Stephen Frederick Harle was born in Sunderland, England, in 1933, and went on to be an Honours graduate at Durham University. Fresh out of university at age 23, and 13 years before Roger Whittaker sang “I’ve got to leave old Durham Town,” he left England to begin teaching at Munro College in September 1956.
He was rather slim and unimposing then, and the snarl had not yet developed, and so he confessed to initially feeling a bit intimidated by the sixth formers not much younger than he was, and not any smaller. These sixth formers included one Owen Morgan and a certain Michael Elliott.
Outstanding Chemistry Teacher
Stephen Harle became known for many things, but was perhaps best known for teaching chemistry at both Munro College, and its sister school, Hampton, for nearly 50 years, during which he enjoyed an 80 per cent average pass rate for both CXC/CAPE O’ level and GCE/CAPE A’ level chemistry across both schools. In 1989, because they had no chemistry teacher that year, he also taught A’ level students from Manchester High School as well. He famously taught chemistry without a textbook, and barring abject inability, students were almost guaranteed a pass – at least – just by being in his class.
He was revered by all his students, but he was also revered by scores of students who did not do chemistry beyond third form, because his influence transcended the classroom. As Vice Principal at Munro College, he was the indispensable right hand of legendary headmaster Richard Roper for over 20 years, and handled the school’s internal administrative, academic, and disciplinary matters, all while carrying a full teaching load as head of the chemistry department.
He served as house master of one of the school’s five houses, taught adult literacy and extension O’ level classes for members of the community, organized Munro’s after-school games programme. He acted on several occasions as Sports Master of the school, and he loved sports in general and football in particular, and he was quite a competent footballer.
He organized five different football competitions for the central and western part of the island as well as a neighbourhood football team, and served as Chairman of the Western Athletics Championships and Secretary of the St. Elizabeth Football Association. Single-handedly, he also plotted the school’s complex class timetable each year, without a single clash, ever.
A well-honed Character
He was honest, direct, impeccably fair, supremely efficient and absolutely dependable. He was brilliant, yet humble, old fashioned in values but visionary in outlook, and he could be intimidating, but never abused his power.
“Staggy,” as he was called far behind his back, was the traffic warden of practically all the school’s activities, and also the policeman who enforced discipline. Although his trademark snarl of “Hey, there, sonny boy,” was initially feared by all those who heard it, it is remembered with great fondness in later life, because at some point before leaving school, students would have eventually grown tall enough to see the twinkle in his eyes, and realized that he was never quite as ferocious as he pretended to be.
On the job, he was a studious workaholic who never shirked responsibility, but off the job, he was just as dedicated to having fun. In total contrast to the stern demeanour he maintained in front of the students, Stephen Harle was the life of any party, and his weekend and nocturnal escapades and adventures were legendary. He was the architect, host, and headline attraction at the infamous “Dive” below the staff room, as well as a frequent guest star at neighbourhood bars, his favourite being the establishment of his friend Neville Plummer.
He once attempted to cross the Cockpit country with a couple of friends. Needless to say, all of his friends were drinking buddies, so we do not know if this decision was made while sober. They were lost for three days, survived by squeezing the moisture out of wild pine plants, and for a while afterwards he was once again quite slim.
Whatever the source, water was not exactly what he was famous for drinking. Indeed, in the very last correspondence we have from him, while he was on the cruise where he passed away peacefully, he indicated that he was having a good time, and his only complaint was that there was no Appleton or Red Stripe in sight.
He was working hard and playing hard from long before it became fashionable, and in retrospect, some believe that at the rate he was going, he would have burnt himself out long ago if he never got married to the right woman. He had met Judith Lodge in 1965, and the chemical reaction was permanent, so he married her in 1978.
Speaking of love; he was one of those people who came to Jamaica, fell in love with it, and never looked back. His final decision to make Jamaica his permanent home was made as far back as the 1960’s. He especially loved St. Elizabeth and the people of the parish, and they loved him right back. He especially loved Munro College, and gave it his entire working life.
His beloved chemistry lab with his Bunsen burners, overlooking the sprawling Pedro Plains and the aquamarine ripples of Caribbean Sea, was his own personal room with a view.
In an interview in 2001, he said: “I’m living in good surroundings. I can be teaching my class, leave some work on the board, stroll outside, look at the view – why would I have been in a hurry to leave?”
To his students, his colleagues, and his friends, Stephen “Staggy” Harle was icon, iron man, legend, leader, mentor, role model, and an institution within an institution.
For these reasons, Mr. Stephen Harle was inducted into the Munro College Old Boys Association Hall of Fame.