In Defence of Youth Work is committed to remembering and respecting those, who have contributed to the creative and pluralist tradition of work with young people we wish to defend and extend.
John Parr, former Head of Youth and Community Work at the Westhill College in Birmingham died recently. John Holmes has penned this informative and touching tribute.
It was in 1978 that I first met John. I was a researcher looking at career paths of ex-students of the JNC qualifying courses in England. I met John, as Head of Community and Youth Work at Westhill College in Birmingham, the longest established Youth Work course. I was looking for support in pursuing research that I was quickly finding out was a highly political and contentious area. John, along with a number of other heads of courses (such as Peter Duke from Leicester, ….) were well aware that the research could threaten the funding of their courses (direct from the DES at this time) but were helpful to me. Little did I know at the time that I would be taking over John’s role at Westhill, on John’s retirement in 1991.
By 1978 John had already had a long career in youth work. Born in Liverpool, and with lifelong family links to the city, Birmingham became his home for his adult life. John attended Westhill College as a student in the 1950s and became a lecturer in the 1960s. When I met him I remember he reminded me of my Dad, and seemed from a different generation. His commitment to helping young people was very clear, but for me, as a child of the 1960s, his liking for the youth culture of the 1950s, such as Tommy Steele made him seem the other side of the ‘generation gap’. Only later did I come to realise how open he was to others, how good he was at listening before offering any advice. He had strong principles about not offering advice when not appropriate. I always remember him telling me that he would not interfere with my role when I became head of Community and Youth Work at Westhill. This must have been difficult giving his long links to the college and even living opposite when he retired. It must have grieved him to see Westhill closed and the buildings demolished in the years before he died.
John always struck me as a modest man, and so it came as no surprise to find out at his funeral just how much he had done in the service of others. Within youth work, he was highly valued within youth organisations working with homeless young people, involved in youth counselling, and chaired a key committee of the Birmingham Association of Youth Clubs (BAYC) for many years. A story he told me showed how he tried to build links between his various roles, and the enduring power of youth work. A new Westhill Principal, Gordon Benfield, was appointed in the 1960s and when he was introduced to John they greeted each other as long lost friends. Apparently, John had been Gordon’s patrol leader in the Scouts in Liverpool. John persuaded Gordon to become chair of BAYC, so helping to keep youth work central on Westhill’s agenda, at a time when teacher education was becoming dominant.
Another thing I learned at John’s funeral was just how important John’s Christian faith was to him. John was a very active Methodist lay preacher and clearly his faith gave him the strength to do so much for young people. For me as the first, and last, non-Christian head of Community and Youth Work at Westhill, it was somewhat strange to hear the words ‘Bless you’ from John’s lips, but I now recognise the importance of the tradition that John came from and the huge contribution he made.
John Holmes, January 2018