The following is the text of a eulogy given by Dr Stephen Vickers on the occasion of a memorial event for Adam Thorne on 16 November 2019. The text has been reviewed and approved by Adam’s wife Lindsay, and other members of his family.
Today we honour one who is, for many of us, the most complete human being we have ever met. A polymath (nothing to do with counting parrots), with a myriad talents and an immense capacity for hard work. A scholar, who wore his scholarship so lightly that it was never a barrier between him and those of us less gifted. A family man, who adored his children and grandchildren and yet still had concern left over for the thousands of youngsters whom he taught during his career.
Reference to the range of his skills and interests can only barely do justice to most of them. Mixing with a great variety of musicians when his mother was a house mother for trainee composers at the arts venue Tanglewood in Massachusetts, his strongest musical love was for the classical, and yet throughout his life he could converse upon, and take an interest in, Folk, Rock and occasionally Jazz. As teenagers, he and his siblings Peter (who’s here today), David and Elizabeth met many of the most famous musicians of the late 1960s. Arlo Guthrie sang “Happy Birthday” at his mum’s birthday party, and Adam’s family occasionally ate at Alice’s Restaurant. Leonard Bernstein was “always hanging around”.
He and Peter sang in a choir regularly after school.
This love of music stayed with him his entire earthly life. He served for many years as Treasurer of Pershore Mid-Summer Brass Festival, famed throughout the brass band world for its non-competitive friendliness and openness to the talents of others.
Perhaps more surprisingly to many of us, Adam engaged in sport. An early sports writer described golf as “a good walk spoiled”, to Adam it was an opportunity to combine exercise with mathematics, where trajectories could be calculated without military examples, played in an environment more conducive to nature than was American Football. Not that Adam ignored the latter sport, which as a budding student journalist he photographed regularly for his college. With his characteristic enthusiasm, the teenage Adam engaged in both sports with gusto and aplomb.
This love of photography is something which nobody with ten minutes of acquaintance with Adam could fail to notice. The current fashion is to trivialise the significant by reducing it to a backdrop for one’s selfie, Adam’s work was the opposite, bringing out the significant in the outwardly humdrum. Displayed at this memorial you will see jaw-dropping photos of raindrops or Venus flytraps, just a tiny sample of an ocean of thousands of photos to be found at the Thorne household. Two decades ago I asked him to consider establishing a picture agency to assist educational publishing, yet he had so much important work to do that this was not feasible.
Another childhood interest which stayed with him was transport, and specifically railways. I call as witnesses Martins Lockwood and Beckett, with whom he had wonderful discussions on the subject far into our declining years.
Above all, he loved nature. In nature, he saw an expression of its creator. “Nature”, wrote Baha’u’llah, “is God’s will”. He also saw the beauty of nature at a micro level. What to the arachnophobe is an ugly creature was to Adam a fascinating spider deserving of photography. And nobody who has seen Adam’s photographs of leaves can treat them as mere window dressing. Adam understood what the Moody Blues meant when they sang “the veins in the leaf, And the light, and the balance, And he saw magnificent perfection. Whereon he thought of himself in balance”. The environment and the beauty of nature were to Adam a source of spiritual solace, and therefore when he was a surveyor in Western Australia he was content not to see another human being for days on end. The combination of mathematics, triangulation, photography and boundless nature offered an ideal life for Adam, particularly in contrast to the Vietnam draft which had led him to move from Massachusetts to Australia. Observing the Baha’i fast in the baking heat of Western Australia did however prove challenging.
Adam’s photography work is of wide-ranging importance, as are his meticulous records of meteorological data covering half a century (their accuracy marred only by anomalies deliberately injected by his offspring – YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) and his detailed research on the development of the UK Baha’i community. It was not in his nature to do anything haphazardly or half-heartedly.
These qualities are still available to us on this plane, in that they live on in his children. Tim’s interest in birds, and attention to detail about nature, is as redolent of Adam as are Barry’s and Derek’s wide-ranging expertise, honesty, clarity and affability.
That Adam was happy with his own company in no way suggests that he was a loner. We all have our own memories of activities with Adam, one who could talk interestingly and intelligently on any subject, who could be learned without a sense of heavy intellectualism.
The ability to “get through” to, and to make friends with, all humanity, made him a natural teacher. He trained in Geography, combining his interests in people, nature and surveying, and pioneered the audio-visual show to make learning interesting, melding music with his slides. This innovation contrasted stunningly with other teachers of our generation, such as myself, whose tools were the Gestetner (a copying machine with a handle, for those too young to know), the “Banda”, a machine which produced purple handouts that reeked of Meths, and the film projector, which whirred, clicked and invariably mashed the most important segment of every educational film, allowing one’s pupils the luxury of mischief while one struggled to repair it.
These stunning presentation skills also revolutionised Baha’i teaching in this country, as Adam and those who built on his work, such as Rocky Grove, drove up and down the country with audio-visual expositions of Baha’i principles, places and history. Adam pioneered the use of two projectors working in concert, operated with precision by Adam or his sons; it was fifteen years before software appeared to make this easier.
Adam would be a hero to me as a teacher, but he is also a hero to me for the example he laid down in helping people understand the wonder of the Baha’i Faith, and its promise of a world free of warfare in which the time-honoured scourges of slavery, serfdom, illiteracy, misogyny, epidemics, superstition and hunger will give way to a world of peace and justice. What Adam understood is that the speed at which this will happen is conditional upon our human efforts as well as God’s grace.
He was introduced to the Faith by Joany Millar, now Joany Lincoln, a teacher at Simon’s Rock school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where his mother was then working, and where Adam’s established interest in the world was enhanced by contact with ideas of how, as Churchill put it, “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war”. Joany’s introduction to the Faith enkindled in Adam a lifelong commitment to Baha’u’llah’s vision, and to playing his part in it. He threw himself into service to the Baha’i Cause with the same enthusiasm which he put into everything else. For his entire life he particularly studied the talks and writings of Abdu’l Baha on how to treat others, and of how individual conduct is a building block of the new world. Formally enrolling as a Baha’i in Australia, he teamed up with three other British expats, Fiona, Pam and Wendy, to serve the Baha’i Cause in Melbourne and Perth. When they all returned to the UK they were like a breath of fresh air to us. Love, competence, unity, music, audiovisuals, art, calligraphy, together they had it all.
Adam and his friends were a wonderful example; they didn’t lecture the indolent like myself, but showed us by example what fun and what a privilege it is to serve the unification of humanity.
All of them have maintained this devotion throughout their adult lives. Fiona married a chap called Keith, and Pam another called Quentin, and they all returned to Australia. Adam and Wendy married each other, and had two boys, Barry and Derek, both of whom stunned me with their friendliness and intelligence even as toddlers. I wonder what happened to them… Not only did I copy teaching methods from Adam, but even from these lads; their use of role play between glove puppets to demonstrate virtues and shortcomings so impressed me that I adopted the method and have used it periodically ever since.
Their lives were not free of tragedy. Wendy, like Adam a wonderful person with no “side”, developed cancer and passed away when the boys were small. Adam then had a few difficult years, as he brought up the boys, held down a teaching job and also took on more and more duties for the Baha’i Faith, including first as an Auxiliary Board Member and later as a member of the Continental Board for Counsellors.
It says in Baha’i scripture that “no soul is tested beyond its capacity”, and this was true of Adam. His problem is that he had so much capacity. His sons were pillars of strength to him when confronting quietly his own grief; he had wrongly felt guilty at their being left without a mother, but he was so happy when one said to him, “Do you think there is another family as happy as us?” He was soon relieved of his European-wide Baha’i responsibilities, and most importantly, he and Lindsay found each other.
It is hard not to suspect that God was always looking after Adam, however bleak things may have seemed at this time. Adam and Wendy, although they never met each other until they were young adults and for long periods lived on different continents, were born in the same London Hospital at much the same time. Similarly, Adam and Lindsay unwittingly lived as children close together in Rhyl and Abergele as children, although my friend Eric Thompson, another local Baha’i boasting Welsh roots, assures me that Adam’s customary brilliance in no way extended to the Welsh language. Again, Adam and Lindsay never actually met until they were mature, or as we say of cheese, extra strong.
Adam and Lindsay’s marriage has proved a true fortress for wellbeing. Abigail and Alex, Barry, Derek and Tim became a united family, a unity evident to all. Lindsay’s teaching ability, devotion to children with learning difficulties and dramatic brilliance enabled them to serve the young people of Worcestershire superbly. And their contribution here was stunning. From my own work contacts I know that South Worcestershire College teachers rightfully view Lindsay’s work with disadvantaged young people as exemplary. Similarly, Adam was a brilliant teacher. He retrained from Geography to Maths, a shortage subject and a favourite of his, and proceeded to turn it from most pupils’ least liked subject to their favourite.
Most of you will be aware that Adam was very well-organised. His records of Baha’i service, his years of weather data collecting, and his treasury records of Pershore Mid-Summer Brass Festival or Worcestershire Interfaith Forum were meticulous, as was his devoted service over many years to the Pershore Talking Newspaper. Similarly he kept files on other things that mattered to him; cuttings from the Evesham Journal showing him, clad as ever in short sleeves and sandals, explaining to the good people of Worcestershire that the eruption of some distant volcano had put paid to dry or sunny days in the Vale of Evesham for a generation or two, or assessing the predictability of a white Christmas. How he would have loved to record the Avon bursting its banks again!
Two files in particular stand out to me. One is a beautifully arranged file of correspondence with parents, children and letters of praise to Adam from educational luminaries (I will return to the other file later). He received a special award from the Governors for writing and implementing a school’s numeracy strategy, “Your work and professional commitment was outstanding”, and also a thank you letter from the Director of the County Council’s Children’s Services. On his retirement in October 2007 he received a personal letter from Ed Balls MP, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, to the effect that he had made “a real difference to the lives of individuals and to the well-being of our society”. He was invariably a Governor of one or more educational institutions; a typical letter speaks of “your personal steadfastness”. Adam to a tee. Typically of the man, he never told Lindsay of these plaudits. Be assured, if I ever receive congratulations from anybody at all, I will bend my wife’s ear with it; Adam is not like that. Churchill referred to Atlee as “a modest man with plenty to be modest about”. Adam is the opposite; he is a modest man with plenty he has a right to boast about”.
In education it is the learner that matters. Many teachers pride themselves on their sagacity and erudition, whereas both Adam and Lindsay rejoiced in the attainments of their students rather than in their own brilliance. Adam’s file brims with letters he wrote to a student or a parent when they had done atypically well, and with letters they wrote thanking him. One simply said, written in a shaky hand, “Dear Mr Thorne, thank you for teaching me Maths. I wishing you were still my teacher”.
The file also testifies to his ability to laugh at himself. Two primary school girls created a pie chart after an opinion survey as to why pupils liked Mr Thorne; the fact that he was “mad” enjoyed a plurality but thankfully not a majority. Presumably the words “mildly eccentric” were difficult to spell.
This ability to laugh at himself was tested by Lindsay early in their acquaintance. In order to merit a contribution to his favourite charity, Lindsay made him cycle dressed as a turkey to buy groceries at the supermarket, a challenge he embraced enthusiastically. He remarked afterwards at the contrast between the taciturnity of the adults, “Nobody would speak to me” and the trusting children, who surrounded him with searching questions such as “Hey mister, are you a turkey?”. Adam enhanced the occasion by persuading a passing policeman to be photographed “arresting” him with one wing forced behind his back, to make Lindsay feel guilty. What is not recorded is how Abigail coped without her turkey costume for a day.
His advice to Abigail on the day of her marriage, taken from a poem by Ogden Nash, testifies to Adam’s realisation of how lucky he was in his own wife:
“To keep your marriage brimming
with love in the marriage cup
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it,
whenever you’re right, shut up!”
We cannot leave their records as teachers without mentioning Adam and Lindsay’s almost unparalleled contributions to Baha’i education in the UK. Lindsay was a member of the outstanding Baha’i Education Committee from the 1980s onwards, which developed masses of valuable teaching plans and established regional schools, paving the way for the current children’s class system. They both served at the Thomas Breakwell School Stratford-upon-Avon, Adam for some years as its Director. When Birmingham City Council’s Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education came up for renewal, Adam, Lindsay and several others spent many months in rewriting the Baha’i section.
His service to the Baha’i community was exemplary. He travelled around the UK recording oral history from people too frail to write their own Baha’i memoirs, at the same time collecting valuable archive documents. He served on the Baha’i Council for England, he wrote quizzes and he gave talks and firesides at Summer Schools and in people’s homes. Were it not for his quizzes, who would have known that Abdu’l Baha’s favourite physical activity was swimming or that his donkey was called Lightning? As he became ill, he began to research more vigorously the history of the UK Baha’i community. He was meticulous, and maintained a collection of all of the NSA’s publications, twice replacing ones lost at the National Centre. I believe that he and Moojan Momen will be publishing a book based on these researches in due course.
There are many things that one could say about Adam, a wonderful individual. I shall make do with two more.
One was that although he had friends from all walks of life, he loved the family he and Lindsay shared, a girl and four boys, Adam’s own brothers and sister and their families, his son-in-law and daughters in law and the grandchildren. There are thousands of pictures of family members in his photo collection. Each relation has something in them that reminds one of Adam, something that will be for Lindsay both a comfort and a pang.
The last thing to which I want to refer is the second file I mentioned earlier. Here he had over many years collated cuttings carrying behavioural advice from Abdu’l Baha. Most Baha’is know that Abdu’l Baha is our perfect exemplar; Adam acted upon this knowledge. Through this advice he learned to see every human being as a letter from God, and to look upon them with a “bright and friendly face”, as Baha’u’llah urged us.
One of the passages he copied out struck me more than any other, since it speaks of that steadfastness which Adam exemplifies, and because of the prominence he gave it in the file:
“At the gate of the garden some stand and look within, but do not care to enter. Others step inside, behold its beauty, but do not penetrate far. Still others encircle this garden inhaling the fragrance of the flowers, having enjoyed its full beauty, pass out again by the same gate. But there are always some who enter and, becoming intoxicated with the splendour of what they behold, remain for life to tend the garden’.”
Baha’is believe that death is a messenger of joy. A lesser man would have raged against the dying of the light, but Adam knew that the light does not die. I hope we can all make him proud of us.
Stephen Vickers, November 2019