Harry Quinn

Former head of English department at George Watson's College

Born: 26 May, 1944, in Newcastle.

Died: 5 December, 2007, in Edinburgh, aged 63.

APPOINTED in 1979 by Sir Roger Young to succeed the long-serving Donald Doull, Harry Quinn was from the start a powerful, demanding and successful head of the English department at George Watson's College in Edinburgh.

He expected the highest possible standards of effort and attainment from himself, his colleagues and his pupils; and set a formidable example by working hard and by making work as enjoyable as possible. A former pupil described his classroom as "an outpost of literary Bohemia". The pupil added: "To step into it was to forget for 40 minutes that you were actually at school. His walls were decorated with posters from theatrical productions, the desks arranged in collegiate circles to encourage discussion, and in his cupboard he kept a contraband record player on which to play for his spellbound pupils crackling LPs of Laurence Olivier performing Shakespeare soliloquies."

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English as he taught it was laced with liberal doses of art, science, philosophy and music, and "somewhere along the way, and it's all these wondrous things, he taught you about life itself".

In his earlier years at Watson's, Harry contributed greatly by coaching rugby, and for many years by leading hill- walking projects for groups of third-year pupils in his beloved Lake District. His skill and patience as a producer of drama were hugely effective in a series of productions ranging from George Farquhar's Restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer to Maxim Gorky's Enemies: by no means standard school drama fare, but in Harry's hands a vivifying and rewarding experience for many casts and audiences over the years.

In the 1980s he took on duties as director for the established amateur Edinburgh Grand Opera company, with memorable productions including Verdi's Nabucco and Puccini's Turandot.

His mastery of language and dramatic structure found new expression over ten years from 1993 in a series of radio plays co-written with his friend Colin Douglas. The first of these, The Life Class, a touching comedy about two teenagers dying from cancer, was shortlisted for the Prix Italia in 1994; with Wendy Seager, its female lead, winning the 1994 Sony Best Radio Actress of the Year award for her role. But what pleased Harry most of the various reactions to that work was a phone call from a former pupil who asked: "Mr Quinn, how do you know how we talk when you're not there?"

A later play, Dress up and Sing, poked gentle fun at the fraught and crowded internal dramas of the amateur opera scene. Shortly after its broadcast, Harry received from an Edinburgh solicitor a long letter setting out in great detail the main elements of an impending civil action alleging collective defamation on a grand scale, threatening colossal damages, and revealing only in its last paragraph that this, too, was a joke among friends.

Harry attended South Shields Grammar School and did well there, going up as an exhibitioner to Exeter College, Oxford, where he rowed in his college eight. After teacher training in Oxford, he joined the English department in St Paul's School in London in 1966, making his mark first as an innovative young teacher and soon as senior drama producer for the school, with productions including The Beaux' Strategem, Serjeant Musgrave's Dance and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Soon after his move to Scotland Harry discovered, in the company of teaching colleagues, the Munros, and through the 1980s and 1990s climbed a great many of them, celebrating his 200th – at the end of a day that took in An Sgarsoch and Carn an Fhidhleir: a long walk in endless summer light – with champagne that had cooled all day at the bottom of a river. Sadly, failing health prevented him from claiming them all. He died suddenly, only three years into retirement.

Harry will be remembered as a gifted English teacher to whom every pupil mattered. Not all heads of department take their full share of the teaching of sets that include the less gifted and the less interested. He did, and they made the most of it, awakening to new realms of enjoyment, insight and even scepticism, and sometimes achieving exam passes that astonished their parents.

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He was throughout his career a teacher's teacher, dedicated to working hardest where it mattered most, and showing limited tolerance of changing fashions in school management.

He leaves Gill, whom he met at school in South Shields and to whom he was devoted, and their three sons, Ben, Sam and Barney.

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