(Geoffrey, pictured second right, passed away in May this year)
A message from the President – Bob Graham (H 61-67)
Many of the obituaries that appear in the OS magazine quite rightly commemorate the lives of leading lights in many aspects of the life of this country and around the world, whom Sedbergh has nurtured. I would like to recount a slightly different story.
On Saturday 15th June a small group of Old Sedberghians were amongst a packed congregation, a fitting tribute in itself, at St Bees Priory Church to celebrate the life of Doctor Geoffrey William Syme Burgess (17 October 1942 – 24 May 2019). Unless you were in Hart House between 1956 and 1960, studied with him in Biology VI under LPM, or were one of his patients, his name may not mean very much to you. Geoff, as we all knew him, was a man not given to self-advertisement. Personally speaking, it was my good fortune and privilege, having arrived in Hart House a year after Geoff had left, that I later came to know him as a most convivial, warm and amusing member of the ‘Ten Mile Gang’ of Old Hartonians, some of whom have returned for the Ten every year for at least fifty years.
Arriving in Sedbergh in the pink blazer and cap of Harecroft Hall Prep. School, Geoff won a scholarship and came to Hart in 1956. Before he left,(taking a beating once – for possession of fireworks along with other miscreants – he also lead a deputation to the Housemaster to complain about uncooked sausages!) Geoff was appointed House Prefect, played the double bass in the school orchestra and jazz band and won a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge to read medicine. Geoff was ‘one of the clever boys’ and knew exactly what he wanted to do. From Cambridge he went on to University College Hospital, London for training as a general practitioner.
Whilst living and practising in Baldock, Hertfordshire, Geoff took a sudden interest in the local Thespians where he met and fell for a lovely fellow thespian, Gill Walker.They married in 1967. After time in hospitals in London and Nottingham, Geoff and Gill moved to Whitehaven where his reputation as an outstanding doctor grew and where he was held in high esteem by patients and colleagues alike at his practice in Distington where he became senior partner. He pioneered the use of acupuncture, and in the words of one patient who had suffered several failed spinal procedures “saved my sanity and relieved my agony.”
Geoff and Gill’s children Andrew and Jane had arrived and the family moved to Croft Hill where Geoff tried his hand at sheep farming. However, in 1992 Geoff suffered his first heart attack and four years later had to retire from practice. Always active though, Geoff continued to carry out blood transfusions, was medical adviser to Benefits Tribunals as well as to Carlisle Races and Whitehaven Rugby League Club. In the community he joined Whitehaven Round Table of which he became Chairman, and he later became President of his local Rotary. During his year as Chairman at Whitehaven he masterminded the raising of funds to provide West Cumberland Hospital with a Russian- made bowel stapler. Once the instructions were translated, the stapler was put into service!
Moving back to St Bees, enjoying the pleasures of grandfatherhood, walking, cookery, particularly of soups and Asian dishes, he involved himself with the Priory Church where he was PCC treasurer and editor of St Bees News. He maintained his close association with, love for and loyalty to Sedbergh, watching rugby, cricket and making the annual return for the Ten, where he was renowned for dropping off to sleep at the table after dinner.
Geoff was a much loved and admired man, who made an immeasurable contribution to the communities in which he lived and worked. There are many who are thankful that he walked among us and who now cherish the memory of a beloved husband, father and grandfather, a loyal and joyful friend and an outstanding practitioner of his calling.
In the service sheet at St Bees that day were printed the lines of Pardon Me For Not Getting Up. If you knew Geoff, you would know why it was included. If not, it tells you something about this kind, unassuming, genial and gentle man, colleague and friend.
My grateful thanks to Geoff’s beloved wife Gill, for her permission to publish this obituary, to Geoff’s great friend and contemporary Mike (Spike) Halliwell (H 56-60) who gave the eulogy at St Bees, to friend, contemporary and fellow clinician Chris Metcalfe-Gibson (H 56-61) and to the Rev Becky Gibbs for a copy of her address.