One day in the early 1970s, Brian Ashley, who died last week aged 84, was walking through the rose garden at Marlborough College. It was in the school’s summer holidays and it didn’t seem right to him that the place should be silent and empty for two months: all those valuable facilities going unused.
The inspiration came to him that there should be a summer school to make the most of what was there. It was only his dogged determination that got the thing through.
Institutions don’t like to be disturbed and there were some at least who thought that such an event would in some way demean the place, but as a result of Brian’s tenacity, the first Summer School took place in 1974.
That inaugural year, there were just ten classes and the participants were mainly recruited from College parents and Old Marlburians, but it was on the way.
Thanks to Brian’s vision, the formula was there from the start, a fact freely acknowledged by Jon Copp, one of his successors as Summer School Director: a comprehensive range of courses for all tastes, an entertainment programme and an all-inclusive fee. There was no extra charge even for the ice creams.
From these beginnings grew the Marlborough College Summer School as it is today: part of a foundation with full-time staff, four weeks in duration, scores of courses covering virtually everything you can imagine – and more.
Brian was a product of Mansfield Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge. Before coming to the College as Head of P.E. (‘Physical Education’ for those too young to remember) and a teacher of history, which he had taught at St. Paul’s School in London.
But, with the success of the Summer School, he had caught the entrepreneurial spirit. On leaving the College, he took over the Henge Shop at Avebury. His tour of the stones was never to be forgotten.
He claimed they exuded a mystic force of energy and used divining rods to prove it. I must have looked sceptical, but when he handed the rods to me, they practically leapt out of my hand.
A great believer in community involvement, Brian ran keep fit classes for local businessmen. They usually ended up in The Sun (the pub that is now The Marlborough – for those too young to remember).
He served a spell on Kennet District Council. Later he was Chairman of the Marlborough International Jazz Festival (MIJF), contributing his characteristic energy and vision.
Like the Summer School it brought thousands of people into the town to its great economic benefit. No-one was more disappointed when it was brought to an abrupt end at the peak of its popularity by external forces beyond its control.
It came as no surprise to those who knew him that Brian should be invited to the White House Christmas reception (see photo below) as a guest of President Barack Obama and of First Lady Michelle, who kissed him on both cheeks.
The connection was that Brian’s son-in-law, Charles Ommanney, was then the Chief Photographer of Newsweek magazine and worked at the White House. Brian later expressed regret that he hadn’t issued the Obamas with a return invitation to visit the MIJF.
He is survived by Kathe, his wife of 37 years, his sons, Mark and Jonathon and his daughters, Helen and Kathy.
Brian always felt that his great achievement was insufficiently recognised, but this is the frequent fate of the innovator. There is a lasting monument to him in the two fishing lakes he created by the Kennet. Perhaps a plaque to him down by the lakes would be appropriate.
Brian Ashley’s funeral will take place at noon on Friday, 14 February 2020 at St Mary’s Church, Marlborough.