Bill Forster

Professor William Forster MA OBE (1934-2024)

“A thoroughly kind and decent man”

William Forster (best known as Bill) was born in Sheffield, but at heart he was from the north-east of England where his forebears originated. Growing up during the Second World War, and with memories of bombs, bomb shelters and rationing, he left school at 16 to work on North Sea fishing trawlers. Quickly realising his mistake, he returned to Sheffield’s Firth Park Grammar School and continued in education to study English Language and Literature at University College, Durham.

After service in the RAF (1956-1963), and marriage to Sheila in 1957 (whom he met as a student sorting Christmas mail in Sheffield), he worked as a lecturer at the University of Liverpool before moving to Rutland in 1969 and a job at the University of Leicester, which appointed him Vaughan Professor of Education and Director of Adult Education in 1980.

In his professional years, Bill taught with a passion, organised and attended conferences – often abroad – examined, broadcast, conducted research and published, wholeheartedly committed to life-long learning and particularly the needs of the marginalised and disadvantaged, including those in prison. His skills, standing and enthusiasm saw him serve on University Senate Boards, the Universities Council for Adult and Continuing Education, the Arts Council of Great Britain, NACRO and at St George’s House, Windsor. Few words sum up Bill’s public life better than the objective of St George’s House: ‘Effecting change for the better by nurturing wisdom through dialogue’; and formal recognition of his public service came in 1990 when he was appointed an OBE.

It goes without saying that Bill was modest about these achievements. However, if asked what he was most pleased by, he might have mentioned his role in establishing the Richard Attenborough Centre for Arts and Disability (now the Attenborough Arts Centre), opened in Leicester in 1997 by Diana, Princess of Wales, and his position as the University of Leicester’s official orator (1991-1999). The latter allowed him to meet and tell funny stories about celebrities as diverse as Patrick Moore, the astronomer, Evelyn Glennie, the deaf percussionist, and Gary Lineker, the broadcaster and footballer, at honorary degree award ceremonies.

But these professional achievements do not fully capture Bill: his wit, his wisdom, his humility, and his kindness. He had many interests and passions: reading and writing – particularly poetry – as well as cricket and crosswords. His garden and his vegetable patch – which extended to an allotment for a while – gave him great joy, as did music and conversational companionship. Publicly, however, Bill was most engaged with sculpture, working (‘collaborating’ as he would put it) mainly with wood, exhibiting when pressed, and curating outdoor exhibitions, often on a large scale, such as at Leicester’s Harold Martin Botanic Garden in the early 2000s.

Doubtlessly, the last year or two were difficult, with legs and lungs struggling, and then his sight failing, but Bill remained resolute and cheerful, always ready to converse, contribute, chuckle and explore. As Sheila recalls: ‘While we waited for the ambulance, we finished the crossword’. He will be particularly missed by Sheila, his three children – Paul, Helen and Andrew – as well as their partners and their offspring.

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