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NEWS > In Memoriam > A Tribute to Mike Dray

A Tribute to Mike Dray

We were much saddened by the passing of former staff member Mike Dray. Sally Houlton, Biology teacher at Pate's Grammar School 1985 - 1989 and 1998 - 2015, wrote this tribute for his funeral.
16 Nov 2022
In Memoriam
Planting in the Conservation Area
Planting in the Conservation Area

I was invited by Mike’s sister to say a few words at his funeral about Mike’s time at the Grammar School. I joined the Biology Department in 1985 as Sally Jenner and went on to marry the other member of the Department at that time, Ashley Houlton.

Mike arrived at Cheltenham Grammar School in 1975 as a teacher of Biology under Don Bennett. When Don retired Mike took on Head of Department and then he was appointed Co-ordinator of Science when the girls’ and boys’ schools merged in 1986. I joined the Grammar School in 1985 and Mike was my first Head of Department.

He managed with a light touch and everything ran smoothly. Mike had a calm, measured approach, took all the responsibility in his stride and never took his eye off the ball, particularly when it came to Health and Safety. Mike would extol the value of taking time to look ahead and anticipate problems before they arose.The only thing that would rouse him from his usual state of equanimity was the mention of OFSTED. 

He was rarely to be seen without his trusty clipboard. This was his filing system of things to be done, organised a bit like geological strata.  It worked. Although for one term, when he tried to clear his desk at the end of each day, the bulldog clip was struggling to cope.

Mike showed touching care and concern for the members of his department. He never expected more of his staff than he expected of himself. ‘Should you be here?’ he would ask if someone was not feeling 100%. He and Caroline regularly hosted end of year get togethers for all the science staff at their home, Blossom Hill. Yet it is a measure of his humility that he confided in me once that he was worried about not being a good Head of Department.

There were other phrases Mike liked to use: he was pragmatic and getting through a lesson sometimes required ‘kicking for touch’ (which usually meant showing a video); a new teacher might be encouraged with the words ‘the first ten years are the worst’. We might get together at break for a ‘sitrep’ and he always liked ‘teaching in the round’. There were one or two other phrases, not suitable for a place of worship!

The Biology Department was initially male dominated, but in time it became exclusively female, apart from Mike. He seemed to be somewhat bemused as one by one the members of his department took time off to have babies. This seems surprising for a teacher of Biology! 

Something I noticed, which has been commented on by other colleagues and pupils, was that Mike moved in a mysterious way. He would seem to float or glide serenely along the corridors, banking round corners. This was when he wasn’t walking around on the tops of the desks while he was teaching.

He taught his subject rigorously, with great attention to detail, and apparently had a love of marking essays, judging by the number he set.  Mike embraced new ideas and would delight in telling us he had been ‘live on the internet’ during a lesson. He created glow-in-the-dark bacteria using early genetic engineering techniques and was as thrilled as his students to see the results. He was teaching imaginative lessons right up to his retirement and clearly loved being in the classroom, taking a paternal, yet perceptive, interest in his students. He earned and deserved their respect.

Field courses were an integral part of Biology A level. Mike was very much in his element, being a consummate botanist at heart. His bible (his other bible) was' Clapham, Tutin and Warburg', a weighty tome which was a flora for the British Isles. I once asked him if he would help me identify some flowers. He said ‘yes, he had a spare half hour’. We spent the entire half hour scrutinising and keying down one low-growing plant with small green leaves and no flower!  I think he decided it was St John’s wort and was happy with the time well spent.  His enthusiasm for plants was not always shared by the students.

Mike had an uncanny sixth sense when it came to detecting if plans were afoot among the students. His strategy on field courses was to take a bath, late at night, and listen.Together with Ceri Smee, he once interrupted a midnight party on the University campus at Aberystwyth. They followed the students at a distance to some prearranged spot and of course it was dark… ‘Come on we’re over here’ called out a helpful student.  ‘Yes, we know’ replied Mike. A reckoning followed. But field courses had their compensations: Mike was able to organise a more exotic trip to Belize, and was accompanied on that occasion by Caroline and some more dedicated students.

Mike’s other significant contribution to life at the Grammar School was as Major and then Lieutenant Colonel Dray. From 1977 he was Contingent Commander of the Combined Cadet Force, a role which Mike took on in addition to all his other responsibilities. He was not a military man, but could appreciate the benefits of military training. With help from other staff, he organised adventure training, parades, camps and training (such as shooting and first aid) for competitions. The cadets excelled in the competitions, but I hope they didn’t follow his example when it came to marching; in the early days his left arm swung forward with his left leg, rather than the more conventional left arm with right leg!  

Adventure training could be quite arduous, even for the staff. There were long drives to Aviemore in the CCF bus and the landrover, which took two days and sometimes involved a long wait by the roadside for the AA.  Ashley remembers huddling in a tent with Mike in the early hours in temperatures well below zero near Hay Bluff. It could have been minus ten degrees and they were discussing what they would say in the Coroner’s court. On one occasion in the Lake District, the heavens opened after the group had pitched their tents. The campsite flooded and Ashley and the boys took refuge in the minibuses. In the morning there was no sign of Mike. Had he been swept away?  No, he had passed a peaceful night asleep in the ladies’ toilets! On another occasion, Mike, Ashley and I set off in two minibuses to Capel Curig camp. The snow got heavier and one minibus got stuck. Mike decided to take all the cadets on to the camp in the other bus and Ashley and I resigned ourselves to sitting out the night in the bus that was stuck. After no more than ten minutes, Mike reappeared, still with all the cadets. He had spun the bus through 180 degrees on some ice, bounced off a wall, then had calmly told the cadets he had decided to turn round to come back and collect Ashley and me. Mike could keep a cool head.

After he retired in 2006, Mike maintained close links with school. He gave practice interviews to applicants to Cambridge and Oxford, he contributed to the development of the conservation area and he liked to come along on trips to the Natural History Museum in Oxford to attend lectures (something he had himself instigated when he was teaching). Here was a man who liked to keep his brain active. 

I have told you some stories which I hope have made you smile. Mike would have liked that. But what I really wanted to do was to get across the essence of the man. By this afternoon I think it’s highly likely many of you will have forgotten the words I have said, but I hope you will take away a lasting impression of Mike Dray, teacher. Using testimony from past students, colleagues and from my own experience, I can say that he taught with a wealth of knowledge, with energy, dedication, assiduousness, a boyish enthusiasm, a wry sense of humour, fairness and kindness.  

Like many others, I consider myself so fortunate to have had Mike as a colleague and as a friend.

Sally Houlton 10th October 2022 

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