Dr Mike Hornby (Former staff 1971-2002)

It was Stowe’s extremely good luck in 1971 to be advertising for a Chemistry teacher just when Michael and Janet Hornby were deciding that the arrival of family life should mean no more moving from one research job to another. A hugely distinguished 31-year Stowe career then began, accompanied by a 29-year reign over the outpost of Vancouver Lodge.

Michael – or ‘Doc Hornby’ – soon settled into the Science Labs. Though modest about his achievements, he was a brilliant scientist, communicator and teacher at all levels. He opened minds by being both passionate and mischievous in the classroom, delighting in his pupils’ practical experiments whether they went exactly as planned or not, knowing that we all learn just as much from our mistakes. His constant involvement in environmental projects and the observing and cataloguing of all manner of wildlife reinforced the authenticity of his enthusiasm – he often passed on an uncomplicated love of the natural world as well as an understanding of the complex equations behind it. Despite being very much his own man, with a cat-like independence, he was a good departmental team player and always a tremendous support to his Heads of Department, be it in Chemistry or Biology. He and Brian Orger shared a tremendous love and enthusiasm for demonstrations and experiments, which made him fun and stimulating to work with and the very best of colleagues. He also became an examiner, sometimes
a Chief Examiner, overseeing Chemistry A- and O-Level, and writing the first GCSE syllabus for the Oxford Local Board. He co-authored Foundations of Organic Chemistry, that has since been translated into multiple languages, and he even got involved, via his friendship with a local horticulturalist, in the decontamination of Gruinard Island.

Although Science was the bedrock of his work, he personified Stowe’s enthusiasm for seeing pupils not as knowledge vacuums to be filled, but as individual human beings of massive potential to be drawn out and developed. His work, interest and exceptional ability as a Sixth Form Tutor soon saw him overseeing the whole School’s Higher Education applications, including doing the final rewrite of countless UCAS references, before ultimately becoming Senior Tutor, a post which involved leading not only the Tutor system, but the whole of the academic side of the School.

Meanwhile he had pioneered a startlingly varied menu of clubs and societies for interested Stoics: examples include the winemaking (oh, yes) of the Zymase Society, the dining society Anacreon, the Colloquium Discussion Society, bridge and chess clubs, the Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, caving, climbing and abseiling clubs, as well as planting an avenue of plane trees along Peggs Terrace with the Forestry Club. Michael went on two Stowe expeditions to Nepal where he made friends and after visiting Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in the Chitwan National Park he managed to arrange to return to Nepal in 1983 for three months: he was the first Westerner to work with the King Mahendra Trust, touring remote villages with a generator-powered slide projector, encouraging villagers to avoid soil erosion.

As Senior Tutor he developed the old Form-Master system into House Tutor groups and created an entire programme of academic support and PSHE. His guidance of curriculum development was especially balanced as he had such a broad sympathy and understanding of both arts and sciences, popular new subjects and irreplaceable older ones. He attended and supported hundreds of concerts, plays and literary meetings. He led the Headmaster’s Essay Society and ensured that colleagues were sufficiently inspired and supported to run equivalent societies such as the XX Club for younger Stoics.

Despite such a formidable intellect and list of extraordinary achievements, Michael is primarily remembered and lauded for his quiet, kind, gently humorous manner underpinned by the strength of his convictions. He gave himself two weeks at the beginning of the year to learn all the names of his new pupils, then carried a pocketful of change from the third week so he could fine himself if ever he made a mistake: it was a little illustration of his determination to see that everyone was afforded the dignity and respect that was their due. He took risks, believing that if you gave Stoics a bit of licence, they only rarely let you down. He used his passion for minority activities and pursuits to help draw out those for whom team sports and mainstream were ineffective. He championed clever students who needed time and space to be scholarly in their own way and was visibly joyful at that click of understanding when something fell into place for an enquiring mind.

He was a tremendous listener, able to absorb seriously but also to use his wry or mischievous humour to keep the flow going and the number of Stoics and staff who have at some important time appreciated his patient support is too great to try and calculate. Many Stoics were lucky enough to be invited down to the Hornby family home at Vancouver Lodge, to marvel at the house full of hospitality, conversation, music, well-read books of all kinds, games of every description, bits of climbing kit, no television anywhere and a surrounding of well-tended woodland, birdboxes, vegetable patches, ducks and hens.

Stowe is rightly proud of having been among the first to walk away from a fondness for “moulding”, preferring to nurture individuals towards self-realisation and for thirty years Michael led the way in showing how to put that aim into practice. It’s an inspiration that he has left such a strong mark on so many of us through gentle kindness and good humour.

Michael retired to the Lake District and another twenty years of every imaginable outdoor and intellectual pursuit, gathering an ever-increasing band of companions and family, all eager to be the one to walk and talk with him, all sharing his love for simple but important things: views of the hills, bonfires, the growth of vegetables and trees, glimpses of wildlife, games, conversation, company and laughter. He will be especially missed by Janet, Sarah, Emma and Will.

Stephen Hirst (Former staff 1985-2008)