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Features / Farewell to a ‘rare kind of fellow’

George McGhee 'a big family, a big community' - Photos: Chris Cope/ShetNews

George McGhee, the manager of Anderson High School’s halls of residence, is perched at his desk. Behind him are shelves of Mickey Mouse memorabilia given to him as gifts by pupils, writes Chris Cope.

“Disney is my thing,” he says – while his noticeboard explodes with drawings and goodwill messages. And on the desk is a mug made by a former pupil, who emblazoned her picture on the side.

It’s testament to the regard McGhee is held in by those who have journeyed through the Janet Courtney hostel over the last four decades.

The head honcho will say goodbye to the hostel’s 62 youths on Friday ahead of the school holidays before leaving his post later in October as retirement beckons.

He entered the role back in 1979 after moving up to Shetland with his wife from Glasgow, not long after his dad did the same thing to become one of Sullom Voe oil terminal’s first firefighters.

“We saw the job advertised and we thought we’d try it out for a couple of years, for a change,” McGhee said.

“My job south was kept open for me for that time. But that was 37 years ago. After the first year, we both realised what Shetland had to offer, in terms of us as a family, but also what it could offer me in job satisfaction.”

The hostel houses pupils from the outlying islands, as well as the far west of the mainland, with the majority of kids staying there during the week. McGhee heads a staffing complement of 21 who try to make life as comfortable as possible for the teenagers – within reason, of course.

“We try to create a family environment,” he said. “We have a big family, a big community.

“One of my main philosophies with the kids is that if you treat them with respect, they will reciprocate that.”

McGhee had been working in residential childcare before moving to Shetland, and it’s supporting the development of youths that gives him true job satisfaction.

“I enjoy working with the young people, first and foremost,” he said. “It’s the young folk of Shetland that’s kept me here for 37 years. I can say that my whole career in Shetland has been absolutely wonderful. There’s been low points, but the vast majority has been high points, and that’s the things that I will remember.

“It’s been tremendous to be able to help the development and growth of the young people that have passed through the hostel. It’s nice because I’ve looked after some of the young people’s parents as well.”

McGhee has already had a formal tribute from the current crop of pupils, with a themed night held on Tuesday.

There was a Disney quiz – “I’m ashamed to say I didn’t win it” – while everyone was face-painted like Mickey Mouse. A presentation from the youths, meanwhile, opened the waterworks.

“I was gowling like a bairn,” he said. “I was very, very touched by it.”

McGhee will be vacating his desk roughly one year before the Janet Courtney hostel is closed and the children transferred to the new Anderson High School halls of residence near the Clickimin Leisure Complex.

It’s a hot topic at the moment, with Shetland Islands Council controversially deciding against naming the new hostel after McGhee, despite public support.

The man himself is pragmatic, and on the outside at least, seems a little nonplussed by all the fuss. He didn’t know there are new petitions rallying against the council’s decision, and was unaware of the first public campaign until someone in Mareel said they’d voted for him. “Voted for what?”

The Janet Courtney Hostel will close in summer next year ahead of the opening of the new Anderson High school and associated halls of residence.

“I was honoured and touched that so many people put forward their name and signed petitions for it to be named after me. It came as a great surprise and shock,” he added.

When asked if he would have liked to have the hostel named after him, McGhee simply said: “The council have now made their decision about what they are going to name it. I respect their right to make that decision.”

Nevertheless, it seems McGhee’s influence will remain strong despite the manager not bagging the new hostel name.

If they have time, he and his wife often meet up with ex-pupils for a “half-pint of shandy” during trips to the Scottish mainland, while they get invited to numerous weddings a year as former Janet Courtney kids tie the knot.

Megan Burns, who stayed in the hostel around nine years ago, said McGhee will be a “great miss”.

“Even to this day when I see him we always have a long chat,” she said. “It’s like I’ve never left – he never forgets a face.

“He would always have time to talk to you, and he always had your best interests at heart. He would go the extra mile to make sure your stay in the hostel was enjoyable. Everyone who stays there has so many memories.”

Ryan Arthur – who was a resident between 1995 and 1997 – said the hostel “revolved” around the outgoing manager.

“Mr McGhee – he was always called that to us – is a rare kind of fellow,” he said. “He’s in that leadership position, with scores of staff and unruly children to look after, but he manages to be both a good, friendly approachable guy and at the same time a no-nonsense, very effective leader, and its normally impossible to be both those things.”

Arthur added he was “extremely disappointed” that the council voted against calling the new hostel after McGhee.

“I know its not something he would ever admit to wishing for – he’s not that kind of person – but it’s something who lived in the hostel wished for him.”

So what’s next for McGhee? Next year he will travel the world with his wife, taking advantage of not being dictated by the school calendar – “It’s a novelty.” You wouldn’t be surprised, however, if he pops by the hostel when he can.

“I’m still hoping for an invite to the Christmas dinner,” McGhee smiled.

After the interview is concluded, the hostel manager poses for some photos outside. A pupil comes out of the front door and speaks to McGhee. She had been off school feeling poorly, but battled through the illness to make it in for the manager’s last couple of days at work. “I wanted to say goodbye,” she said.

A Janet Courtney hostel reunion meanwhile is set to take place on 13 October next year. Anyone who attended the halls of residence between August 1979 to the present day (if they are aged over 18) are invited to attend. Contact hostelreunion@hotmail.com or find the event on Facebook. Alternatively, phone Debbie on 01950 431661.