logoBill Dickie
An appreciation by Niall Crozier.
Many thanks to Niall Crozier and The Portadown Times for permission to use.
Bill Dickie


A retired Portadown College teacher, past-president of the town's rugby club, serving president of the cricket club and highly distinguished World War II veteran has died. John William Dickey - Bill to everyone who knew him - was 83. He died suddenly on St Patrick's Day at the Church Road home he shared with his wife, Ann, to whom he was married for almost 60 years. An elder of Armagh Road Presbyterian Church since 1967, he founded Portadown's Tinnitus Society, in addition to which he was an enthusiastic member of the town's Probus Club. Although born in London on October 7, 1922, Bill was an Ulsterman through-and-through. Raised in Islandmagee, he was the second-born of three children, his siblings being brother, Terry, and sister, Renee. Bill had just turned three when his father - a Navy officer - died, largely as a result of wounds suffered in the Great War. Months after Bill matriculated from Lame Grammar School, World War II broke out. And like every other boy who had been in his class at LGS, he enlisted, joining the Royal Ulster Rifles. By the age of 19, he had been promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant. But it was with a Scottish regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders, that he saw most of his considerable WWII action. His ability as a soldier was recognised throughout and that fact saw him rise through the ranks, becoming a Captain and then a Major. His distinguished moustache dated from those days, his superiors having advised him to grow one in order to make himself look older to those he was commanding.

His was a particularly hard war. He landed on the Normandy beaches on day two of the Allies' reclamation of Europe. He and his regiment fought their way through France, Belgium and Holland, before moving into northern Germany. He was among those who relieved the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 10 miles north of CelIe, and the horror of what the liberators discovered there was something with which Bill lived for the remainder of his life. Psychologically, that took its toll and left him scarred. Even so, he remained in the German-based British Army after the war, his hope being that he would be offered a suitable commission. It was an offer which never came. But while he waited and whilst home on leave, he met - and duly married - Ann, who was nursing in Yorkshire. In 1947, he decided to return to Northern Ireland and resume his studies. He was almost 25 years old when he enrolled at Queen's University, where he majored in geography, taking botany and zoology as his minors. As a married student - a rarity in those days - from a financial viewpoint that was a difficult time for the couple. Upon graduating, he completed a Diploma of Education and, armed with that, he joined the staff of his alma mater, Lame Grammar School, in 1951. He played serum-half for the East Antrim port town's rugby club at that stage, too, captaining the 1st XV. On September 1,1954, he arrived at Portadown College - then at Bann House, of course - to teach the then-new subject of biology. Two fellow-teachers, Arthur Chapman and Roland Turner who, like himself, were to become cornerstone members of Don Woodman's staff began their PC careers that day, too. Arthur attended Tuesday's funeral service at which now-deceased Roland was represented by his children. One of them - Philip - travelled from Liverpool, where he is a member of that city's university's senior academic staff. After 30 years of service at PC, Bill retired in 1984 having worked under the headships of the legendary Don Woodman and his successor, Harry Armstrong, who took over in 1973. No-one who had the privilege of being taught by Bill Dickey can have forgotten his warmth and his ability to encourage. There was, about his classes, a sense of being in a safe place - in the presence of a fine teacher and a very good man. Perhaps as a result of his war-time experience, he knew that respect had to be earned; it could not be ordered or demanded. That he earned the respect of his pupils was attributable in no small way to the regard he, in turn, showed them. He never raised his voice and certainly not his hand. He communicated softly, though in a manner which made it very obvious that he was no soft touch. While he was a disciplinarian, so total was his control and the esteem in which he was held that he did not have to impose discipline. While others might have worried about being too accessible to their students and, as a result, potentially vulnerable, he had no such misgivings.

Years before the word ever became fashionable, he had discovered holistic education, witness the fact that on one famous occasion he told a Portadown College A-Level class, "My job is to make you think in the hope of helping you fulfil your potential as human-beings. And if, in the course of doing that, I manage to teach you a little biology, that will be a bonus." On January 31, 1972, he walked into his classroom to discover a scrawled blackboard reference which appeared to gloat about the loss of life in Londonderry's Bogside the previous day - "Bloody Sunday". Lifting a duster, he swept the words from the board, turned to face his class and said, "I don't know who wrote this, nor do I wish to know. For what I am about to say is not about punishment, but about learning something important. "War is not a game, nor is it fun. It is bloody and it is cruel. It is man at his worst - and sometimes, paradoxically, his best." For the remainder of that post-lunch double period, biology was not mentioned. Instead, he spoke with dignified solemnity about the sanctity of life. Many who heard that eloquent, 70-minute monologue maintain that it was one of the most valuable lessons through which they ever sat. Holistic education, Dickey-style. On another occasion, in an attempt to teach a class the rudiments of the human transport system, he climbed onto a bench, rolled up his trousers and sang the Harry Lauder song, 'Roamin' in the gloamin'. "The word I want you to remember today is haemoglobin, so hopefully the song I've just sung - albeit not very well - will remind you of it." he announced to his startled charges. "Even if you leave this classroom believing that Dickey has gone mad, that is a price I am happy to pay if it helps you to remember 'haemoglobin' and its role."

In many ways, Bill was far ahead of his time. Years before anyone coined the phrase 'new man', he was pushing prams and changing nappies. He treated children with respect. He was neither ashamed nor afraid to admit to his love of ballet and classical music. But he was as red-blooded as any man and passionate about sport, in particular rugby, cricket, gymnastics and athletics. As a young man he had participated in each. As an older man, he coached those codes. Always, he supported them. He enjoyed the schools' hockey, too, supporting it as well. And he loved motorbike racing, frequently attending the North West 200. While not physically big, nevertheless he had a voice which boomed out from the touchline on many a cold Wednesday afternoon or Saturday morning, urging young rugby players to heroism they did not know they possessed. "Low! Hard and low, boy!" he would urge reticent tacklers. When they responded positively to his prompting, his acknowledgement was instant and warm. "Good boy, "he would enthuse. "Good boy." And because he was a man whose opinion was valued, such endorsements really counted to the recipients. At PC, he was Seale house-master, too, and his ability to wring participation from even the most reluctant athletes was the stuff of legend. "No-one is expecting a school record from you, but Seale could use the point you'll earn just by completing the course, "he would cajole procrastinators. "It would be a big help." You couldn't say no. When it came to school plays, he was a superb stage-manager and set designer. Formerly a president of Portadown Rugby Club, he occupied the same post when the town's cricket club was reborn several years ago. At his funeral service, his daughters, Katrine and Fay, both of whom now live in London, spoke movingly and honestly of their father. They recalled his love, his care, his humour, his warmth, his very many strengths and, his very few weaknesses. Many in the congregation, certainly those he had taught, were able to nod in affirmation. They heard him described as having been a man who loved the natural world and who, having travelled with wife, Ann, to South Africa to visit Katrine, her husband Alastair and grand-daughters Kerry and Clare, took to the post-retirement challenge like the proverbial duck to water. Bill fell in love with Africa, admitting that he wished he had discovered its magnificence a lot earlier in life. And being a lover of rugby, he managed to squeeze in a Springboks-All Blacks Test match, of course.

Fay noted the paradoxes - a serious man who loved to laugh; humble, but yet with a sense of pride; a soul in torment who, whilst knowing the dark so well, also knew that the light returns; a dispassionate scientist with a passion for nature and beauty. Former PC head, Harry Armstrong. spoke of a man with the very highest sense of duty who never excused himself by saying, 'I'm not on duty today; that's X's problem." He recalled, "If things didn't look right, Bill would investigate straight away. Putting on his best military mode and tone of voice, he would confront the suspect with a straight question, 'Boy, what are you doing?' or with another straight question even more difficult for a miscreant to answer plausibly because already it inferred an element of guilt, 'Boy, where should you be?' "Bill was utterly reliable and dependable," he added. His four grandchildren took part in the service, with Kerry and Jay laying a wreath donated by the Royal British Legion, who also provided a standard-bearer. Guy and Clare read, as did niece, Moira, and nephews, Paul and David. The music, too, provided a reminder of Bill's military past, with organist, Rodney Spence, and flautist, Ronnie Bothwell, playing Nimrod, that stirringly poignant tribute to a friend from Sir Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations. The service was conducted by the Rev Christina Bradley.