Minister pays tribute to 'man who touched lives of so many people' at funeral service for late Tom Skelton

“Speak of this man who touched the lives of so many people for such a long time” – the words of the minister who conducted the funeral service for Ballymoney man and Dalriada School principal, the late Tom Skelton.
Hundreds of people attended the funeral of Dalriada School principal, Mr Tom Skelton. Credit Peter O'HaraHundreds of people attended the funeral of Dalriada School principal, Mr Tom Skelton. Credit Peter O'Hara
Hundreds of people attended the funeral of Dalriada School principal, Mr Tom Skelton. Credit Peter O'Hara

Rev Gary Glasgow, minister of First Kilraughts Presbyterian Church, conducted the funeral service on Sunday for Mr Skelton who died on February 8. Known throughout Northern Ireland, and further afield, in education and sporting circles, Mr Skelton’s funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners, so much so, that the church and halls were packed to overflowing.

Rev Glasgow said Tom was born in 1957 in Ballymoney to parents Thomas and Euphemia. He learned his love of farming from his father - a passion he was still engaged in until the end.

"Tom went to school at Landhead Primary and then was a pupil in Dalriada. It has to be said that despite ending up with a career in education and as Headmaster of Dalriada, Tom was not the model pupil you might have thought him to be,” said Rev Glasgow.

The late Tom Sketon. Credit NI WorldThe late Tom Sketon. Credit NI World
The late Tom Sketon. Credit NI World

"When he was in Primary School, Tom and a few other pupils once went to the local farmer’s market, when they should have been in class, though it wasn’t regarded as truancy, because the Headmaster, Principal McClure, piled them into his car and drove them both to and from it. And while there are many stories, which I’m sure have lost nothing in the telling of them down, through the years, Tom was known to have occasionally played the odd practical joke, such as pouring custard into the pockets of his fellow pupils at Dalriada.

"I’m sure as head teacher when similar practical jokes were played, while he may have had to be stern with his pupils on occasions, there must have been part of him smiling on the inside whenever he had to dish out a detention.

"When he attended Dalriada as a form 1 pupil in 1968, it was a move from a rather small country school to a large and getting larger Grammar School. He found it quite hard and that undoubtedly fed into his empathy for pupils starting his school whenever he was Principal.

"What helped him to settle as a Dalriada pupil was his love for sports, and in particular for rugby. Such was his passion for the game that it might have meant he didn’t excel academically at school. Nevertheless, Tom had every academic ability, which manifested itself with a Primary Degree in Education, specialising in PE from Jordanstown University, and then, when he was married with three children one of whom, Emma, had significant special educational needs, and as Head of Department in Coleraine College, on top of numerous organisations in which he was involved, Tom completed his Masters Degree through the Open University, at 43 years of age.

"He began his working life after University as a teacher in Maghera High School, before he was appointed head of PE at Coleraine Boys’ School which in time became Coleraine College. He was there for 21 years, before becoming Principal of Parkhall College in Antrim, where he served for just a year and a half before the opportunity to return to Dalriada presented itself, and in 2007, Tom became the Principal there, the only former pupil to have done so.

"Can you imagine what was going through the minds of some of the older staff members when Tom was appointed as the Head Teacher? I hope he doesn’t pour custard into my pockets! Of course not. They were delighted when they knew that their school family would be led by someone who had not just great academic and educational ability and experience, but a love for the school that the “local boy done good” proved over the years to have in spades.

"I mentioned rugby, and how it helped Tom initially as a Form 1 pupil to settle into Dalriada. Little did anyone know the part it would play in Tom’s life from then on. Tom Skelton played as a 17 year old school boy, on top of playing for the school first 15, for Ballymoney Rugby Club, and continued playing for them for the next 47 years, until he was 64 years of age. That’s incredible.

"He played over 750 games for the club on the firsts, the seconds and then the thirds. He was Captain of the firsts for five years. He was also the secretary of the club for many years. And how brilliant was it that for his 600th and for his 700th match, his two sons flew back from England and Scotland and played with him on both occasions. On the morning of his graduation from Jordanstown, he was playing rugby, but ended up in A&E and needed stitches on his forehead. That didn’t go down well with his mother, especially when he had to have a fringe for the graduation photograph whenever he’d never had a fringe before.

"And he invested all of that in coaching dear-knows how many young rugby players at school and at club level. His greatest rugby achievement was whenever he coached a young secondary school team, with no rugby history, to the final of a competition that was played at Ravenhill. But with nearly 50 years of involvement in rugby here in NI, Tom has left an indelible mark, in terms of playing, coaching, encouraging, inspiring at least two full generations of players and teams.

In his chosen profession of education, Tom was equally encouraging and inspiring to his pupils and to his staff, and to quote the statement released on Friday by Dalriada, Tom possessed, “energetic enthusiasm, an approachable attitude and a sense of humour” as the leader from the front in a school community who are so deeply saddened by the death of their Head Teacher.

"He motivated, both by word and by example, the staff in Dalriada both teaching and non-teaching, and indeed in his previous schools too where he is fondly remembered. He was highly thought of, encouraging pupils of different abilities to maximise their potential. He pushed on those who were clearly extremely academic and saw wonderful exam results down through the years.

" But he also went to bat for pupils in whom he saw great potential as he did his best to get them into his school where he knew they’d flourish. He was passionate about education, devoted to Dalriada, caring, interested, energizing and careful to ensure a working environment in his school where teachers were valued and where pupils were exceptionally well served.

"And he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, and literally dirty on numerous occasions. Lollipop person off sick? No problem, Tom would don the uniform and hold the lollipop and make sure the pupils got safely to and from school. Tree leaning dangerously? No problem. Tom came down with his chainsaw and in the space of a couple of hours, the tree was gone, and some people got a bit of firewood they weren’t expecting.

"Significant snowfall? And this was two weeks ago. No problem. Tom came down with the scoop on his JCB and cleared the front of the school for traffic. Oh, and on the way home he pulled out two cars that were stuck in Mathewson’s chemists whenever he drove in, in the JCB, to pick up a prescription for someone.

"Tom didn’t gingerly cave to the problem. He saw it, knew the solution, and then he jolly well got it done. Colloquially known by some in the school as the 100 mile an hour man. Who could fail to be motivated by someone who didn’t expect others to do what he was not prepared to do himself?

"I know that’s not all that Tom was involved in and there’ll be many here whose involvement alongside Tom was in something that I’ve not had time to mention. Don’t worry, just tell the person you’ve sitting next to at the end, or tell them over coffee later. And speak of this man who touched the lives of so many people for such a long time.”

Rev Glasgow added that Tom regularly said he was only able to do everything "because of Wilma's love and commitment" as his wife and the mother of their children.

"Tom and Wilma were dad and mum to Thomas Junior, Andrew, Emma and Alice. He was a wonderful father to them all, together with Wilma, providing the bedrock of loving, secure, family life.

"So today we can give thanks to God for Thomas James Skelton, for who he was, for his life, for his family and his loved ones who meant to so much to him and to whom he meant so much in return.”