Losing a parent at an early age, means I have had many mentors throughout my life. My Dad and my Aunt featured large in my formative years. But during my professional career, the one constant has been my employer and friend Owen Spencer-Thomas.
I first met Owen in 1993, when I attended an interview as a fundraiser. Owen was Chair of a small Cambridgeshire charity, East Anglian Autistic Support Trust (EAST). At the time, they were looking for a fundraiser to run small events to promote the charity around the county. My speculative letter dropped onto his doormat and he agreed to interview me.
Being a small charity, Owen ran the charity, along with his wife and Secretary, Maggie, from their front room. Following the interview, we agreed that I would become their fundraiser, predominantly arranging aerobathons, for a period of three months. Two and a half years later, I was still with EAST, and what I was to learn from Owen during these few years would far surpass what I had expected as a fundraiser.
An introduction to Owen
At the time that I met Owen, he was months away from retiring from a very successful career as a broadcast journalist, formally with Radio London, and latterly, Anglia Television.
Unbeknown to me, however, Owen was also a Reverend. I learned this about three months into my employ. There followed a panicked mental backtrack to recall any swear words or blasphemous comments I may have made in his presence!
Learning about the clerical side to Owen made me realise that I was working for a rather unique individual. A reverend, who provided succour to his congregation on Sunday. But who sought out stories as a journalist during the week. I have long since learned that these two qualities are what make Owen not only an excellent journalist, but also a formidable charity worker.
Learning at Owen’s knee
Before I joined EAST, I had volunteered as a fundraiser for Scope, a charity that support people with cerebral palsy. I had a template press release which I carbon copied to the relevant local newspaper to advertise my events.
Working for EAST, I soon learned that this was fine if the events were in different towns. However, if events were in the same town, my release would be ignored. I learned from Owen that my press release needed to be unique. It needed an angle. Something that made it stand out from the crowd from the hundreds of releases that were landing on the News Editor’s desk.
In recent years, I have been helping Owen produce his professional website, which includes a page on Writing a Press Release. Many of the hints and tips he includes there were, and still continue today, to be vital when contacting news agencies.
After EAST, my next charitable venture was Cambridgeshire Search and Rescue (CamSAR). Again, a charity in its infancy, I drew on my experience from EAST to help with their fundraising. I am particularly proud of the five years I spent with CamSAR. Whilst I was arranging aerobathons at EAST, Owen was targeting larger charitable trusts and organisations to tap into grants. And I again learned at his knee how to compile successful grant applications. Drawing on my experience of EAST, and with the invaluable support of CamSAR volunteers, we drove CamSAR’s funding from £10,000 to £30,000 during that period. This included a very successful £10,000 grant from The Big Lottery Fund.
Owen’s professional website
Owen is particularly proud of his News Values page. This page started life in 2003 and has been evolving ever since. Enter News Values into Google, and you will consistently find his page, if not at the top spot, then generally number 2. Not bad given the 2,470,000,000 pages of webpages dedicated to this subject.
Say it Straight
More interestingly, Owen’s personal website, Say it straight, also reflects areas of my life. When I first joined Owen, to work for EAST, I had recently learned that my best friend’s son had autism. Another quality that has stood me in good stead through my computing career has been my empathy for my users. This empathy generally exists in a person already. But it was honed following my days supporting families of EAST dealing with new diagnoses.
Also on Owen’s website, you will find articles on the great and the good of East Anglia. These were written originally for the Ely Diocese website. But as my life in Cambridge has continued, I have started to find links between my work and these good and great people.
I work for the University of Cambridge. Some of these good and great have University of Cambridge colleges named after them. One such college is Darwin. Named after Charles Darwin. The article on John Stevens Henslow tells of his links with Darwin and Adam Sedgwick.
Henslow was offered a post as naturalist to sail aboard the survey ship HMS Beagle, with Darwin, on a planned two-year trip to survey South America. In the end he declined.
But what is interesting to me is between 2013 and 2017, I was Computer Officer for the Sedgwick Museum. In that museum you will find the Beagle Collection dedicated to the geological finds of that expedition.
In 2007, I was delighted and proud to be invited to write a citation for Owen’s MBE (Member of the British Empire) nomination. My citation was to recognise his efforts in securing funds to build the first home in Cambridgeshire for young adults with autism (Juniper House).
His achievements were recognised in the Queen’s 2008 New Year Honours. His award was in recognition of his charity work and services to the community .
I was even more thrilled and honoured when the Spencer-Thomas family invited me to accompany them for his investiture.
It was held at Buckingham Palace on 4 March (the day after Owen’s birthday), where Owen was bestowed his award by The Queen.
It was a thrilling day. To step foot in the palace grounds was awe-inspiring.
An added bonus was meeting Owen’s colleague, BBC British newsreader, journalist and television news presenter, George Alagiah. He was there to receive his OBE.
Over the past twenty-five years, I have helped Owen as assistant editor to compile the parish magazine, Ely Ensign. I have edited numerous of his sermons. And I have helped him compile the weekly Intercessions for the Ely Cathedral services. I often tease Owen that he fed me religion through the back door!
I started this article talking about mentoring. Mentoring is important. Not just for the knowledge and skills that we learn from them. But it provides the social and personal support that we need to develop who we are. To become the best selves we can be. And in turn, recognising the difference they have made to us means we can pass these skills on to others, and become mentors ourselves.
Indeed, some of my time in the early years, I coached Owen’s two youngest children through their A Levels. The lessons learned from Owen in mentoring, I hoped I passed down to his children.
I mentioned earlier The Big Lottery Grant I secured for CamSAR. A grant I would not have felt confident applying for, were it not for the training I had received by Owen.
Many years later, I was to replicate this same success from The Big Lottery Fund. This time for funds for St Augustine’s Church Hall, where Owen ministers on Sunday’s, coming full circle.