William Leo McGairy was born in Glasgow on 16th September 1888. Both his parents, Edward and Catherine, who were from Ireland (Edward was a painter and decorator) died before William was 12. He was then brought up in Glasgow by his Aunt, Sarah. He attended St Mungo’s Academy and in 1908 he started at Glasgow University. According to Glasgow University's website:
"In his first year he took Logic and Mathematics. In the following three years he went on to take English, Education, French and Natural Philosophy. He passed his Arts subjects without difficulty but struggled with Mathematics, making nine unsuccessful attempts to pass. Under War Service regulations he was given special permission to graduate from the University and was awarded an ordinary MA degree on 23rd June 1920."
Between 1911 and 1914 he worked as an assistant master at a variety of schools in Glasgow; the majority of the time at Gorbals Public School.
In 1914 he signed up and joined the army, becoming a serjeant (sergeant) in the 177th Bn of the Royal Field Artillery, part of the 16th (Irish) Division. however at the start of the war he was seconded to the 131st Bn who were attached to the 2nd Canadian Division. He fought in many parts of the Western Front including Vimy Ridge. In late 1917 he married Laura Elizabeth Towerton, who was from Wycombe. He was awarded the Military Medal in August 1918, which was awarded for bravery in the field. He was seriously wounded in the back and head, from which he never entirely recovered. During his time in the army he wrote many letters and postcards home to Laura, which are still in the family. He was also an accomplished artist and the cartoon on this page was drawn while on active service.
His brother, Thomas, also fought as was killed in April 1918 serving with the Royal Scots in the Battle of Hazebrouck (part of the Battle of the Lys). His body was never identified and he is remembered on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing. Another brothers, Edward, who had emigrated to New York, also served, fighting with the Canadian army.
After the end of the war he initially returned to Gorbals Public School but once he gained his MA from Glasgow University he moved to High Wycombe firstly to Spring Gardens School before moving to the School in May 1920. He was appointed as an English teacher and Chief Assistant at the School and can be seen in the staff and senior boys photo taken in 1923; he is on the furthest right in the second row (as you look at it).
Mr Arthur Gardham, the Principal, described him as,
"... one of the most conscientious and honest workers I have met. He filled a peculiar and special niche all to himself, and both his colleagues on the staff and his pupils both past and present, realise that his influence, always of the highest, will always be felt. Unassuming and straight as a die, he laboured incessantly in the service of other, and in the hearts of his pupils was popularly known as 'Mr Mac' - always loved and respected. Mr Mac was an orphan from his youth and in his teaching progression endeared himself to both young and old."
In 1924 his head wounds showed serious after effects and he underwent an operation in St. Thomas' Hospital. Hopes were entertained for his complete recovery, but during 1927, his condition deteriorated. Over Christmas 1927 there was a period of heavy snow and cold and on Tuesday 27th Mr McGairy went out to clear the snow from his drive in West Wycombe Road. It was while helping a neighbour that he had a stroke and lapsed into unconsciousness. He passed away the following day at the age of 39 years. According to reports at the time his sudden collapse was no doubt the direct result of his war services.
His funeral was held on December 31st at West Wycombe Church. The Bucks Free Press reported,
"There was a large gathering, in spite of the heavy snow storm, some 100 of the pupils of the School being present, together with many old boys, members of the teaching staff, representatives of the Bucks Caledonian Society, relatives and many friends. A guard of honour was provided at the church doors by girls of the school. ... Thus amid scenes of great picturesqueness in the falling snow, was laid to rest one who had vastly endeared himself to his fellow men, and whose kindly geniality and warm heartedness will be much missed. Mr McGairy was of great ability, and was well known in the town; was a welcome guest at many a social gathering where his eloquence and fund of stories, which he told so well, were always so keenly appreciated and looked forward to; where his rich sense of humour added a zest to many a pleasant evening. Nothing but the kindliest memories will remain in the hearts of all who were privileged to know the great soul who has been so tragically called home."
His widow, Laura, survived him for over sixty years and died in 1989, cherishing her memories and a set of wonderful letters which he had written home from France between 1915 and 1917.
Mr McGairy's son and grandson, James attended the School. James, his grandson was at the school between 1979 - 1985 and is now a successful artist living and working in in Guisborough.
We are very grateful to his Granddaughter, Kathleen, for providing much of this information.