September 2020 Volume 16

UNSUNG KC HERO: Mrs. Frances Coke

Dr. Cedric Lazarus
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Frances Coke came to KC in 1970 as a young and vibrant teacher and my class was extremely fortunate enough to have her as our English language and literature teacher when we got to North Street in 1971/72. This young teacher was well respected by the boys who quickly realized that she was someone special. They liked the fact that she was always approachable and willing to listen to any concerns that they had.

She was a member of that dynamic English department at North Street which included luminaries such as Mrs. Beulah Reid, Mrs. M. Riley, Ms J. Reid and Old Boys Ivan ‘Wally’ Johnson and Peter Maxwell. One can surmise that within a very short time the two Old Boys in the English Department had infected her as a newcomer with the contagious Fortis bug. Over the years ‘Wally’ Johnson often pontificated on what he called “that peculiar KC trait” where KC boys, of all generations, believed that KC had to win any and every inter-school competition in which the school participated. (Although KC had participated in the Schools` Challenge Quiz competition since its inception in 1969 and, in fact, got to the finals that year, up to 1974 the school was yet to win the competition.) So when Frances Coke started to coach the Schools’ Challenge Team in 1973 the belief was that the trophy would end up at North Street in short order. She believed it, the boys believed it, and it happened. With dedication and zeal she developed a training programme and coached the team of Ian Jackson, Michael Fitz Henley, Orett Campbell and Audley "Gilly" Jones to Schools’ Challenge to victory in 1974. That was KC’s first victory in the competition.

A single victory was not enough for Mrs. Coke and the school so she repeated the feat the following year with the team of Orett Campbell, Ivor Nugent, Barry Salmon and Donovan ‘Pip’ Shaw. With that achievement, KC became the first school to win the competition back to back. The historic double sent a message to all other schools that KC was in it to win. The following year the team of Salmon, Patrick Dallas, Stephen Vasciannie and Michael Hewitt fell just short by losing to Manchester High in the semi- finals. However, Mrs. Coke stormed back in 1977 when Vasciannie, Charlton Collie, Maurice Bailey and Maurice Haynes won the trophy to seal KC’s and Mrs. Coke’s third victory in four years. An amazing achievement by any standard.

In coaching those teams, Mrs. Coke’s impact was not only on the members of the team but on the entire school because as a result of her successes, inter-form quiz competitions sprung up at both North Street and Melbourne. In addition, many boys turned up for her training sessions, which often took place in the physics lab and sometimes lasted up to three hours. In these sessions these boys provided valuable and sometimes intense competition for the official school team and on a few occasions managed to get the better of the school team. Naturally, many of these boys went on to represent the school by the time they got to sixth form. Those who participated in the after-school quiz practices witnessed first-hand her professionalism and cool demeanour and it was obvious that the team members held her in very high esteem. To them, and to many others, she was not just a teacher and a coach but also a big sister and a mentor. As such we were not surprised when she became the guidance counsellor at North Street in 1978 as she was obviously a perfect fit for that difficult and demanding job.

By the time of her departure from KC in 1981, she had developed and established the quiz coaching template for all the KC coaches who followed, many of whom she had coached herself, and her mantra of: “We are not interested in the possibility of defeat” was used as a rallying cry for years. It is believed, or should I say, there is no doubt, that her quiz exploits of the 1970s set the stage for KC’s remarkable twenty appearances in the finals and eleven victories in the competition since its inception. (The most by any school) Although she only spent just over a decade at KC she is regarded as a KC legend, a true Fortis and a special lady who has left an indelible mark on the school.

(The below is from Barry Salmon, team member in 1975 and 1976)

When I took the SCQ test as a 5th former, I hardly expected to make the team. Prior to that I had watched Orett, Ian, Jones and Michael and the team as they worked extremely hard and eventually won the trophy for KC for the first time and in my mind, they were like untouchable beings. But the following year I was a team member and working with Orett, Ivor Nugent, Donovan Shaw and a host of Fortisans who came to help us train, tried to rough us up a little bit and pushed our team to glory. It was only after I grew up, and in retrospect, that I came to appreciate Mrs. Coke’s brilliance. She very carefully picked teams with the focus on team chemistry, teamwork and balance. The days and nights of practice honed these characteristics, and all the while, she was instilling in us the expectation that we would represent KC with honor and never lose.

She was always calm under pressure. I remember we were playing Wolmers’ Boys in the finals in 1975 and one of those boys made a disrespectful remark to her. I was incensed and was just about to break his neck when Fortis legend Dickie Coke, her late husband, grabbed me and held me back, reminding me that fighting “de bwoy” would be counterproductive. As we went into the studio, she reminded us that beating them and winning the trophy would be the best revenge. It was so sweet to give them a comprehensive beating, especially since they had acted before the game as if they’d already won.

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