Former Principal of Bangkok Patana, Mrs Nicolette Quekett is 100 years old on April 14. Another former Head of School, Andy Homden, looks back on her remarkable life.
One of the greatest generation
By any standards, Nicolette (Nicky) Quekett has lived a remarkable, and for those fortunate enough to know her, an inspirational life. Although she would not think so, she has been a role model of how to live life to the full for many. Ready to take risks, unaccepting of any convention that dulls life, she became a teacher who inspired respect and admiration not only in Australia, but also overseas, particularly in Thailand and as a volunteer in China, where she did her most outstanding work.
Nicky was born in April 1919 in Grahamstown South Africa where her English parents had moved so that her father could take up an academic position. She is one of what has been called the “Greatest Generation”. She grew up and was educated in Grahamstown, where, slightly unusually for a young lady in the 1930s, she took a degree from Rhodes University. This, perhaps, was a sign of things to come. Throughout her life she took the initiative to develop a career, raise her family and lead by example as the equal of any man in an age when women were neither inclined nor supported to do so.
There are two key periods in Nicky’s life that shaped her destiny: the global conflict of 1939 – 1945 and her arrival in Australia in 1970 – a country which she embraced in every respect and made her own.
War years and after
As the conflict in Europe and Africa deepened she volunteered and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs) in 1941. After a period as a parachute packer she again volunteered to be posted to Kenya where she spent four years, without leave, at Nairobi Airport as one of two women in a world dominated by men.
She was a member of “Movement Control” at the airport. Nairobi had become an Operational Training centre for allied aircrew.
Here Nicky was responsible for the detailed logistical organisation that ensured that aircrews who arrived together from all over the world, trained together and then were posted and travelled together to become viable and effective operational units. It was vital and meticulous work – Nicky knew just how important it was to the men, their morale and fighting effectiveness to keep them together as they were posted onwards to take part in active operations. She devoted herself to her responsibilities.
It was in Kenya that she met her husband, Bill, after the war had ended. Bill’s career in aviation as a manager of overseas airfields on behalf of BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation), lead to a travelling life spent mainly in the Gulf, Middle East and Asia. For Nicky the expected life as a company wife was neither desirable nor sensible. She started a variety of enterprises, and in 1955 she took a Teaching Diploma at the University of Cape Town in order to open what would now be called an international school in Aden, and to develop her own career. As she wrote later:” To be without a job was to be without a purpose and life just pulled you along.”
Teaching became her professional passion. She was a remarkable pioneer in the world of international education. Her most important work was done at Bangkok Patana School in Thailand, which is now one of the most important international schools in the world. Here as Principal during the 1960s, she anticipated 21st Century trends by reforming the curriculum, (especially in the teaching of Mathematics), introducing regular assessment to track student progress, committing to the professional development of staff and to the idea of all members of a school becoming “lifelong learners”. During her time at Patana the school grew markedly and under her leadership it moved to a new site to accommodate numbers. Hers was a remarkable achievement. As the history of the school published on its Golden Anniversary in 2007 records:
“Five years under the guidance of the enthusiastic and pioneering Mrs. Quekett had resulted in innovative developments in the facilities, curriculum and extra-curricular fields. There was therefore a feeling of universal sadness when she announced her plan to leave the school to take up a teaching post in Australia.”
Nicky has called Australia home since 1970 – for nearly half her lifetime. No one has embraced the country more enthusiastically. With employment in the airline industry in the 70s increasingly tenuous for her husband, Nicky became the family breadwinner. She was the driving force behind the move to Western Australia. Here she found a job, bought a little house and brought up her family. The move wasn’t easy:
“I firmly believe” she writes in 2008 “that if you are optimistic enough, miracles can occur”. Nicky makes her own miracles, and the move to WA was one of them. Recalling her first visit to Perth, she writes:
“I was falling head over heels in love with the whole city. More than that, I was beginning to feel I loved the whole state, the country, the area”. She was joined by her husband after his last post overseas ended, until his early death in 1976.
She embraced the egalitarian WA life style and the warmth of strangers for strangers. As a daily swimmer at Port Beach, until very late in her life she won the respect and friendship of the “Port Beach Polar Bears”. She was accepted as “a mate” although they still regard themselves as “Nicky’s Naughty Boys”! One can imagine some of the surf-side conversations!
After Bill’s death, the next ten years were devoted to family and teaching, until what became a remarkable “retirement”, which opened a new chapter in her life in which her energy, willingness to take risks and her uncomplaining commitment again presents Nicky as an inspirational role model. At the age of 67 she attended a U3A lecture at UWA about teaching English in China. Volunteers were needed to carry on the work. She volunteered almost immediately and at the end of 1987 she found herself in Deng Xiao Ping’s China working at a remote teacher training college.
The story of her developing relationship with a group of students and their teachers who were all on the brink of China’s remarkable economic growth is vividly told in her first book, written in 1999, “Letters from China”, which Diana Athill described as “a tremendously interesting and moving book.” And so it is.
One can only wonder at this remarkable lady travelling and living in what by the standards of the late 20th Century were primitive conditions. Her flight from China after Tiananmen Square is described in gripping detail. She returned to the country for a third time, even after the turmoil that followed, at the behest of the college after one of her successors had left unexpectedly. For her colleagues and students she was not only a teacher, but a guide and confidante.
She had also become an unofficial ambassador for Australia – there can be no doubt that the teacher who used “The Man from Snowy River” video as a teaching resource won the country many friends! To help her charges understand the quick talking Aussie actors, she wrote out a summary of the story, had 300 copies screen printed and gave them to her students. Improvisation is one of her strong points. There is little doubt that she completely won the hearts and profound respect of her students, for Australia no less than herself.
A continuing role model
In her eighth, ninth and tenth decades Nicky has continued to enjoy life, writing four books, travelling when she could (she was almost arrested in Belarus during a railway trip shortly after it became independent because the country’s change in status rendered her visa invalid) and always engaging with the people she met, sharing her enthusiasm for life, travel, education and Australia. Many will remember her visit to Patana for the school’s Golden Anniversary in 2007 when she celebrated in style and spent as much time as she could with the children.
At a time when role models are desperately needed, there is something about her that inspires the people she meets. One of her friends speaks of Nicky’s special gift to be able to bring people together, and her willingness to learn continually in order to maintain contact. Nicky was deservedly awarded the Order of Australia in 2018 for services to Education. A remarkable lady indeed.
Happy Birthday, Nicky – 100 years young, April 14. 2019.
Andy Homden CEO Consilium Education
Feature Image: Nicky in Aden circa 1957