Bob Fryer – an appreciation

Bob FryerBob Fryer, who was a friend and mentor to Rodney for many years, sadly passed away on 6 December 2020 aged 76. Those of us who were close to the UNISON merger negotiations know that it wouldn’t have taken the form it did, or perhaps might not have happened at all, without Bob’s diplomacy and powers of persuasion.

A Celebration for the life of Robert Fryer

The Celebration was held in the chapel at GreenAcres Chiltern, Beaconsfield on Wednesday 16th December 2020 a beautiful setting for a final tribute to a man who was loved and respected by family and so many friends and colleagues.

Following an introduction by the Celebrant, Mark Bolkonsky, Rob’s three children, Dominic, Tim and Kate all gave a personal perspective of their Dad, the fun, support and love they have all received as children and adults.  Rob had said that he would like ‘Jerusalem’ and as no singing was allowed, Kate had chosen a version by The Kings’ Concert & Choir of The King’s Concert.  

A friend of 50 years, The Right Honorable The Lord Sawyer (Tom) spoke about Rob’s work with NUPE over a period of over 20 years.  He mentioned the research project, which Rob led while a lecturer at Warwick University, and how the ‘Warwick Report’ made recommendations that provided a new framework for NUPE.  It also introduced the idea of having five seats reserved for women on the previously all male National Executive.  Tom believed that not only did the report change the framework of NUPE it also influenced change in the wider trade union movement.

In the early 1990’s Rob played a key role in helping to steer the three unions, NUPE, NALGO and COHSE towards their merger and the formation of UNISON.  In 1993 Rob was presented with a badge of Honorary Membership of NUPE, which he treasured as it was only one of two awarded, the other to Cyril Ramaphosa at a time when it was anticipated he might be a successor to Nelson Mandela.  Rob never lost his love of NUPE and as well as being a joint author of the union’s history he was still editing articles for publication and the most recent about women in NUPE will be published in February.

Rob was a committed socialist, who Tom described as someone who supported the Labour Party and hoped that when in power it would be able to change the lives of everybody and especially those who were underrepresented.  Something that Tom mentioned that has been repeated time and again was Rob’s sense of fairness and commitment to equal opportunities for all combined with a unique intelligence and sense of fun.  Rob was chair of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning (NAGCELL) set up by David Blunkett when the Labour Party came into power in 1997.  In the 1999 New Years Honours list Rob was awarded the CBE for his contribution to adult and community education and lifelong learning.

Following Tom’s tribute The Ballad of Joe Hill sung by Pete Seeger, was played before Rob’s brother, Chris, said a few words and read ‘Composed on Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth, a poem Rob wanted to have at his funeral.

A very close and dear friend, Ed Ellis, was unable to attend but he was asked to write a tribute to Rob.  There were two versions, an initial long tribute and a precis of the original document.  Stuart Robinson, another close and long-term friend was asked to read Ed’s tribute and to add his own comments.  Rob and Ed first worked together when Rob became the Principal of Northern College, near Barnsley in 1983.  Ed talked of how Rob’s commitment to the education of men and women from underrepresented groups became a passion and lifelong commitment.  Under Rob’s leadership (and with Ed at his side) the Northern College became the preeminent late twentieth century Residential College.  

Rob and Ed continued to work together at Southampton University, where Rob became the Director of New College, a faculty with responsibility for widening participation.  From Southampton Rob was appointed by Ministers in the Labour Government to build a team to establish a National Health Service University but a change of minister and lack of support from Civil Servants meant that the idea of a university was abandoned.  Rob remained with the NHS and continued in a role to widen participation in the Health Service for all staff.  In his final paragraph Ed says ‘I admired him so much, he taught me so much, he was someone who was outrageously generous and thoroughly honest, someone who offered support whenever it was called for, someone who was inspirational in so many different ways, someone who I was proud to call a friend.’

Throughout the presentation, Stuart added his own thoughts and memories and many of these reflected times spent together in France, from the time they met on a campsite to both owning houses in the same area.  But Stuart also mentioned his intellect and intelligence, his love of fun and his generosity.

Before the Committal there was a visual tribute that included pictures of Rob on his own, with Ann, his brothers and his grandsons as well as shots of his beloved France.

We Shall Overcome, sung by Joan Baez, was played at the end of the ceremony that had lasted an hour and 45 minutes, which Rob would have relished.