Obituary: Michael Ward, modern languages teacher who earned the respect of many pupils

Michael Joseph Ward. Born 25 November 1950 in Oakley, Fife. Died: 17 February 2017, aged 66.

Michael Joseph Ward obit
Michael Joseph Ward obit

Michael Joseph Ward was born on 25 November 1950, in Oakley, Fife, though like his five siblings, he spent much of his life in Dunfermline. A highly intelligent, erudite, individual, the educational institutions graced by his presence included Blairs College (near Aberdeen), The Gregorian University and The Scots College in Rome, and Glasgow University.

After graduating from there, he entered the teaching profession, and for many years was a teacher of modern languages at Queen Anne High School in Dunfermline. As an avid reader, he never stopped learning, adding, in adulthood, the Gaelic language to his already impressive list of skills.

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His teaching was of a piece with his approach to any task; professional, conscientious and thorough, which earned him the respect of the many pupils who came to understand with his help that learning can be much more than the mere acquisition of knowledge, important though that is.

His quirky sense of humour often caught them unawares, too, as did his occasional side-excursion into teaching them a French folk song, to remind them that language can be much more than utilitarian. No-one knew better than he that innovations in education are not what makes the difference; that what counted was dedicated, effective teaching, and that was what his pupils got.

Mike was a long-time member of the Fife-based folk band Heritage, having joined them in 1978. In need of a solid keyboard player to master the group’s portable harmonium (pump organ), they found the ideal candidate in Mike.

The group also discovered that he was not only an excellent keyboard player but also a wonderful penny-whistler and player of Northumbrian and Scottish smallpipes. He had taken up the Northumbrian pipes in the late-70s, and attended the week-long courses, tutored by Joe Hutton, which were a feature of the Edinburgh Folk Festival at that time.

For a number of years he also attended annual residential weekend courses, also tutored by Joe Hutton, in Rothbury. He met a number of kindred spirits at these courses, many of whom would become lifelong friends.

While Heritage members up to that point had learned and played mostly by ear, as a classically-trained musician (he had been college organist during his time at Blairs), Mike could easily sight read. He had a respect for the folkies as well and used his skills to help the group develop and expand their music.

Over the following 15 years or so he played with Heritage all over Scotland and around Europe, absorbing the music of other traditions and contributing to the repertoire and musical sophistication of the band.

Another recruit around the same time was fiddler Pete Clark and he and Mike struck up a particularly creative partnership supporting and adding to the band’s trademark sound.

As a language teacher (before his retirement) and multi-linguist, Mike had a particular affinity for France and Italy, and this was of great help when the group travelled to these locations. Of course he had a much wider musical fraternity, extending to the English borders area of Northumberland, as well as Brittany, the region of Occitania in France and Friuli, in Italy. Only three years ago he spent almost a month in the Southern Appalachians with his old musical colleague Jack Beck where he made many new friends and, yet again, expanded his horizons.

He could be somewhat self-deprecating about his considerable musical skills.

Given a piano, Mike could keep you entertained for hours with improvised arrangements of traditional music. He was particularly masterful when it came to slow airs. More than once it was suggested to him that he should really consider recording and/or publishing some of these gems, but, sadly, it never happened.

In 2015, along with his friends, Alistair and Brigitte Marshall, he visited the museum at Blairs, his first visit back there since he had left as a pupil.

The curator, upon learning that Mike was an alumnus, escorted him into the college buildings which, though in a parlous state, awaiting redevelopment, looked in many respects as they must have done when the last pupil laid down his pen for the last time. It was an experience which Mike greatly enjoyed, but admitted to finding somewhat spooky!

On that same visit, he was also reunited with the organ in the beautiful St Mary’s Chapel at Blairs.

He and Alistair had plans to return there, to rehearse some of the very atmospheric Breton music for bombarde and organ.

A great connoisseur of Indian cuisine, his curries were legendary and his advice on which restaurants to visit much sought after.

During the last few years he had faced a number of serious health issues with great dignity and acceptance, born of his deep Christian faith. A devout Roman Catholic, Mike was never narrow-minded, was passionately interested in human beings, of whatever faith or hue, and accepted that everyone had their particular path to follow.

Mike was survived by four of his siblings, brothers Pat, Harry and Paul, and sister, Brenda. His younger sister, Elizabeth, predeceased him.