Obituary: Sandy Strang, English teacher, sportsman and lauded after-dinner speaker
The death of Sandy Strang just a few days before his 66th birthday came as a shock to many of his vast array of friends who were unaware that he was battling a particularly aggressive form of pancreatic cancer.
Typically, he had refused to make a fuss of his final illness and indeed was upset only that he had to call and cancel his speaking arrangements.
The Strang, as he was known on the after-dinner speaking circuit, was a raconteur of wit and humour who was never anything less than hugely entertaining, his speaking informed by his experiences of life as a teacher and a sportsman.
What a sporting life that was. With his usual self-deprecating style, he described himself as a ‘failed footballer’ yet played at Wembley and Hampden before he was 21, won a Cambridge Blue at football, then played cricket to a very high standard over many years.
It was his teaching above all that made a massive impression on so many young lives, as testified to by the tributes paid to Strang on social media and in the press since news of his death broke. His teaching career was spent entirely at one school, Hutchesons’ Grammar, the famed independent school on the south side of Glasgow, where he had been senior depute rector.
Strang was born the only child of Alex, a PE teacher who also died at the age of 65, and Maysie, née Scott, who survives him at the age of 102. He was given his middle name after the Scottish athlete Eric Liddell, with whom there was a family connection.
His mother remains a formidable lady. On her 102nd birthday last October it was revealed that the former newspaper editor’s secretary smoked 20 cigarettes a day before quitting in her 90s and taking to a daily glass of Chardonnay instead.
Strang won a foundationer’s scholarship to Hutcheson’s and while there he not only excelled at his studies but also showed considerable sporting prowess. He ended his first spell at ‘Hutchie’, as the school is always known, as Dux in 1969.
He won another scholarship, this time to Cambridge University where he studied English and Classics, and also won his Blue by wearing the No. 9 shirt in the match against Oxford at Wembley in 1970 which Cambridge won 1-0. Strang had also signed for Queen’s Park FC, then as now the only amateur club in Scotland’s professional leagues, thus enabling him to say correctly that he played at both Wembley and Hampden by the age of 20.
His tenure at Queen’s Park under coach Eddie Hunter was brief, Strang himself saying he “departed from that Hampden Theatre of Dreams precisely as he had arrived – fired with enthusiasm!”
After gaining his first class honours degree in from Cambridge, Strang immediately returned in 1974 to Hutchesons’ where he taught English. It would be the start of nearly 30 years as a teacher, during which time he gained a reputation as a firm but fair schoolmaster who inspired pupils in many different ways. He also went out of his way to help young people reach their potential.
His fellow cricketer and family friend Richard “Siggy” Young, a well-known figure on the West of Scotland cricketing scene, recalled Strang’s assistance to him.
“I suffered terrible injuries in a road accident in 1976 and spent a considerable time in hospital recuperating. He would come and see me on a regular basis and Sandy spent time tutoring me in the school work I had fallen behind in.
“His mentoring and instruction is evident to see over 40 years later, where his guidance and supervision back then, has resulted in my status as a published author. He helped me write As the Willow Vanishes, wrote the foreword and then presented the book launch for me within the Football Museum at Hampden in April 2014.”
Strang’s teaching skills were soon recognised and in 1987 he was promoted to depute rector of the school. Among the pupils he taught were Scotland’s former rugby captain Gordon Bulloch, the broadcaster Carol Smillie, Great Britain Davis Cup tennis captain Leon Smith, the MP John Nicolson and former editor of The Scotsman John McLellan who said in his tribute: “It was as an educator that Sandy Strang truly left his mark. I was privileged to be taught by him twice and even as a newly-qualified teacher his were not classes in which anyone was tempted to test the boundaries, not least because the engagement of a natural communicator made it unnecessary.”
Football remained his first love and he continued playing into his 40s for Clydesdale Albion among other teams. Strang was also passionate about rugby but it was as a cricketer that he excelled. Over the course of 40 years he played mainly for Clydesdale, where he was captain for a spell, and Ferguslie as wicket-keeping batsman, appearing in nine Scottish Cup finals and being on the winning side in six of them. He also counted Kelburne and Poloc among the teams he had played for, and was a great supporter of Weirs.
Strang once joked about himself, as ever, that as a wicket-keeper “he has lately been compared to Michael Jackson – both wear gloves for no apparent reason!”
He was still playing until recently, and last year played in his first Forty Club Scotland district match. He told Siggy Young he would play again this year, but sadly that will not now happen.
The esteem in which he was held in the sport can be seen from the fact that he was both a Board Director of Cricket Scotland and Executive Committee member of the Western District Cricket Union. The Union said: “He was a fierce competitor and a gentleman, both on and off the cricket field. He will be greatly missed.”
On leaving Hutcheson’s in 2003 following a crisis period in the school’s history, Strang made a second career out of journalism.
He wrote features, sports reports and columns in a stylish prose for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Evening News among others. He was known especially for his after-dinner speaking. Countless sports clubs and black tie corporate dinners were enlivened by his wonderful witty speeches, and woe betide any speaker, as I did on a couple of occasions, who had to follow a speech by The Strang.
His toughest assignment, however, was to give the eulogy at the funeral of his best friend, the media lawyer Martin Smith who died of cancer at the age of 56 in 2004. All who heard it will never forget it.
All the tributes that have been paid to Sandy Strang since his death mention again and again the word gentleman, and that he most certainly was.
He was also caring and kind, a man of jest and jokes but also capable of serious insight as he showed in his work for this and other newspapers.
Though he had relationships with several women, Strang never married and is survived only by his mother. His funeral will be in private tomorrow, to be followed by a public memorial service in Sherbrooke St Gilbert’s Church in Pollokshields at 12.45pm.