A great teacher
THE death of Fr. Claude Leetham—"Claude" as he was affectionately known to all those who loved him—is a serious loss to the Church and a personal bereavement to his friends. It is difficult to catch or convey the essence of this many-sided man, a great teacher, a great headmaster (he was president of Ratcliffe for many years), a distinguished author, a man of the widest culture, of great energy and above all of bubbling humour, zest and fun.
Over a quarter of a century has passed since I first come to know Fr. Claude, when I was a young schoolboy and he was vice-president of the College. At that time the president was Fr. Cuthbert Emery, a man who exercised a profound influence on my life and all the boys who knew him, but the. presence of Fr Claude equally pervaded the school.
They made an admirable counterpoint. Fr. Emery was the constitutional sovereign with wide ultimate powers.
Fr. Claude was his prime minister. His energy and zest for life and wide interests accepted every part of school life.
I came into closest early contact with him through appearing in the school plays which he produced with such skill. He was a splendid producer, with sensitivity and understanding for the authors' work and able to bring out the best in his actors. He had some good material, including Ian Bannen.
My own stage career began as a Fairy in "Iolanthe" and I graduated through the roles of a French maid in "It Pays to Advertise" and Kitty Spetigue in "Charley's Aunt" to the glory of Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., in "H.M.S. Pinafore" and Lord Richard in "The Pantry"!
Fr. Claude was always interested in boys who were different from the average, either for better or worse. Perhaps this was because he himself, although he exercised authority, was much more an outsider than an insider and had little sympathy with establishments, ecclesiastical or otherwise. He would take immense trouble with individual boys whilst at the same time never losing a wider educational vision.
His views were forthright and uncompromising. Sometimes he underestimated the effect his words were having on others. At times he could wound people by the vehemence of his utterance, but there was never any lasting injury because he was so transparently free of even the slightest form of malice. With such a man clashes were inevitable. I had my share—not being exactly. not even at that age, a supine character.
One occurred when 1 was at the height of my pietistic period and founded a local crusade of prayer for the souls in purgatory linking up with the nuns at Syon Abbey who were going in for similar work. Every night after supper 1 would lead a tiny but devoted band into the church to pray for the souls of the departed.
Er. Claude did not approve at all. He felt it was the beginning of the introduction of the "sodality" system which he detested, and banned us. But 1 was not going to be worsted so easily and appealed, over his head, to the president, who upheld me and the crusade went on. I was sure I was right at the time, but now I wonder whether it was not all a little self-conscious and precious.
On another occasion I began an argument with him at noon and it went on until nearly four. Neither of us came into luncheon and reports of the classic encounter filtered out through scraps of dialogue which were picked up by boys eavesdropping outside the oak door of Fr. Claude's study. In the end it was a drawn battle and Fr. Claude retired to bed with a heart attack. From that day we were always close friends.
Er. Claude did many things for Ratcliffe. He was a big man in every way, in features, in frame and in outlook. He initiated a massive building programme at the school: he built science blocks. study blocks, a refectory and a new chapel. The design of the chapel was typical of his far-sightedness: he built it in circular form and wanted to have the altar facing the people but was stopped from doing this by his ordinary.