Above: Brother Peter Cole cfc in July 2016 at the Mary Rice Centre, Nairobi. This school caters for students from the nearby slums who have special needs and disabilities.
Br Peter Cole cfc died peacefully on the afternoon of Friday April 13 aged 83, after a long battle with poor health. His passing will no doubt cause many to remember Peter for the generous and caring person he was, and I add these thoughts to the shared memory of this great man.
It was very early in the school year of 1967 that I first met Br Peter "Alfie" Cole. As a student I was visiting the other Year 12 classes to pass on a message to my fellow students. We were aware that there had been some staff changes but these staff had not been introduced formally. One of the classes I visited was being conducted by one of those Brothers who were new to the school. I was absolutely flabbergasted when he greeted me with the words "hello Frank FitzGerald, what can I help you with". Here was I being greeted by name, by a stranger who had obviously gone to great lengths over the school holidays to learn the names [via class photos I guess] of all the Year 12 class even those he was not teaching in his classes. In that instant I understood that power and importance of remembering names , and while I had no where near the capacity of Peter Cole to recall the names of people, it was a message that I would impress on new teachers when later I worked as a School Principal.
Having spoken to many others taught by "Alfie" [in later times he became known as "Ace" and even used this tag in his email address] in a variety of schools over many years, my experience was anything but unique. In fact all felt they had a personal bond with this man who was more than just a teacher. And in so many cases Peter Cole had established a rapport that lasted long past the student's time at school.
Peter Cole though was more than just a networker and rememberer of names. he was an "Ace" teacher. The following year, when I was doing my 2nd year Matric at the "new" Parade in Bundoora, I elected to take up the subject of Social Studies [now known as Politics] simply because of Peter Cole's reputation as a successful and engaging teacher. This reputation was certainly tested in the second week of school. There had been 2 classes of Social Studies timetabled to accommodate the 40 students who wanted to study it. Peter Cole had one class, the other was to be taken by a "volunteer" teacher who was working I think as a solicitor as his main occupation [teacher registration was not quite so strict in those days]. By the start of the second week, the dual careers proved too much of a challenge for our "volunteer" who tended his resignation to devote his time to his full time career. Whether it was his suggestion [and we guess it was] or he was persuaded by the principal W B Greening, Peter Cole stepped into the breech and combined all 40 of us into the largest classroom they could find and proceeded to teach arguably one of the largest single Yr 12 classes in the history of the College. Typical of Peter, he approached this task with enthusiasm and energy. Even as students we marvelled at his ability to set an essay for all 40 of us one day, and have all 40 essays marked in great detail and returned the next day [teacher workload was years away from being raised as an issue..] To top it off, Peter had the uncanny ability to read the mind of the examiners and quite a number of the questions that appeared on the end of year exam had been explored in great depth, so many of us "middle of the road" student ended up A's come results time.
It was not just in the classroom that Peter enthused and inspired students. A keen sportsman himself, he reveled in the role of coach be it football, cricket or athletics. Bob Aron who later worked with Peter as a Christian Brother in Africa recalls the mantra when he was a student and his football team was being coached by "Alfie":
Peter's 60 years of professional life was divided into three distinct areas of work
The first 20 years as an inspiring classroom teacher in schools across southern Australia
The next 15 years during the 1980's and mid 1990's working in Youth Ministries across Victoria and Tasmania
The final 25 years in Edmund Rice ministries in Africa
o Initially in Tanzania at Mt Sion College
o Since 2000 in Kenya including work in the Kibira slum and support groups such as those suffering from HIV/AIDS
Each of these areas of ministry had their distinct character and challenge, to which Peter applied boundless energy and his unique capacity to connect and support.
Peter's own story sees him growing up in the inner north east of Melbourne where he attended the Christian Brothers School at Clifton Hill. After his training with the Christian Brothers in Strathfield, NSW, he began his life as a teacher in 1959 at St Joseph's Pascoe Vale. Whether by chance or choice, Peter never seemed to spend a long time at any one school - in those days as a Christian Brother, you were assigned on a yearly basis to schools, the individual rarely had a say in their postings. Apparently Peter took this as an opportunity to extend his ever growing network of friends and former students, as he took up a large variety of postings on the staff of schools in Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania.
In recent times I have been meeting up with a group of friends from diverse backgrounds for a monthly lunch. To our amazement we found that the one thing most of us had in common was that we [or members of our family] had been taught by Peter Cole and this is over many years and different states in Australia! It became a focus of our group to put some dollars aside at each of the lunches to send to Peter in Africa to support his work over there. On a couple of occaisions it was our privilege to have him join us when he was on leave from Kenya.
While the narrative in recent times around the Catholic Church and groups such as the Christian Brothers carries dark and tragic chapters, the life and work of Brother Peter Cole stands as a beacon and a reminder of all that is to be admired in those who live a life devoted to service of others.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to call in and visit Peter a few days before he passed away, and I know I spoke for many when I was able to farewell Alfie/Ace with the words that you are our hero..