Sir John Vassar-Smith
The names Vassar-Smith and Saint Ronan’s are synonymous. The Vassar-Smith family has been directly connected with the School since 1918 – a span of four generations, which must be close to record-breaking.
Sir John Rathborne Vassar-Smith was the school’s fifth Headmaster. He succeeded his father, Sir Richard, as Headmaster in April 1971 and led the School for the next 26 years until his retirement in December 1997.
Sir John was born on the 23rd July, 1936. His father joined the teaching staff in 1937 and Sir John followed the family tradition and was a pupil here from 1944-49, before going up to Eton. He cut his teeth teaching at Cothill House near Oxford before joining his father’s Common Room at Saint Ronan’s, to teach principally Geography and Maths.
As a pupil, he experienced life as an evacuee at Bicton Park in Devon and shared the excitement of the move to Hawkhurst in 1946.
On his return to the school, as a teacher, he allowed the pupils into his study during break time, a tradition that subsequent generations will remember. The study at that time was in what is now the school shop and more keen-eyed observers will notice the hidden speakers in the walls, through which records used to be played.
Sir John was joined on the staff by his wife Roberta, ‘Bobbie’, who took over the teaching of Divinity from Sir Richard. With their children, Richard and David, the family lived in a flat in the middle of school in the term time and in the Lodge at the end of the drive in the holidays. This arrangement eventually involved well over 100 moves.
The introduction of computers was another innovation that Sir John warmly embraced, his study slowly filling with machines. Programming in Basic and word processing regularly took place in Rest, as well as keenly played games of ‘Top ten’, an in-house developed tables game, where success could be rewarded with a cream egg in the Easter Term.
Despite this enthusiasm for technology, also documented in the hundreds of photos taken and developed in what is now the water closet, it was always the whole individual that the school looked to develop, producing rounded competent pupils who would be well-equipped for the challenges faced in the rest of their education and in life beyond it.
In the last couple of years of his Headmastership, the change to charitable status was achieved, providing the school with essential benefit and making sure it could continue into the future.
On their retirement, Sir John and Lady Vassar-Smith moved to Oxfordshire. They continue to take a keen interest in the School, albeit from afar, and manage a visit most years, usually combining it with a stay with Sir John’s sister, Juliet, who lives in Hawkhurst. Their eldest son, Richard, has continued the family tradition of working at Saint Ronan’s. He is now the Head of Science and he keeps the rest of the family posted so that they all know what’s going on!