Kids, here’s how to live a glorious life

Kind, humble and dedicated to his family and his local community, John Dodwell was an extraordinary role model for my children, as I found out at his funeral, writes Kathy McGuinness


The funeral for the ex-mayor of Sutton in South London, John Dodwell, was an impressive affair with the huge church where John worshipped, Holy Cross in Carshalton, packed to the rafters. The congregation that raised the roof with “The Lord’s My Shepherd” and “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer” was peppered with politicians and pillars of the community, appropriate for a man who had dedicated his life to public service in his local area for the last 20 years.

I only knew John in his later life when we served together on the church parish council but like many at the service I knew of his work and marvelled at his commitment to the community. John could count establishing food banks, helping relieve homelessness, campaigning for education, governor service at four schools, Mayor, councillor, eucharistic minister, chair of numerous committees including the Education Committee and securing millions of pounds of Lottery funding to improve our area of South London where he grew up among his many achievements. 

The first time I met John I had thought I had done well for making it to our parish council meeting as it was a particularly freezing winter evening and I was sleep-deprived with a baby and small children. But listening to this gentle man, then well into his 80s with a heart condition, reporting to the meeting on the parish activities he and his wife Anne were organising, as well as taking holy communion to the sick, was a lasting lesson in humility for me.

In his Eulogy his four children (at times overcome with emotion and unable to speak remembering the father they clearly adored and admired enormously) painted a picture of John not as a saint of the borough, as some of us who knew him less well might imagine, but as a warm, generous and humble man. 

A stellar student at The John Fisher boarding school (where he was sent to avoid the bombs that were falling on Carshalton in WW2) John was encouraged to apply to Oxford University to read Classics. He declined and chose to study Civil Engineering at Battersea Polytechnic instead. A brilliant career in engineering followed and his choice to stick with what he loved seems to have been a blueprint for the rest of his life

John's daughters spoke movingly of a lovely father not too proud to roll his sleeves up and pitch in with nappy changing, childcare and cooking, despite his busy career. The difficult teenage years were relieved by his children’s ability to always make him laugh, however cross he was trying to appear.  We heard how John lived life to the full, enjoying theatre and the arts, historic buildings and philosophical and theological discussion groups, many of which he hosted at the family home that was always generously open to local visitors and friends as well as their many grandchildren and great grandchildren. 

When busy family life proved too much, his son told how John would retreat to his garden shed or tend to his raspberries. He had, his son said, a meticulous attention to detail, which perhaps explains a lot of his success in public life. Any hint of the narcissistic ego we sometimes associate with people in his position was nowhere in evidence at this funeral. John's achievements seem in part due to being wise enough to know the right details in life to give his attention to.

After completing his education, John met and married local girl Anne, herself a well-respected figure in the area (Anne’s family were important in the history of Carshalton and owned Haydon's butchers shop on the High Street since 1652 until it was bombed in WW2). Like John, Anne has served for many years on local school governing boards, campaigned on education and homelessness as well as work for campaigns like Fairtrade further afield. Always together at Mass, John and Anne were often seen walking in our local area (where they always had time to offer kind words of encouragement as they passed me running errands with my children in tow). 

Arriving alone at the funeral I felt it was fitting to the occasion to find myself unexpectedly next to familiar faces. In front of me, the retired caretaker from my children’s school who has brightened many a stressful school run; beside me, the elderly couple who volunteer so much of their time to run my boys’ Scout group who offered me their hymn book to share; behind me, the kindly grandmother who once put her arm round my shoulder as I tearfully cradeled my baby during a Mass the week of a family funeral. Kindness is what counts most in life, I concluded, as I reflected on the passing of this quiet, unassuming and much-loved man whose many successes never shifted his focus from others and those in need.

As I tried to impress upon my children later that day, John lived his life as a shining example to others: if you love your family and those around you with all your heart, receive love gratefully and humbly and selflessly give your gifts back to those who need it, your influence can be as immeasurable and your life’s work as glorious as John Dodwell's was. What an amazing role model for my children; for us all. 

Kathy McGuinness is the founder of Local Mums Online 

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