Tribute paid to an inspirational Larne educator and humanitarian aid instigator

Larne is mourning the loss of a very popular former teacher and a well-known charity worker who touched the lives of many people.

Tom Crawford.
Tom Crawford.

Thomas (Tom) Nelson Crawford died peacefully in hospital on Sunday (February 20) after a short illness. His funeral will be held tomorrow (Thursday, February 24) at 2pm at Cairncastle Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.

Mr Crawford was the husband of Tanya and father of Polina, Jane, Richard and Stephen. Tom’s brother Robert Crawford and wife Sally, sister Sandie Kerr and all family are also grieving his passing. Thomas was born at the Cottage Hospital in Larne on November 27, 1934. He grew up in Laharna Avenue, starting his formal education as a six-year-old at the school beside the Old Presbyterian Church in Meetinghouse Street.

Thomas was an enthusiastic pupil and from Larne No.1 (The Bank Road School) he won a scholarship to Larne Grammar School where he spent the next seven years, meeting his best friend James Adrain, a natural artist. The two boys were keen athletes and built a 220-yard straight track at the Old Narrow Garage on a former stretch of the Larne to Ballyclare line. The line had been lifted and the two boys filled in the spaces where the sleepers had been with the surplus stones at the side of the railway. They spent many years training on their track - believed to be the only one of its kind in Ireland!

From 1953 to 1956, Thomas attended Stranmillis College to become a teacher, where his mother had wanted to attend, but unfortunately couldn’t due to the passing of her father in the war. Whilst attending Stranmillis, Thomas trained hard to make the athletics team to tour England with his speciality being the 100 and 220 yards. At the All-Ireland Derby, the PM Sir Basil Brooke started the race with his own revolver. Thomas kept fit all year by running 440 yards six times with a walk in-between and had his heartbeat down to 49 beats per minute. He played hockey for Larne on the wing where his speed was put to best advantage.

His first teaching post was in Kirkistown Primary School, under the principalship of James Wilson of Ballycoley, who gave Thomas a solid foundation in the art of teaching. Like his father, Thomas was always competent at woodwork and studied in Belfast for his City and Guilds award. He won another final year scholarship to return to Stranmillis College and study Art, Crafts and Design, to enhance his craft skills where he worked harder than ever and enjoyed the course. The £10,000 scholarship award allowed Thomas to buy an MGA sports car.

He went to work at a brand new secondary school in Dungiven. Here he set up the woodwork, metalwork and PE departments. In 1965, he applied and became the principal of Bruslee Primary School, where he also passed on his love of sport. Indeed, at one stage, half of the hockey team at Larne Grammar were pupils that Tom had coached for the 11+. His exceptional results in the transfer exams meant that many pupils travelled some distance to receive high level teaching for which Thomas received recognition and a medal - he received letters of commendation from many companies and authorities. During his years as principal, he went to three more universities and obtained degrees in History, Educational Philosophy and Psychology.

Thomas obtained his MA International Affairs at Limerick University with special emphasis on Eastern Europe and worked on a PhD. He was invited by BESO (British Executive Services Overseas) to cover eastern Europe and set up new industries, giving lectures free of charge to the host nations’ iron and steel industries (Ukraine, Russia etc.) to improve their own industries, bringing Europe together. Thomas lectured them on credit control, marketing and business plans.

Tom O’Donnell at the Peace Institute asked Thomas set up a student exchange programme whereby eastern European students stayed at Limerick University, the first time they had ever been to the West. He started attending classes at Queen’s University Belfast to learn Russian. He was asked to take 19 people over to an international students gathering in Estonia where group discussions were held on peace in Leningrad and Moscow. Tom met his future wife, Tanya, in Estonia.

This group did valuable work at an orphanage in Estonia, painting it, teaching the children games and sports as well as taking over many lorries filled with clothes, food, toys - everything which the children did not have a lot of. This humanitarian aid went on for 10-15 years, keeping the connection between the Estonian orphanage and the Peace Institute, each year taking at least two lorries over.

For all this work, Tom was offered a scholarship to complete an MA in Peace and Tourism at Limerick University.

The two Toms remained close friends all their lives.

At one stage, Tom bought 10 acres of land with two old cottages on the Burn Road, Doagh. Over the next two years with the help of his father, he built a new bungalow on this site. He made a walled garden and grew all kinds of trees - peaches and other fruits. The iron gates to the avenue leading up to the house were from the Groomsport House Hotel. When the Press learnt about Tom building his own house by direct labour, they wrote long articles and published photos of him to encourage other young people to build their own houses.

In the 1970s, Tom was involved in an initiative to bring senior Fine Gael representatives to stay in Ballyclare to discuss peace, find common ground and reduce the violence. This was done in quietly.

Later Tom employed his knowledge in the business sector, including being recruited by a building firm, where he became executive director and also helping a colleague to develop an idea for a pre-payment funeral plan at a time when none were available in Europe.

Thomas had two great lifelong friends, Richard Gordon and George Watson, from the Rock, near Dungannon, who was also known as the ‘Bard of Tyrone’. Each summer, Richard came to Ballyloran House and the two set off to explore old mansions and castles in Ireland - they were experts in this field. Three houses in particular got their full attention: Summerhill in Co. Meath, Dunboy Castle in Co. Cork and Killua, Co. Westmeath.

George Watson, Thomas’ other close friend and confidant of 65 years, produced and directed plays all over Tyrone. Some were his own works and others from Irish writers.

In his last few years, Tom bought a house in Ballygally and set about planting an orchard and all types of fruit. He lived happily with his wife Tanya, particularly enjoying the steak night at the Londonderry Arms, walking his dog Bella up Daffodil Lane and sitting by the fire.