Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 2

(Continued from

The IBO was a small undertaking in 1976, with about 30 schools participating worldwide, and there was a family-firm feeling about it all. It was in transition from the experimental period to a fully functioning, self-supporting organisation. Internationally, total staff numbered scarcely a dozen! Alec Peterson was Director-General, operating on a part-time basis from a small office in London run by his newly appointed PA factotum. Alec spent much of his time travelling the world publicising the IB, visiting schools and universities, and fund-raising.

The main office was in Geneva, headed by its Director Gérard Renaud, supported by Ruth Bonner (Executive Secretary) and me, with a young French woman (L) combining reception and accounts. We were assisted by 3 or 4 part-time typists, plus an assortment of temporary student helpers during peak times. Geneva produced the examinations and documentation for all subjects other than Languages A and B. These were the responsibility of the lovable, brilliant but quixotic Tom Carter and his staff. Tom was in charge of the Language Centre at Southampton University, where his extremely efficient so-called “research fellow” (who became my good friend D) had brought order into his chaos, dealing with everything to do with languages A and B from a tiny corner of the staff coffee room. The former head of the British School in Montevideo had a miniature office in Buenos Aires from where, among other things, he publicised the IB in Latin America and a North American office was just being set up in New York, with a director plus PA.

It truly was a skeleton staff on a shoestring budget, and every tiny item of expenditure had to be accounted for.

The IB was a ground-breaking project and attracted idealists and visionaries, who tended to be original and somewhat eccentric: educators rather than administrators. Alec Peterson was a tall, lanky Scot with that superior English accent that only Edinburgh and Oxford can produce. With grey hair curling around his collar, an unkempt grey beard and hawk-like nose, he was an imposing figure though usually a bit crumpled from his latest flight, and in true professorial tradition forgetful of minor matters. His secretary frequently received calls or letters from places he had visited on the other side of the world reporting that he had left his glasses or shoes behind, and on one memorable occasion all his dirty laundry, which would be sent on in parcels. He was in his late sixties when I first knew him, having retired from his position as Head of the Education Dept. at Oxford University. He was a wonderful talker and fascinating to listen to.

Both Gérard Renaud and Ruth Bonner had been teachers at the International School of Geneva and, like Alec, were instrumental in the founding of the IB. Gérard was a classical scholar and philosopher, not really cut out for administration, but he was a kind, gentle soul, averse to confrontation and sometimes vacillating when it came to making decisions as he carefully considered every aspect of the issue facing him. I remember on one occasion there was an inquiry from the Vatican, and Gérard was overjoyed to be able to correspond in Latin. He was happiest when he was expounding the ideas and visions animating the IB.

Ruth was a petite firecracker, white-haired and wiry. She was fifty-eight when I first met her, but she had spent much of her life outdoors, particularly on the ski slopes, and her face was tanned and lined so she looked much older. She reminded me of a sandpiper, with a sharp nose and bright inquiring blue eyes, scurrying around with inexhaustible energy.

L, a pleasant French woman about my age, was the only one of us with a secretarial background and originally employed as Gérard’s PA and receptionist, but then she learnt to do the accounts and that became her main field. This allowed her to keep a certain distance from the sometimes chaotic daily events and maintain her sanity. She was a very pleasant, businesslike colleague and a pleasure to deal with.

In addition, a friendly Englishwoman came in part time to deal with jobs like photocopying, packing and despatching whatever needed to be sent out. After I had been with the IBO for a few months, it became clear that more hands were needed. Ruth Bonner’s eldest daughter was brought in as a secretarial assistant for her mother, and I was allocated a part-time secretary, a beautiful young African woman who was a former Miss Rhodesia. She looked like a prettier, softer version of Naomi Campbell, and had a very sweet disposition. That made a total staff of four fulltime and three part-time employees.

Later on, after we had moved downstairs and had more rooms and money available, we were joined by two more British ladies as part-time typists and a middle-aged Swiss woman who was chiefly attached to the photocopier – we had our own Xerox by then. Indeed, by 1980 we had acquired a PC and a computer operator, the Geneva staff had grown to eleven, and there were regional offices in New York, Buenos Aires, Singapore and Paris as well as the London and Southampton bases. By this time, about 150 schools were participating in the IB programme.

Alec retired in 1977 and Gérard Renaud then became Director General. The London office was ultimately taken over by Robert Blackburn, a former teacher at Atlantic College who had been Secretary General for United World Colleges (UWC), and IBO London acquired an extra secretary. Robert had a stately bearing, a very posh English accent, and was proud of his association with Lord Mountbatten, then President of UWC. In fact, some people were convinced he was Lord Blackburn, or at least Sir Robert, he had that aristocratic air about him. When he came to Geneva and introduced himself to my secretary from Limerick, he informed her that he, too, was Irish (he was born in Kilkenny) After he left the room, she turned to me and in her lilting brogue remarked: “He doesn’t sound very Irish!”

He arrived in Geneva late from London one day, and rather breathlessly explained that he had been held up at the airport. Gérard Renaud was most concerned, and made him sit down to recover, even offering him a cognac. Robert was pleasantly surprised and rather bemused until someone realised the misunderstanding and explained to Gérard that it wasn’t a hold-up at gunpoint.

3 thoughts on “Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 2

  1. I love how this story comes with so much colour and nuances. I can hear the ‘Irish’ aristocratic posh English accent and the remark by the Irish secretary. All in all a great insight into your job at the IBO.

  2. Pingback: Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 3 | catterel

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s