stunning oxymoron John sees the glory of Christ revealed most clearly when he is lifted up on a Cross. You and I see no light shining there, as we may not now, only the awful dominion of death. But John’s story did not and does not end at that point. There is a garden early in the morning on a third day and a weeping woman who does not recognise a stranger walking there until he speaks her name. There are other encounters which baffle and disturb, each of them shards of light amid the prevailing gloom, hints which grow into the conviction that death has no final dominion over the love which has come from God to dwell among us. Christian hope is born in the darkest place of our fears and grounded in the eternally self-giving love of God:

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

That light shines, so small, so fragile in our present darkness, yet it is one with that greater light which is the end of all our journeying and into which this dear, beloved friend of ours shall pass.


Photo: Andre Camara

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