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‘To Sir with love’ here is not the famous 1967 Sydney Poitier movie but is the title of the documentary I had produced on the demise of Mr Hugh Catchpole, our Principal and mentor.

My first contact with the fabled teacher came when I appeared for the competitive examination for admission in PAF Public School Sargodha. Mr Catchpole conducted the interview, asking probing questions to gauge our personality, intellect and potential for being developed into officers for Pakistan Air Force (PAF).

It has been over fifty years but the impression he left on our tender minds is still fresh in my memory. One of the questions he asked me was “What was your position in class in the last examination?” I spontaneously replied, “twentieth sir!”

He burst into laughter and told the other members in his typical style: “Well I mean gentlemen. One truthful boy at last! All others we have examined since morning have either come first or second.” He went on to ask me if I was interested in cricket. When my response was in the affirmative, he instantly inquired about the latest fixtures. Luckily I had kept myself updated and avoided embarrassment.

AM Asghar Khan: father of PAF, doyen of Pakistan’s politics

The next time we set eyes on him was when we reported to the school. Mr Catchpole greeted us at the gate; addressing each one of us by name (he had taken the trouble of memorizing our names through our photographs). Later we would see him everywhere. By the time we joined the public school, he was at the ripe age of sixty two but the ubiquitous Mr Catchpole was everywhere.

Come summer or winter, morning jerks (P.T.), drill and games were personally supervised by him. Additionally, he would teach each course English grammar, imparting such golden rules of composition, which still hold us in good stead. Teaching us also gave him a chance to know each one of us better. His quick wit and repartee endeared him to us and added to our respect for him as a principal, a teacher and guide.

On one occasion, during a lecture, he saw one of our classmates, sitting at the rear busily drawing a nude girl. Mr Catchpole’s gimlet eye perceived the act. He asked him to bring the sketch to him; he held it aloft and winking at us remarked “Well I mean, gentlemen! This is his girlfriend. He is going to dress her afterwards.” Not only was our friend thoroughly embarrassed but the rest of us never ventured to take such liberty ever again.

If any of us responded incoherently to his questions in class, he would ask, “Did your mother drop you on your head, when you were a baby?” It would bring about spontaneous laughter. If someone else behaved in the same manner, Mr Catchpole would point at the student and say, “Well I mean gentlemen, the case of another careless mother!”

On weekends, he would loan us his air-gun with slugs to go and hunt for birds or rabbits. He would join us for games of table tennis and if we happened to get the better of him, he would hand out instant cash rewards. A keen sportsman, gymnast and swimmer, he would readily participate in various events and impart tips of excelling in the sport. Mr Catchpole, despite his age, would patrol at night quietly on his bike to apprehend those of us daring to break bounds.

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Despite his being quite as a mouse, we would be forewarned of Mr Catchpole’s presence, by the whiff of the rich tobacco he would use in his pipe. Perhaps it was intentional, because he did not want to really catch us but warn us to be careful.

His optimistic sense of humor kept our spirits alive. Once our school team proceeded to another public school for a sports tournament; unfortunately, they got the better of us and we lost all the matches. Mr Catchpole returned to the school before the teams and we were keen to know the result. We asked him about the result and he wittily responded: “Well I mean gentlemen! They won hockey and football while we lost basketball and cricket!”

He was a confirmed bachelor and like the hero of James Hilton’s epic novel, ‘Good-bye, Mr. Chips’, dedicated himself to teaching and grooming future officers and gentlemen.

Hugh Catchpole was educated at Oxford University. Equipped with degrees of Masters in Urdu and Indian history, he came to the subcontinent in the 1920s to teach Urdu to Englishmen at Fort William College. After a brief stint in the Royal Army, he joined the Prince of Wales Royal Military College Dehradun, now renamed as Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) where he ultimately rose to the rank of Principal. The pioneering Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals of both India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh had been his students.

During the 1965 Pakistan-India War he was asked to take the students of PAF Public School Sargodha to a safe place for fear of the school being bombarded by the Indian Air Force (IAF) since it was located in close vicinity of the air base of Sargodha. He did move us out and when we returned after the war, the school had escaped unscathed. Mr Catchpole winked and jokingly stated “I had asked Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh (IAF Chief and a former student of Mr. Catchpole) to spare my school. I am glad he remains obedient.”

Air Marshals Asghar Khan and Nur Khan were also former students of Mr Catchpole and during their tenure as Air Chiefs, when they visited the school, such was their respect for their former teacher that during a walk around, they remained on his left and walked one step behind him.

Polish contribution to PAF and its Air Transport Command

In 1947, after the independence of Pakistan and India and the departure of the British from the subcontinent, Mr Catchpole was elevated to serve as Principal of RIMC. In 1952, he was invited by his former students to establish Cadet College Hasanabdal and become its Founder Principal. In 1958, he took up the mantle of the Principal of PAF Public School Sargodha, from where he retired in 1967.

Instead of returning home, he decided to stay on in Pakistan and dedicate his life to providing quality education and contributing to the character development of young boys and remained one of the subcontinent’s most venerated figures in the field of education. Much after his departure, we discovered that he had been supporting numerous deserving students from humble backgrounds through his own sources but never letting anyone find out about his benevolence lest he embarrass the beneficiary.

When I joined PAF Public School Sargodha in 1964, simultaneously, my parents left for the UK for higher studies, taking my siblings along. I was unable to meet my family for three years. During this period, whenever Mr Catchpole visited the UK, he would contact my parents and update them regarding my progress.

The values he imparted to his students enabled them to become not only officers and gentlemen but also imbibed in them qualities, norms and mores of serving their country and society to the best of their abilities.

He had a photographic memory and never forgot his students.In 1976, when I was a Flight Lieutenant, we met at a get-together at Rawalpindi Club. Mr Catchpole looked at me and said: “Well, I mean don’t tell me, don’t tell me; you are Sultan Mahmood Hali School Number 739 of Sabre House” and left me dumbfounded.

Hugh Catchpole initially taught at the Burn Hall Army Public School at Abbottabad and later at the Abbottabad Public School, where he died at the age of 89. I still remember his funeral at the church on Mall Road Rawalpindi.

The church was jam packed but the only two Christians present were the pastor conducting the service and the mortal remains of Mr Catchpole. Air Marshals Asghar Khan, Nur Khan, Air Chief Marshal Abbas Khattak, Lieutenant Generals Gul Hasan, Sahabzada Yaqub Ali Khan, Major General Sher Ali Pataudi and numerous students of Mr Catchpole, Rimcollians (alumnus of RIMC) , Abdalians, Sargodhians, Abbottonians and others all had turned to pay homage to their teacher and mentor. As per his will, Mr. Catchpole was buried at Cadet College Hasanabdal. Students from all the institutions he had taught at presented a guard of honour. A monument has been erected at Hasanabdal to commemorate his services.

During his lifetime, the British government had conferred upon him awards of Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) and Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE). The Government of Pakistan awarded him with Sitara-e-Imtiaz and Hilal-e-Imtiaz while on May 26, 2007, the occasion of birth centenary of Mr Hugh Catchpole, Pakistan Post issued a commemorative stamp.

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I produced the documentary ‘To Sir with love’. Brig Mukhtar Karim, another Rimcollian and student of Mr Catchpole, who also met his Maker on January 16, 2023, narrated the commentary. The documentary was aired on PTV and a month later, when Air Marshal Asghar Khan visited Dehradun for a reunion of Rimcollians, where a new wing donated by Mr Catchpole was being inaugurated, he had the documentary aired. It was highly appreciated by his former students and was in great demand. Air Marshal Asghar Khan sent me a message to send more copies, to which I complied.

We are poorer with the loss of a dedicated and true educationist like Mr Catchpole, but his students in the subcontinent and spread all over the globe, in various capacities, soldiers, sailors, airmen, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and educationists, carry values instilled in us forward.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

S. M. Hali

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF, and now a security analyst


Comments are closed.

Mirza Zafar Hussain Feb 01, 2023 07:08pm
Hali bhai an excellent tribute to one who mentored us in those impressionable age. We owe him a lot and all our achievements in later life are due to his guidance and mentoring.
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Saood Pasha Feb 01, 2023 07:57pm
Sir, an excellent reflection of "love for Sir". Although I joined Sargodha in 1974, good vibes of his days were present & carried forward. Thanks for sharing his journey with the generation who missed to be his student.
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Shahiduzzaman Feb 01, 2023 08:40pm
Hali, Excellent! He was a superb teacher. I still vividly remember my interview for admission. His sense of humour was of the highest order.
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Shahiduzzaman Feb 01, 2023 08:43pm
Hali, excellent. He was a superb teacher. His sense of humour was of highest order. I vividly remember me interview for admission.
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Christopher Alam Feb 01, 2023 11:19pm
Thank you Hali Bhai.
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Rashid Aziz Feb 01, 2023 11:21pm
Excellent article Hali bhai. Can u send the documentary mentioned in your article. We pay respects to yours and ours each time we visit the college and stand in respect for this great man. Regards rashid aziz 11th entry 64-69 CCH.
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Ajamal Khan Feb 02, 2023 12:04am
Great personality, we all miss him. His love for cricket can't be matched. Still remember his office full of books. We all use to call it mini library. He was a great teacher and above all jolly character. He was our English teacher at Abbottabad Public School.
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Shakir Shah Feb 02, 2023 01:34am
Indeed a passage worth reading. I haplen to be among the ones who were lucky enough to have bwen taught englush grammer by him. And I can never forget one name 'Rasheeda' which he was much eager ti use in most of sentences and we students used to make fun of him by asking if Rasheeda is his girlfriend. One more thing which i really like to mention here is that whenever we were about to go for summer or winter vacations, he would lend us story books from his personal library and when we would go to try the book, he would ask us whats the one thing you liked about this book. Another memory of Mr. Catchpole was that he was a stamps collector in his last years and would love to show us his collection of stamps. May God Bless him.
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Aaj Feb 02, 2023 08:44am
Mr. Catchpole love cigars, had keen eyes informed order with sharp look. He picked favorites on first sight, groomed us to lead, demanded a lot. I am honored that he picked me for the 11 entry, on a hr interview at age 11 in Peshawar PAF Air head Quarter God bless him. Syed Mohammad Ashraf Ali Jamal. President United Business Machine Inc UBM Computers Inc Houston Tx.
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Aaj Feb 02, 2023 09:05am
Mr. Catchpole beside English teacher, gave final interview for PAF School selection board, honored at age 11 for 11 entry 1961 in Peshawr Air Head Quarters drilled for hour, was impressed had a grin and had a cigar. We found him active in school activities, selected his pet to teach English class. He let us borrow Air gun, he collected feathers for my red Indian hat costume. I had bow and arrow pointed at him, gave a thrill that he remembered for a long time. Wishes him a good place in heaven.
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Mukhles Rahman Feb 02, 2023 09:15am
indeed an exemplary human being as an educator and dedicated coach for thousands in the subcontinent. We were blessed with him and honoring him is also an example of his teaching philosophy!!!
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Imtiaz Ali Khan Feb 02, 2023 08:29pm
A great teacher.his famous saying in class about tenses.i love rasheeda.
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Khayyam Durrani Feb 03, 2023 12:26am
I think Doon School was different from Military Academy Dera Doon .
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YASIN ALI Feb 03, 2023 02:55am
Dear Hali Good to see my entry mate pay tribute to our mentor Sir Catchpole. Great verbiage & each word is as I remember it as well. We had many classes together plus his Eng class & his witty remarks are etched in my brain. I am a lucky guy indeed to have been his student in my lifetime. Thanks for this gift to us. I am what I am today bcz I was his student.
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YASIN ALI Feb 03, 2023 03:01am
Dear SHali I remember each sentence as you have laid out as I was with you in those classes too. A lucky guy I am bcz I was one of his students. What I am today is bcz of Sir HCatchpole. This is my honest truth. May he RIP Amen!
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Zia A. Bhutta Sep 14, 2023 12:29pm
@Khayyam Durrani, Yes, Royal Indian Military College and Doon School are different. Mr. Catchpole was with RIMC. He used to play for their cricket club as a batsman.
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