Francis Anthony Powell

Master of Arts

15 July 2004 - Orator: Professor Michael Liversidge

Madam Chancellor

Nine centuries ago Alfonso the Learned of Castile wrote down the essential criteria that the place in which he was contemplating founding a university should fulfil: “The town in which a university is to be situated should have good air and beautiful surroundings, so that the professors who teach and the students who learn can live healthily, and sleep pleasantly in the afternoon when they have become fatigued by their studies.  There should also be an abundance of good food and fine wine, and of good inns in which they can pass their time.”  How very like Bristol, although some things have changed since then: writing when only men went to university, he also says that the opposite sex should be neither so abundant nor so alluring as to distract or divert the scholars from their work.  In the ideal model which he prescribes, there are two other conditions that should be satisfied: the teachers and their students should have properly provisioned places in which to work, inspiring but neither too austere nor too lavish, and they should be sustained in their endeavours by a dedicated fellowship of college companions to administer to their needs – what today we would call our support services, those who work for the University across the whole spectrum of what it takes to make a complex organisation with several thousand employees function successfully.

Francis Powell, Madam Chancellor, exemplifies that fellowship, and indeed his career here has been redolent of Alfonso the Learned’s conjunction of place, premises and people.  He has flourished in Bristol’s salubrious environment, enjoyed the quality of life its restaurants and watering holes supply, and maybe has even occasionally been tempted to slumber in the afternoon.  He has also given exceptional service to the University in a variety of capacities, most recently as Superintendent and Accommodation Officer to the Faculties of Arts and Social Sciences and Law, somehow finding ways and means of reconciling a finite supply of rooms with an ever-growing demand for more room.  Today, on the threshold of his retirement after an uninterrupted forty-eight years and four months at Bristol, he deservedly joins the distinguished and illustrious roll of the University’s honorary graduates.  It is an extraordinary record: nobody on the staff today has worked for the University for as long as he has; and as those who know him well will testify, even more remarkably, he will retire not only giving every appearance of doing so still in only the second flush of youth, and in full possession of an undiminished sense of humour, but also before the normal retirement age.  He is, indeed, probably the last of our colleagues who can complete a full half-century working for the University, but instead he has elected to take some parole and bring forward a little his release back into the community.

Francis Powell encapsulates the loyalty and dedication of those who work, and have worked, for the University behind the scenes in so many ways that it is impossible to give more than an inadequately perfunctory account within a brief oration.  He was fifteen, and just out of school, when he joined the University as a Technician in the Geography Department in April 1956; it was not then his ambition to stay permanently – having started out in life in wartime Bristol, the son of a furniture store manager originally from Cardiff, and after surviving the rigours of St Bonaventure’s Primary School followed by St Thomas More Secondary School, neither of which managed to suppress his spirit despite their best efforts, he combined working for the University with Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve training as a potential route into a service career, obtaining his Commission as a Pilot Officer in 1958.  But he stayed with the University, moving from Geography to the Arts Library, then in 1964 taking what was then a bold technological initiative by setting up a Language Laboratory, the first such facility in any British university.  Over the years he has often been at the forefront of change in teaching technology, bringing a succession of novelties to classrooms across different parts of the University, ranging from the first photocopier seen outside Senate House in the early 1970s to the computerised sophistication of today’s multimedia resources about to be unleashed in even the remotest fastnesses of the teaching enterprise.  As the University’s Audio-Visual Liaison Officer, alongside his responsibilities as Superintendent and Accommodation Officer for two of the Faculties with the most students and the least money, Arts as well as Social Sciences and Law, Francis Powell has achieved more than a few small miracles by conjuring essential equipment from, one suspects, an ingeniously creative budgetary sleight of hand from which dodgy economists and accountants could learn a lot.

Nor, Madam Chancellor, has Francis Powell’s technological prowess been deployed solely for pedagogical purposes.  He secured his own significant, if hitherto unsung, place in the University’s history when he was called upon to indulge in a little internal espionage and covert surveillance.  In the heady days of 1968, when radicalism and rebellion ran amok in Britain’s universities, Bristol’s students – long after their Essex  and the London School of Economics contemporaries – horrified The Daily Mail by occupying Senate House just three weeks before Christmas.  The Vice-Chancellor and administration, although evicted, were strangely unperturbed by events: the management’s intelligence was far better than anyone at the time knew, because Francis Powell had infiltrated the building under cover of darkness and used his technical expertise to set up a telephone tapping operation so that communications between the Union and the protesters occupying Senate House were being comprehensively monitored.

Technical services lubricate and facilitate the smooth running of a wide range of activities across the University today, from conferences and communications, teaching and research, to degree congregations.  This year marks a singular anniversary for our ceremonies in this Great Hall.  Forty years ago the original oak hammerbeam roof destroyed in a bombing raid on Bristol in 1940 was finally replaced by the magnificent replica over our heads today, and ever since 1964 Francis Powell has supervised with exemplary efficiency the technical facilities for every ceremony held here, and in all that time he has missed only one day when he was in attendance at Buckingham Palace on the occasion when Bristol and several other universities conferred honorary degrees on Nelson Mandela during his state visit to this country.  Over those forty years, Madam Chancellor, he has witnessed the University grow from a little over three thousand students, when five ceremonies a year were sufficient for all its graduates, to the leviathan it is today, requiring fifteen ceremonies over seven days.

So, Madam Chancellor, Francis Powell has given a lifetime’s service to this University, and in the process has seen it change dramatically, and has adapted to those changes and the increasingly complex demands they have placed upon him over the years, always with good humour and unfailing patience towards everyone with whom he has come in contact.  It is fitting that the University publicly recognises his record and achievements, and celebrates his career today with his family present to witness our appreciation.  And it adds to the occasion that after the degree has been conferred he will receive his Master’s cap from his wife, Lynn, the Bursar of Clifton Hill House and a University Bedell, making this a unique occasion which also appropriately marks the fact that this year they have together given seventy-five years’ service to the University.

Madam Chancellor, in recognition of, and in gratitude for, the contribution he has made by his dedication and loyalty to the University, I present to you Francis Anthony Powell as most eminently worthy of the degree of Master of Arts, honoris causa.

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