Obituary: John Kempe CVO

Headmaster of Gordonstoun and a distinguished war pilot

Born: 29 October, 1917, in Nairobi.

Died: 10 May, 2010, in Sussex, aged 92.

'WHEN I retire," John Kempe said during his time as headmaster of Gordonstoun, "I hope my tenure will be remembered as one in which the bounds have been increased without loss of discipline, so young people know where they stand."

His distinguished decade at the Morayshire public school did indeed somewhat alter the original concept of the institution, which had been founded by Dr Kurt Hahn in 1934. The gritty, rather austere, approach to education was somewhat altered and Kempe introduced, a no less rigid, but more embracing attitude. Girls were admitted – and allowed to wear skirts of the Gordonstoun tartan – and figures from the arts would do a residency at the school, give lectures and be available for informal meetings. Summer schools were introduced, which helped the finances, and ladies joined the teaching staff.

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Kempe also had a distinguished record in the RAF during the Second World War and flew not only in the Battle of Britain but also in hazardous missions escorting ships and troops throughout the Mediterranean theatre. In addition, he was a prominent mountaineer and made impressive conquests in the Alps, the Himalayas and the Andes.

John William Rolfe Kempe was the son of an officer in the Colonial Service. His father, sadly, died of fever when he was four and Kempe was brought up in Norfolk by his mother. He was educated at Stowe and Clare College, Cambridge, where he read economics and mathematics. At the latter he also joined the University Air Squadron and on the outbreak of war immediately volunteered for the RAF.

In 1941, he was posted to No 602 Squadron – formerly the City of Glasgow Squadron, which was initially stationed at Drem near Haddington. At the height of the Battle of Britain, the squadron was relocated to Sussex and Kempe flew Spitfires.

In May 1942, he was promoted to squadron leader and the following year was mentioned in despatches. From 1944 he flew, principally Mosquitos, in North Africa and acted as a convoy escort on the Malta run. Before being demobilised in 1946, he was again mentioned in despatches.

He tried to settle into business in the post-war years but heard that his former housemaster at Stowe was now a master at Gordonstoun and he wrote inquiring if there was a place for a maths master. He was in luck.

After three years, however, Kempe was offered the post of headmaster at a new school in Hyderabad being set up along English public school lines. He remained there until 1965, when he was appointed headmaster of Corby Grammar School in Northamptonshire, where he remained until 1967.

The following year he took up the post of headmaster of Gordonstoun. It was very much in the public eye as not only had princes Philip and Charles been there, but princes Andrew and Edward were also pupils during his headmastership. But such high-profile pupils never threw the calm and resilient Kempe. Indeed, he was pleased when a Middle East student answered a media question simply: "We don't call them 'prince' or anything like that. Just 'Andrew' and 'Edward'. They're friends."

Kempe expanded the school by broadening its base. For example, he travelled widely in the Middle East and encouraged Muslims to send their children to Gordonstoun. The school's enlightened but firm regime was for these pupils a revelation – "I can join the Coastguards and can help run the school fire brigade" one enthused. But Kempe maintained the emphasis on community service and he encouraged pupils to get involved with local hospitals, hostels, kindergartens and a prison.

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This international outreach programme brought a wide range of speakers to the school. They covered all aspects of social events and thereby increased the awareness of the students about the life they were about to experience. The speakers ranged from a Soviet diplomat through to a counsellor on drug abuse to poets, Oxford classicists and musicians.

Kempe also introduced individual tutors for those in the sixth form and the delightful tradition of regularly inviting a selection of the boys and girls to his house for tea, sherry or his own home-brewed beer.

Kempe improved the academic standards considerably while at Gordonstoun. His desire was for excellence in some capacity in every child and through their time at Gordons-toun each pupil should achieve their potential.

As one of the announcements from the school yesterday states: "The high standards he encouraged for academic and life success were founded on a strong personal moral code for Christians, Muslims and children of other faiths. Service to the community, the 'trust system' through self-discipline, and allocating each student a personal tutor were three pillars of his philosophy, which Gordonstoun will thank him for and recognise as his strengths."

Kempe was a widely respected mountaineer who in his youth climbed extensively in the Alps. While at Hyderabad, he was much involved in exploring a route to ascend the then unconquered Kanchenjunga. When it was climbed in 1955 much of the credit for determining the successful ascent was credited to Kempe.

Kempe was awarded the CVO in 1980 and published A Family History of the Kempes in 1991. He served on numerous mountaineering and European committees.

One memory from a former pupil concludes: "John spoke out against tyranny and quoted that when good men do nothing, the corrupt and bad will take control. It was heady stuff to know that standing up and speaking out was possible in youth."

In 1957 Kempe married Barbara Huxtable. She and their two sons and a daughter survive him.