Most of you will know that during the last few years of her life, Mary suffered from Alzheimer’s. When she received the diagnosis, I’m not sure she was fully aware of what lay ahead – I hope she wasn’t. But one thing that she did know was that she wanted to remain in her own home. This, I am happy to say, she was able to do, thanks to the dedication, care and love shown by Virginia, her live-in carer, who in turn was supported on a daily basis by Michelle. I know that both Virginia and Michelle miss Mary very much and, on behalf of the family, I wish to thank them for providing Mary with as good a quality of life as was possible in the circumstances .
But today isn’t about sadness. Mary’s funeral service took place in the Forest of Dean, because her brother Roland was unable to undertake the journey to Ware. It was a lovely service, very peaceful, and attended by Mary’s close family and Virginia and myself. We have incorporated some of the elements of that service into this one and the family have selected the music which reflects Mary’s love and compassion. Mary’s niece Miranda and nephew Adrian are here today to represent the family and we all hope that this service will help you to recall your own memories of happier times spent with Mary, and, for those of you who knew Mary only in the later stages of her life, to see beyond the frailties of the illness and glimpse the true person that she was.
Mary Elizabeth Anne Sherratt ( she often joked that she was glad her parents hadn’t included all the Queens of England in her name), was born on 4th December 1938 in Shrewsbury ( Shrewsbury not Shrowsbury! she always reminded me),the second daughter of Roland and Isabella Sherratt, and sister to Jean. Following the birth of their third child, Roland, who was born with cerebral palsy, Mary’s parents were instrumental in setting up a local group for children with this condition, and we can surmise, I think, that this loving concern greatly influenced Mary and shaped her outlook in adult life. As a child, Mary was an avid reader, and this stayed with her for most of her life. Her taste in books was eclectic but her all time favourite was Lord Of the Rings and she was pretty keen on Who Dunnits , which probably accounts for her ability later on as Deputy Head to wheedle the truth out of unfortunate miscreants. I have it on good authority that her nickname was the ferret! (Sherratt the ferret!!!).
But, I am skipping ahead.
At school, she studied Maths, French and Geography at “A” Level or the equivalent, but it was Geography which was her love, and she went on to obtain her degree at Sheffield University, followed by her Certificate in Education at Nottingham . It was during this period, that she lost both her parents within a year of each other.
As a qualified Geography teacher, she applied for a job at the then Ware Grammar School which occupied the site where Ware College now stands. She was in two minds about accepting the post and she did have other interviews in the offing so, returning home by train, she made two columns and listed the pros and cons.( Mary liked lists!) The pros won and she arrived in Ware in September 1962. During the next few years, the school underwent a period of change, becoming Presdales School and moving to its current site. By 1967, Mary was ready for a new challenge and accepted a 3 year contract at Montego Bay High School, Jamaica. Now of course, we think nothing of flying to Jamaica: Mary’s mode of transport was a banana boat. She spoke very fondly of her time in Jamaica, making a life-long friend of Sheila, herself a Jamaican and a teacher at the school, getting to know Sheila’s family and exploring different parts of the island. After Mary’s return to England, they kept up their friendship, travelling together through Europe, to Australia and to Kenya. The last holiday they undertook was prior to the 2012 Olympics, when Sheila came to stay with Mary in order to visit the Olympic Park and they combined this with a week in Southern Ireland. Sheila remained in regular contact throughout Mary’s illness, and continues to keep in touch with Virginia and myself, and I know that she will be thinking of us today.
Jamaica proved to be an inspired choice of location for Mary because she took full advantage of the opportunity it afforded to travel extensively through North, South and Central America, seeing for herself the geography of the countries and experiencing at first hand the different cultures.
Mary had not intended to return to Presdales and Ware when her contract in Jamaica came to an end, but she had kept in touch with Mary Spill, her Head of Department, who was able to tell her that there was a temporary post going. Mary accepted this temporary solution and the word temporary acquired a new significance! The seal was set, I think, when the then Headmistress, Margaret Helmore appointed her Deputy Head. Mary made Ware her home and supported Margaret through the transition of the school from a three form entry selective girls’ school into a five form entry all ability school with expanding Sixth Form, laying the firm foundations of the school as we know it today.
Mary loved Presdales: she brought Geography alive in the classroom, enjoyed accompanying girls on Field trips and was able to combine the discipline necessary as Deputy Head with fairness, kindness and compassion. You have just heard “A Time for Everything” from Ecclesiastes. I was privileged to read this at Mary’s funeral service in the Forest of Dean and I took the liberty of adding a couple of lines of my own: A time to be firm and a time to be lenient, A time for severity and a time for compassion – Mary did this so well. During the gales of 1990 , Presdales experienced a tragedy when 15 year old Emma was killed by a falling branch. At that time, there was no professional counselling provided as you would have today, but the following day, Emma’s friends and classmates were to be found huddled together in Mary’s office, being made cups of tea, allowed to draw comfort from one another. These words, written by a former pupil when I informed her of Mary’s passing sum up very nicely I think, Mary the teacher: “A wonderful, inspiring woman who was dedicated to teaching, who served and enabled so many young women to achieve. Of course, so many of us did not appreciate then what Mary did for us”.
Mary’s superb organisational skills and attention to detail ensured that school events ran smoothly. She supported concerts, drama productions, dance evenings – and I have been reminded of one dance evening when, lights out, performance underway, a group of vociferous young men started catcalling and making unacceptable remarks. Well, Mary was having nothing of this! Lights went on, the performance was stopped and Mary gave the audience a piece of her mind. Needless to say, the evening continued in an orderly fashion! Mary worked tirelessly for the Parents Association, ensuring that the whole school, staff and girls, got fully involved in their annual Christmas Bazaar. It was not so much that we felt compelled, her enthusiasm was just infectious.
Mary cared about people and, if she could help, she would. Shortly before our Head of German was diagnosed with myeloma and due to accompany the German Exchange to Kaiserslautern, Mary saw that she was struggling and volunteered to go in her place. The dates were changed to half term so that she could fulfill her responsibilities as Deputy Head before going and I accompanied her. Neither of us had anything more than a smattering of German, but we were well looked after, with Mary being hosted by Elisabeth, the teacher responsible for the exchange in Germany. On our journey home, when we boarded the train at Kaiserslautern to return to Frankfurt airport, our reserved seats were already occupied. Not a problem – Mary set about sorting out the situation in her faltering German, while our “A” level students looked on gratefully. Mary kept up her link with Elisabeth, and this is what Elisabeth wrote on learning of Mary’s death. “All the good memories are coming back now, when you and Mary came to Germany, when I stayed in Mary’s house twice. We did not stop talking and I think I learned a lot improving my English”. Mary was always happy to welcome people into her home – whether it was helping me out with Spanish Exchange teachers or hosting Soroptimist friends from our friendship links in Northern Ireland, Belgium or Norway.
Throughout her time at Presdales, Mary continued with her travels – exploring the antiquities of Crete, Rhodes and Athens with Jill and Angela; through Scandinavia to the North Cape in a minibus with Isobel; Nepal and India with Maggie; and China, and all at a time when this type of travel was far from commonplace. In fact, the India trip took place during the Christmas holidays but exceeded the holiday period by two or three days. Not to be deterred Mary requested and was granted a few extra days leave of absence! I am sure that her travels informed and enhanced her teaching. She would certainly have taken loads of slides for use in the classroom as all her holidays were well photographed and documented. I started holidaying with Mary in 1989 and our destinations included the States and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Iceland, Jamaica, Turkey, the Azores as well as many European countries – Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Austria.These would be exploring holidays, with many (not unwelcome) geography lessons thrown in. The copious notes made but not understood in my second form ( which is now Year 8) geography lessons leapt off the page in my mind’s eye, suddenly making sense! And stepping out from a helicopter onto virgin snow in brilliant sunshine on a glacier in south island New Zealand has to be a wow moment! Indeed, there were many such moments – too many to enumerate here – when you are just overawed by the landscape, the scenery, the forces of nature, the wildlife, the history. However, one not-such-a-wow moment was being eaten alive by midges in southern Labrador, having endured a very rough crossing from Newfoundland.
Mary and I would share the driving on these holidays, with the passenger doing the navigating. I almost preferred the driving in case my navigational skills didn’t come up to scratch! However, I could tell left from right, and I could read a map, so I must have been OK. Mary’s map reading was of course superb but, without a map, she did have a lousy sense of direction and it took a few misadventures before I stopped putting my trust entirely in the geographer!
By 1994, Mary was again in need of new challenges and decided to take early retirement. Given what we know now about her illness, it was a wise decision, for it gave her time to channel her energies into new ventures, without the pressures which came with full time work. She didn’t desert education for she joined U3A where she was happy to be on the receiving end, but, most importantly, she was invited onto the governing body of Tower JMI School , here in Ware, where her experience, expertise and management skills were put to good use and to the benefit of the school. Not surprisingly, she served as Chair of Governors for a number of years. When she felt it was time to step down from this role, she still continued to support the school by listening to children read.
The Ware Society also benefitted from Mary’s time and interest. She loved her town and was happy to serve on the committee to help to ensure the preservation of the essential character of Ware and the prevention of inappropriate development.
Mary’s love of wildlife found a practical outlet in the Herts. and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, for which she was a frequent badger watcher. As a dairy farmer’s daughter, I avoided getting into a discussion about cattle, badgers and TB! But Mary the animal lover couldn’t just stand by as evinced in an incident in Turkey. When visiting a Roman amphitheatre with myself and two other friends, we were high up on the outer rim of steps when down below a man entered the arena with a bear on a chain. Mary was outraged – she started descending the steps at an alarming rate, arms flailing and shouting at the top of her voice. I don’t know what the guy thought, but he beat a hasty retreat, fortunately taking the bear with him! Of course, Mary couldn’t change the customs of a country but she hadn’t passed by, just as back at home she never passed by anyone selling the Big Issue – she always stopped and purchased a copy, recognising the dignity of work.
Mary’s concern for others led her to join the Hertford branch of Soroptimist International. For those of you who don’t know, Soroptimist International is a global organisation for women, working to improve the lives of women and girls, both here at home and around the world. Our current international project Educate to Lead – Nepal, would have resonated strongly with her. Mary was a loyal and active member of Soroptimist International Hertford and District for over 20 years, serving as secretary and taking the presidency twice. In fact, she was asked to take on the role of president the second time, in order to organize the club’s 50th anniversary in 2006. Of course, it was a lovely celebration, hugely successful and organized to the nth degree, with all the “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed. (indeed , this attention to detail, together with her immaculate map work stood her in good stead almost to the end, as she would spend hour upon hour colouring in intricate patterns, when all the other skills had left her). But I digress: Mary’s travels and her studies of Human Geography gave her real insight into the needs of other peoples and one of the main charities which she championed as President of Hertford Soroptimists was Water Aid. Clean water is a basic human right, and Mary continued to give regularly to water Aid for the rest of her life. At the last Soroptimist Conference which Mary was able to attend, she was delighted when a younger Jamaican woman came up and introduced herself. This was Jeanne who had been taught by Mary in Montego Bay all those years ago. It’s a small world.
Off duty as it were, as I have already mentioned, Mary loved to read and she could spend hours immersed in a book. She also loved doing jigsaw puzzles – the more challenging the better – but they had to be pretty scenes-country cottages, landscapes or seascapes, not baked beans! She enjoyed her membership of the National Trust, visiting many historic houses and heritage sites. Above all, Mary loved her garden, and retirement afforded her the time to spend many happy hours weeding, planting, pruning, dead heading and, I suspect, just passing the time of day with her supportive neighbours, giving advice whether or not it was needed. Indeed, she did keep her garden looking lovely and she was right to be proud of it. Mary’s carers can testify to the hours she spent there in the earlier days of her dementia, and to the fact that, walking through town, she would stop at the lovely planters placed along the high street to dead head any fading blooms.
Central to Mary’s life were her friends and family. She was very good at keeping in touch with old and new; she was “Auntie Mary” to her friend Sue Fulcher’s children, the Baker children who grew up next door to her before she moved to her current home, and the grandchildren of Norman and Liz Broughton, whose daughters Sharon and Hilary, Mary taught. Most important of course were Mary’s actual family. She took an interest in everything that involved family members. She loved walking her sister Jean’s dogs in Worsley Woods in Manchester, and enjoyed the Gloucestershire countryside with Roland, his wife Mary and their two children, Miranda and Adrian. She often talked about you, Miranda and Adrian, and was extremely proud of all your achievements and of your children. Supportive of her family at all times, Mary was unstintingly loyal and devoted to Jean, giving of her time and energy whenever Jean called upon her, even when it took a toll on her own well-being. To Roland and his wife Mary, she showed her love in a practical way whenever illness or hospitalisation made life particularly difficult for them.
Although with the passing of the years the physical distance between them became more of an issue, with Mary in Ware, Jean in Manchester, Roland and his wife in Gloucestershire, they remained in constant touch. Happily, the Christmas and New Year before Mary’s Alzheimer’s really took hold, they were able to meet up as Pam Jones kindly accompanied Mary to Manchester by train and then Miranda and Adrian drove her to stay with their parents before bringing her home. Sadly, Jean passed away 12 days before Mary, but Roland and his wife will be thinking of us now as we remember and celebrate Mary’s life.
As I have informed people of Mary’s passing, the words most frequently coming back to me have been “such a lovely lady, such a kind lady”. We cannot be sad when such a lovely lady is suffering no more; we can only be glad that her life, in whatever way, has touched ours.