Remembering Professor Reg St Leon OAM

Tiny Martin Luther Kirche, Sydney, was filled with friends, family and colleagues of IGS founder Professor Reg St Leon OAM on Thursday 7 March 2019.

They paid tribute to an inspirational leader and offered condolences to Reg’s family, described by his son, Carl, as “an ideas man”.

Carl said the idea for IGS grew out of the Paddington Project. When Reg was Head of Germanic Studies at the University in 1973, he partnered with Paddington Primary School principal Bruce Sinclair to teach German by immersing students in German, in contrast to the prevailing “translation” method. Carl had been in his class.

“It was fun, full of props and improbably stories,” Carl said. IGS was founded in 1984 and faced significant financial, bureaucratic and campus challenges.

“Dad believed rules and norms existed for the boundaries to be analysed, tested and broken” and he “took the NSW Education Department to the highest court in the land”.

Describing Reg as an “education evangelist”, he recalled the time at the Surry Hills campus when he refused to be locked out by the landlord, staying seated in his principal’s chair.

“They picked it up and carried him out the door. Students lined the streets and parents in cars honked their horns.

“It was an incredible adventure to be a part of…

“He was short in stature but a giant in his enthusiasm for life.”

A tribute from IGS Acting Principal Mary Duma

IGS Acting Principal Mary Duma gave a tribute at the Memorial Service, thanking Reg’s family for the privilege to speak on behalf of Reg’s “other” family, his IGS family, including IGS Board Chair Dr Marie Leech, Members of the IGS Board, Principal Shauna Colnan, staff, parents and caregivers, alumni and students.

“When we think of the legacy of this great man, which includes our extraordinary International Grammar School, now with more than 1,250 students from Preschool to Year 12 and with thousands of alumni, it is almost impossible to believe that just over 35 years ago, our School did not exist, not at all, except in the mind of Professor Reg St Leon.

“And from the stories shared by staff who were serving in those first years, and our first parents, who believed so ardently in Reg’s dream – and still do – it is so evident that the little school that began in 1984 with just over 40 students could have been so easily “extinguished” – by bureaucracy, due to financial pressures and for the lack of a secure campus.

“But what a dream!

“I share with you the words of a parent, L Parsons, in a letter to the editor in the 1980s in The Sydney Morning Herald.
‘I firmly believe that world peace will be achieved only when we understand other races. The path to understanding lies in being able to communicate… Reg St Leon and the International Grammar School have lit a candle at the end of the educational tunnel… It’s a small start to peace, but I hope that IGS is only the forerunner and that other schools … will follow where we lead… I can only hope that a ‘well-intentioned bureaucracy’ does not extinguish that light until the flame has caught.’

“Staff have used the ‘flame’ analogy, too. Reg’s passion for his dream was bright and beautiful and catching. It was a spark, and then a fire, because this professor of Germanic studies knew that children can so easily learn other languages when they are young, and that bilingualism and multilingualism could bring so many benefits for them, and he had the gift of igniting this passion in others.

‘an extraordinary education’ 

“He convinced fine people to come and work with him and to give their children this extraordinary education.

“And we still share his dream not just of a better school, but of a better world, a world of understanding of other cultures and other ways of being, a world of Unity Through Diversity.

“Like Reg, we believe that language is a gift. Beyond the practical advantages that mastery of another language can bring, such as being able to travel and work successfully and thus to multiply an individual’s opportunities, bilingualism and multilingualism offer a rare kind of wisdom.

“Communication brings understanding, and understanding is the antidote to ignorance and prejudice.

“We are proud that IGS remains a place where ‘others’, who might sound or look or behave a little differently, are not only welcomed, they are celebrated.

“Diversity. Authenticity. Connectedness. Vibrancy. Personal achievement – our IGS values. How wise was this man!

“We have Reg St Leon to thank for all this and for so much more.

“The former University of Sydney lecturer in Germanic studies was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2017 for his service to the multicultural community, and to education.

“At the time, Reg said: ‘When I am gathered to my fathers at the end of my life, I will think, I did one thing that was terribly worthwhile, and that was starting the foreign language teaching at IGS. Those kids at IGS are the luckiest children in the world.’

“So now. I say, as we honour this giant in multilingual education, Reg St Leon. We are indeed the lucky ones, to have been touched by your magnificent vision, to have been brought into your quest for a better world. We thank you for your dream and your tenacity in face of so many early difficulties. IGS has survived, and we are thriving.

“As individuals, we must all depart this world.

“Reg, upon your departure, you inspire us yet again. What a vibrant legacy you have left for us all. Thank you.

“Unser Gründer, unser Lehrer, unser Kollege, unser Freund.

“Heute verabschieden wir uns, bis wir uns wiedersehen.

“Ihre Vision und Ihre Liebe zu allen Kindern werden für uns immer weiterleben.

“Ruhe in Frieden!”

Tributes and memories continue to be shared

“It’s amazing what Reg could see, and we should acknowledge this,” said English teacher Margherita Cantafio, who said she had admired IGS for many years before joining the staff in 2009. “I didn’t get to meet Prof Reg StLeon personally, but I have met his dream – because I teach here at IGS.

“We are the only school like this in the whole of Australia, possibly the whole world. I love this place. I love what I am doing and what the School represents. There are many people who believe in it, because Reg is right about the value of learning languages, and right about understanding and respecting each other and different cultures. Hundreds of thousands of studies about bilingual education show that students do better. Our students are articulate and confident.”

Founding and long-serving IGS staff members remembered the early days as “a new frontier”, acknowledging Reg’s role as an inspirational forerunner of linguistic education development.

They taught sport in a basement where mushrooms grew after rain, had to remove rocks from the playground so the children had somewhere to play, and taught with resources they had to create from nothing.

“He was a visionary who had a wonderful talent of engaging staff, parents and students in that vision.”

Others have described him as a “legend”.

IGS Head of Human Society and Its Environment (HSIE) David Miller said Reg “seemed indefatigable” in the earliest years of the School.

“The fight to ensure the school’s survival required enormous energy and belief,” David said.

“Reg was quite inspirational in this regard and many people were likewise inspired and were prepared to get right behind him.

“He was softly spoken and even tempered but his determination and sense of purpose were clear to everyone who came into contact with him. Reg was supportive and trusted people. He had faith in his teachers and was loyal to them.

“While Reg was a maverick when it came to education, he was also a purist and understood the place and importance of the traditional disciplines in the curriculum. In my own case, as a young English and history teacher, Reg proved to be a wonderful mentor.

“Reg would be very proud of the fact that IGS is as accepting and welcoming today of anyone who enters the gates as it was when the school first started.”

View Principal Shauna Colnan’s tribute to IGS founder Professor Reg St Leon and other recollections, shared with IGS students at special assemblies.