URSABLOG: In Memoriam


I was very thoughtful on Wednesday as my colleague Yiannis drove me up to the northern suburbs of Athens. It was a lovely day; the sun shone as we walked from the car to church where the funeral of a friend and fellow lecturer at the Greek branch of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers was to take place. There were many people both inside and outside the church, sadly and silently gathered to pay their respects. And in this case, respect was certainly due. I was not particularly close to Vasilis or his family, but he was a valued colleague and an inspirational teacher.


When I started teaching, about ten years ago, I had confused ideas about why I wanted to teach. It was a mixture of ambition, showing off (I do like the sound of my own voice after all), stretching my brain in a different way and giving myself a challenge. But if I am to be honest it was also about my need for respect, my need to get people to like me for what I thought I knew. As I look back now I realise how foolish and, well immature, I was then.


In the last few years, particularly since I moved back to Greece in 2013, my views and motivations have changed considerably. As I stood at the side of the church, listening to the beautiful music and watching the family suffer as people lined up to offer their condolences, I realised why Vasilis had such a strong influence on me.


As I say, we were not close, but he was always a benign and encouraging presence at the Hellenic Management Centre, where we teach the courses. He did not want to be the centre of attention, but he was there for everyone. He was a naturally brilliant teacher, but not because he was noisy or energetic. In fact I never saw him teach, I only saw the influence he had on those he had taught. He was patient but passionate about his subject, and could make marine insurance both comprehensible and interesting, which, for me at least, is an almost impossible task.


But more than that he was always giving, of his time, of his knowledge, of himself. This gentle and wise man was inspirational, not because he was the centre of attention, or had huge charisma. In his quiet, soft-spoken way he offered himself to those that had need of him. He was adored by students and colleagues alike, both in education and in the wider shipping industry. He moved people in such a way that a lot of the time you didn’t even realise that he was there. It is his absence that confirms that he was such a great force for good.


I was angry at the funeral too: angry at this loss, angry that he had to leave us at such an early age, and angry that it was a hard and bitter end for him. It is a comfort for his family, I suppose, is that he is now at peace, and no longer in pain. But his last journey showed a clear-eyed wisdom of a situation that most of us would not have the strength or courage to face.


I never had the chance to ask him why he taught, but the silence during the funeral and the burial gave me pause to reflect on my own role as a part time lecturer and teacher.


I do get a kick out of teaching, and I enjoy it, but I don’t think I do it for my own needs or for the money. I want to give something back to the industry that has given me so much. I believe in making sure that there is fresh blood in the industry, and that those who are capable can grab the opportunities should they want to. They should not be discouraged by a lack of funds or connections, and education is a valuable tool for people to get hold of both. I see no reason at all why those currently in shipping should always be there, unchallenged, just because they got there first, or happened to be born into it. I believe I have a role to make sure that change happens, for the good of the industry, and for the good of society too.


Recently I have becomecynical about the motivations of some people in positions of power, both in business and in education. The greed, the manipulation of authority and the lack of ambition on behalf of students and employees depresses me. I may sound idealistic, but I do believe that by investing in people societies and businesses get better. It is good for economic growth. Using students and employees for your own ends, or worse, corrupting them, is not only wrong, it is ultimately counterproductive. You always remember the inspirational teacher, the brilliant boss. Sadly, you also always remember the abusive teacher, or the manipulative boss. The rest, in between, fall from memory quickly.


Unless we give, of ourselves, of our time, of our knowledge, our lives, then we are ultimately living a wasted life, and it is the only life we have. My own personal history, personal and professional, has shown me that my life has taken dangerous and unprofitable turns when I have stopped giving, and the relationships with my family and friends, my colleagues, my clients, my co-brokers, indeed everyone I came across, suffered.


We do not know what lies in store for us; there is no predictive model for life. Death can come unexpectedly, both to ourselves and to those close to us. There is little that remains after us except the unintended consequences of our actions, for good or bad. The legacies we leave are not only tangible things, things we can measure. It is both the space we leave, and the inspiration we give others to fill it that marks the passage of our lives, and this is the most solid memorial we can leave behind us. Vasilis left a big hole, one that those of us coming behind him will struggle to fill. But Vasili’s example, in fact simply the way he was, inspires me to face the days left to me with courage and perseverance. I just hope I prove worthy of his memory.


Simon Ward