Few teachers have had quite the impact on so many young lives as my former colleague and friend Derek Fry, a teacher of physics and astronomy at the Grammar School at Leeds, who has died aged 77.
His legacy includes inspiring several pupils to pursue a career in science. More than a dozen former students have dedicated their doctoral theses to him. Derek taught for more than 50 years, the last 18 of which he continued on a voluntary basis following his “official” retirement in 2000.
He was born in Kentish Town, north London, the eldest child of Stanley, an estate agent, and his wife, Marie. During the second world war, the family moved to the north of England and Derek attended Blenheim secondary modern school, Leeds.
His lifelong interest in astronomy started at the age of nine, when he read The Spangled Heavens by Lawrence Edwards. Derek left school at 15 and went to work as a laboratory assistant in the refractory department of the Leeds Fireclay Company, testing fireclay for the steel industry. However, he had always wanted to be a teacher, and he studied for his O-levels and A-levels at night school three evenings a week.
He started his teacher training at the age of 24 at James Graham College in Leeds. While in his first teaching job, at Greenhill primary school, Bramley, he was accepted to study for a degree as one of the first students at the Open University.
After two years at Greenhill, he moved to Mirfield grammar school, and after 20 years there, joined Leeds grammar school in 1987, now the Grammar School at Leeds (GSAL). Soon after joining he introduced GCSE astronomy, which students studied in addition to their core curriculum.
He was also a key speaker on the Ogden Trust physics summer schools, running science sessions for children from inner-city primary schools and providing individual tuition.
The television astronomer Sir Patrick Moore became a friend after a school visit. Derek would regularly take groups of students to Moore’s talks and lectures to nurture their interest in astronomy. In 1981 Moore nominated Derek as a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
In 1997 he became a fellow of the Institute of Physics, the first time the institute had formally recognised a school teacher in this way. In 2017 Derek received the Royal Astronomical Society’s service to astronomy award, donating the prize money to the school library for the purchase of astronomy books, saying, with characteristic modesty, that the award was entirely thanks to his pupils.
Derek was immortalised in print by his former teaching colleague the novelist Joanne Harris, who has said she based Guillaume Duplessis in Chocolat on Derek.
He will be remembered for his intellect, dry sense of humour, integrity, kindness and also – with his old-fashioned manners – as a perfect gentleman.
He is survived by two cousins, Barbara and John.