Campion Medal for Bill Blackledge
And now we come to this year’s lifetime achievement award for services to broken bathroom fittings. You all know who the winner is already: Bill Blackledge, for an astonishing 38 years working to keep the Jesuits in London housed, fed and not burned alive. Bill, it’s great to have you here at this rather austere celebration of our founder’s feast day. Welcome to Louise, your wonderful wife; Louise, I still remember those days you spent with us in Wapping during the Olympics. Thank you for being part of the extended family too. And welcome to the other members of the family who have joined us today.
Congratulations on this splendid award. The Campion Medal, named after the most illustrious Jesuit to have been born on this island, and coincidentally the patron of a former work of this Province which Bill knew rathe well, is a small but heartfelt token of our gratitude to those lay people who have worked closely with us over many years and who have done so in such a way as to inspire by their generosity and self-giving. Bill, and I say this as someone who has known you for a fair few years, though rather fewer than te4h nearly four decades that you have spent with us, you are very obviously such a person. We are tremendously grateful to you for all that you have done for us, of course we are, and for all the good times we have shared together, but more important even than these is the way you have helped us to be better people and better Jesuits by the example you have given.
I hope you won’t take it amiss if I say that over the years you have become part of the furniture. But you also must know by now that being part of the furniture in a Jesuit house is not a happy fate. It means that you get sat on roughly, torn and then broken, before finally being replaced by something much more expensive but not half as good. I hope you don’t feel you have suffered too much from being part of the furniture.
But Bill, I wonder what you were thinking to yourself as you watched big brother Denis set off for the novitiate back in 1961 when you were a mere seven years old. Did you even then have some inkling that he was about to join a group of men whose very otherworldliness might represent an opportunity, not, it must be said of a spiritual order, but a chance to earn a living by mending all the things they kept breaking?
If you did, Bill, then when you made your first career move you didn’t seem to have had the Society of Jesus in your sights so much as Jesus himself. Because you set out to train as a carpenter, acquiring skills which have served you well throughout your life, but none more so in those early years when you found yourself making expensive classical guitars, a rather specialised kind of carpentry!
It was on 2nd December 1982 that you pitched up, eager twenty-something that you were, at Campion House in Osterley in West London. Denis had by this time ascended far up the greasy pole and was superior of the community. Your job that fateful day was to put in fire doors throughout the third floor of the new wing to comply with the new fire regulations.
Oh happy words! Where, Bill, where would you be now had it not been for those new fire regulations? Where would any of us be, come to that? Burned to a cinder, no doubt. But for you, Bill, and for the Jesuits of the Thames Valley, it was the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations of 1997 (amended 1999) that were the occasion of our first meeting, allowing us to size each other up to show what we were made of. They sealed our fate. And it was love at first sight.
Within the year, the Italian POW who had had worked as maintenance manager at Campion House since end of World War 2 had retired, and guess who took his place. Not it must be said at your brother’s behest. Bill, you not only started work there but you moved in, living at Casa Maria in Thornbury Rd, which by then had been split into two flats. And within a few short years you were joined by a wonderful wife, Louise, a young nurse for whom I gather you had by this stage developed even stronger feelings than those which bound you to the Jesuits.
All three of your fabulous children were born around that time: Laurence, now living in the States, Conrad, your trusty companion who has done much good work for us, and Dorrie, who is fondly remembered from her days working on Reception in Mount Street.
When Denis moved on from Osterley, you remained, working first for Michael Barrow and then Chris Dyckhoff of happy memory. It’s a nice synchronicity that Michael Barrow this week also started his retirement after his extended period of service in Barbados.
During those years, you kept a large and complex campus in fantastic condition. You entirely renewed the house, the wing and the grounds, and as the work of the pre-seminary lessened, and the building became a popular Pastoral Centre for the West London area you were never short of something to do. You had a reputation as a great team player, and for getting on famously with everyone, the Jesuits, the lay staff and the students – some of whom worked with you over the summer holidays to earn money.
The end of Osterley in 2004 could have seen a parting of the ways. But as a new century dawned, the British Jesuits showed no sign of losing their knack for breaking things. And so the story continued. That same year, Bill, you were offered the job of Maintenance Manager of all the Jesuit houses in London, a post you held until a few short months ago, when you handed over to Kamil Siekanski, becoming instead a Emeritus maintenance expert for various Jesuit houses around the Province, from Boscombe to Birmingham, Oxford to Stonyhurst.
If you would see his monument, look around. Not Farm Street Church, alas, but Wapping, Clapham, Wimbledon, Stamford Hill, Southall, Goldhurst Terrace, Mount Street, and let’s not forget the names of yesteryear, Southwell House and all the Brixtons. In all these properties, there is barely a light bulb that has not been changed, a window re-glazed, a drain unblocked, a wall unpainted or a carpet unlaid by Bill’s fair hand or of by one of his small army of Polish sub-contractors.
Bill, it is somewhat grudgingly that I am forced to acknowledge that you have occasionally done things for other people too. I am not sure why, but there you are. I know you were active as Chair of Governors of your local Primary School in Osterley for some twenty years, and still fulfil the role of Vice-Chair. You have long been a special minister of the Eucharist at St Vincent’s parish in Osterley. And you are, of course, a wonderful husband, a loving brother, a devoted dad and now a doting grandad.
What does the future hold as you head for retirement? I know that you and Loise are both enjoying being grandparents for the first time and that little Ava will have first call on your attention. She is very lucky! I suspect that it will be an extremely active retirement. I can’t quite imagine you sitting around doing nothing for too long. However things go, you know that you will always be part of our Jesuit family – in your own right, not just as Denis’ baby brother. I feel sure that we will be in regular touch and I hope you will be a frequent visitor to our houses. But when you come, Bill, do bring your toolbox, just in case.