John Wilkes Eulogy given by Simon Patterson (nephew)
John has always been an example for me. Not necessarily one I’ve been able to follow, but he’s very much a template for how to be a good person, who lives their life well.
That’s why it was no surprise to me when Jill told me that when, John’s cousin Julian started the same school, Runcorn C of E Primary School, Julian was told to ‘be like John’. Wise words indeed, although in truth, I’m not sure many people can be like John.
John then attended Helsby Grammar School before attending Sheffield University where he studied Geology and Physics.
Afterwards John joined the MOD, but at the same time he was in the Territorial Army as a 2nd lieutenant with the Royal Corps of Transport. He left as a captain, receiving his long service medal, the territorial decoration, for 12 years service. John also shot at Bisley winning cups for being the highest scoring officer.
It was in 1966 he started to work at the Royal Armament Research Development Establishment in Potton Island. John has always been coy about exactly what he did, but eventually he confessed that he blew things up, which just naturally invited more questions.
In amongst all this, he met Jill at the Southend-On-Sea Rifle Club, and they were engaged in February 1974 and wedded on the 26th April of the same year. The addition of a wife didn’t necessarily encourage John to be more about open about his job at the time.
Thus Jill would learn about the time when John acted as the recce officer – going ahead to find locations – and the transport ship broke down. Jill was delighted to hear – only on John’s return – that this had actually been in an un-cleared minefield in Germany.
Jill would also receive cryptic advice alerting her to interesting Daily Telegraph articles, which might outline things like ‘Exocet trials in the Atlantic’.
There was also the time John was helicoptered from a Destroyer, and went down a line onto a submarine that had just been bombed in order to collect data before it was lost. Shortly after he was back on-board the helicopter, the submarine sank.
Or there was the time on the H. M. Illustrious, after the Falklands. As the helicopter was taking off the pilot decided the oil running down the windscreen – a result of the action during the Falklands – was excessive and they would have to change to another helicopter, a fact that John no doubt had a wry comment for.
In 1989 John became a Trials Site Manager for Royal Ordnance at Porton Down, and together Jill and John moved to Wiltshire and stayed there until their retirement, enjoying sailing Moonbeam down along the South Coast whenever they could. There the blackbirds had him trained, knocking at a fence to get his attention before flying to the back door for food.
It is at this point; as a 4-year-old that my memory starts to kick in. Jill and John were Mark my brother’s, godparents, but they may as well have been mine too. The trip to Salisbury was always one I looked forward to with an immense out of excitement.
John had a unique way of turning his own intelligence and skill into activities that were brilliantly fun for two young boys, whether that was creating ships and aeroplanes out of balsa wood, or helping us fail miserably to walk on some stilts that he had constructed. There was always something new to do in the garage, and I can consider myself happily spoilt by both Jill and John’s giving of time and love.
On retirement John organised a trip round the world with Jill, and visited a number of distant friends and family. They visited Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Cook Islands, Florida and the Bahamas, and this was just the start of a decade of some incredible travel adventures which are well documented in a bewildering array of photo albums.
This is one of the bits I struggled to write and I know I’ll struggle to say. One of the adventures that didn’t happen was to come and see my wedding recently in New Zealand. Jill and John were the first to organise everything, get the camper van and flights booked and sort out an itinerary, but it wasn’t to be. I wanted them there because they are a treasured aunt and uncle, but also because the love that they have for each other – the depth of feeling that John had for Jill – this was something that helped me to fully appreciate what it is to be married. But I have been hugely blessed by the amount of support they’ve given me and time and effort they’ve put in to visiting me, whether that was in Yateley as a child, or in Iceland when I was studying there, or in Cambridge. John always went, quite literally, the extra mile.
John then returned with Jill to Essex and Marsh Lane, and was once again able to roast chestnuts on an open fire and have a large garage with a workshop. He turned his skills to making an incredible home, with an in-out drive of crazy paving, a weekend of playing with a digger masquerading as redesigning a garden and putting up a swing for the younger visitors. Although as Jill is keen to point out, she always had to safety test it first! He also fulfilled one of his dreams in buying an Aston Martin DB7.
That’s a summary of John’s life, but it doesn’t do it any justice. Before John left Wiltshire they saw an Explosion exhibition in Gosport, and apparently was walking around saying ‘I worked on that, I worked on that’. In doing so John became a bit disillusioned, realizing his old job now belonged in a museum. But another way to think about this story is how incredible it is to have worked on something so meaningful that it is already recognised as important history in your lifetime.
And that’s the thing. Although he was incredibly unassuming, John was phenomenally clever as well as strong patient and always happy to give these qualities as a gift.
I doubt there is anyone here today who hasn’t had his help on some sort of project, whether that’s looking after a clock, or fixing a lock for a local church for free, or building a patio, removing a chimney, fixing cars or clearing a beach of sea defences in Cyprus; the list goes on.
As Jill says, he kept everything in their lives working. When I break something, I put it to one side for at least a year before attempting to Google a solution (and then I would call John to ask how it should actually be done). John just got on and did it, and created his own solution at the same time.
Which is why when travelling through Belgium, and the car exhaust broke, Jill
was sent scavenging in the bins until she found a can of Coke, which John used to temporarily restore the exhaust until their next stop. It is why only a few weeks ago John was giving instructions as to how we could fix a hospital table.
In amongst that John was incredibly caring and gentle, even if it was in an understated way. I’m certain no one in this room has been around John without being offered another glass of wine or whiskey or anything that would make people feel welcome.
Mark and I have been blessed to be his nephews and I know I am a better person for having known him. I also say with great pride that I have seen him treat others with the same love and kindness, whether that’s my brother’s daughter Zahra, or James and Stefan, or neighbours and friends. He is much loved and will be much missed.