Obituary: David Drysdale, founder of Fathers Network Scotland

Born: 22 July, 1965. Died: 4 July, 2016, aged 50.

David Drysdale
David Drysdale

David Drysdale was a widely respected social entrepreneur with a particular passion for men’s personal development and the role of fathers in families.

The founder of the campaigning group Fathers Network Scotland and the 2016 Year of the Dad – “celebrating of the difference a great dad can make” – he discovered his personal mission after the apparent suicide of two friends caused him to reassess his life.

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The father of two – including a baby girl conceived only weeks before he was paralysed by a rare form of cancer – he was known as a dynamic and warmly humorous leader, with a gift for bringing together diverse communities to help strengthen Scotland’s families.

In what turned out to be his final public speech he said: “I believe that underneath our individual pursuits we are all part of some bigger purpose.”

Born in Cambridge and raised in his father’s native Scotland from the age of eight, David John Drysdale was an outgoing and academically gifted child, educated in Edinburgh at Morningside Primary and Boroughmuir High, where he was head boy, leaving with a clutch of Highers and the offer of a place to study medicine at King’s College, London.

A year out in Australia seemed to change his priorities, however – he was particularly inspired by his uncle’s progressive views and concern for the underprivileged – and on returning he eventually found his niche reading Philosophy and Political Theory at the University of Essex.

A passionate communicator, he also immersed himself in acting and music, winning awards at the Edinburgh Fringe, and subsequently travelling the world for four years as an actor with the English Teaching Theatre before taking an MA in Political Philosophy at the University of York.

By the early 2000s, he was a multi-media designer working in London on a series of start-ups, with various CD ROMS and an award-winning educational video to his name. A fanatical Hibernian fan, he spent four years as player and manager with London Hibs Football Club, lifting a number of national trophies.

But for an outwardly sociable, witty and successful young man these were also years of growing inner unease, which reached a crisis point in 2000 with the news that a friend of his, the director of the English Theatre company, had taken his own life.

Almost as disturbing as the death itself was Mr Drysdale’s sense that he was emotionally unequipped to deal with it, either before or after. “I saw him a week or two weeks before he died, and I had no idea he was depressed. I don’t think it would even have hit my radar, his sadness, because I was incapable of seeing it.”

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Only two years later, a childhood friend and business partner, Chris Wells, died of a drug overdose. It was another shocking initiation into what an older David would recognise as an epidemic of male isolation, mental health problems and suicide.

“By 40 I had come to realise how inadequate, uncomfortable and phoney I felt around other men,” he would later write. “I had started to wonder when I was going to grow up.”

One crucial rite of passage came from an organisation called the Mankind Project – for which he later worked as centre manager in Scotland for four years – giving him tools to help men understand and process their emotions and find their mission in the world.

The shock and delight of fatherhood proved another defining moment, after he married his beloved Misol, a Korean student he met while studying in Lyon, France. Their son was born in Edinburgh in 2007, where David discovered that the path for hands-on dads was far from well-trodden.

Throwing himself into school runs and parent and toddler classes, he experienced a bias against men as carers which he came to see as the flipside of the inequality women experienced in the workplace. Determined to do something about both at once, he gathered a group of concerned professionals together and in 2008 Fathers Network Scotland was born.

By 2014, under his leadership, the social start-up had become a widely respected, gender-balanced organisation with its own research base and the ear of the Scottish Government.

Avoiding the polarising arena of gender politics, his gift was in showing how supporting dads as nurturing carers benefits everybody: children, families, society as a whole. He gave evidence at the equal opportunities committee of the Scottish Parliament, and a keynote speech at the first conference of the National Parenting Strategy, which now explicitly included fathers as a result of his influence on the National Father’s Advisory Board.

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As 2015 approached, he was delighted to hear his plan for a Scottish Year of the Dad was to be fully funded via the Children and Families directorate of the Scottish Government.

Then in March 2015, a troubling pain in his back was discovered to be Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare and aggressive tumour on his spine. It rendered him paraplegic within hours of him being admitted to hospital, at the start of what would turn out to be a marathon 16 months as an in-patient.

After the initial shock his many visitors at the Western General were struck by his positive outlook, sense of humour and his determination not to turn cancer into the enemy. “I wouldn’t say I’m suffering,” he told me earlier this year. “Because I don’t waste energy thinking this shouldn’t be happening to me.”

Mentoring his colleagues from hospital, he watched as a wide range of organisations, service-providers and individuals signed up to the Year of the Dad campaign. He took delight in family, particularly baby Maya – their “miracle”, born in November 2015 – but he wished he could do more to support them.

Then by early 2016, months of chemotherapy seemed to have eradicated the initial tumour, enabling him to help launch Scotland’s Year of the Dad at Edinburgh Zoo with the Scottish Government and dozens of partner organisations, “celebrating the difference a great dad can make”. It looked as if he might finally be able to go home to a new wheelchair-accessible flat.

However, a new scan showed the disease had spread to a lung, where chemotherapy subsequently proved unsuccessful.

Asked what he was most proud of, shortly before he died, he said: “I listen to my son and praise him freely and tell him I love him every day”.

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He is survived by his wife Misol, son Manow and daughter Maya.

Nick Thorpe