By April Chong
MR HARRY Tan was a throwback principal. He was a strict disciplinarian who pulled schools up by their bootstraps.
But the 67-year-old, who died on Wednesday from stomach cancer, had a softer side, teaching maths – to some of his weakest charges.
It was that passion, along with his brilliance as a teacher, that colleagues and former students remembered most yesterday.
‘He wanted to value-add to those who didn’t give two hoots about (maths) and he chose to spend time with the weakest,’ said Mr Noel Tan, a 38-year-old former student who is now a director of a consulting firm.
Mr Tan spent more than 35 years in education, including 18 as principal of St Andrew’s Secondary School, his alma mater, and three at Whitley Secondary.
His father died when he was young and his mother had to raise five children single-handedly. But that did not stop him from doing well as a student. He went to university on a teaching scholarship, and later became a maths teacher in schools such as Raffles Institution.
But his support and encouragement went beyond the academic; he helped turn St Andrew’s into a powerhouse in rugby and band.
Mr Tan even devoted time to sports that were not very popular. He used to quip that St Andrew’s was the best swimming school without a pool, said former student N.Sivasothi, a 42-year-old biology lecturer.
While he was usually staid, Mr Tan sometimes let slip his softer side.
Former student Yew Chee Chien, a 42-year-old airport emergency officer, caught a rare glimpse of that years ago. When he ran into the principal in a supermarket with his brother and father, Mr Tan told his dad: ‘Those are good boys. Take good care of them.’
While he had his career to take care of, Mr Tan never forgot to give time to the Boys’ Brigade, of which he had been a member since his school days, and turned to a long-time Boys’ Brigade buddy last week when he sensed the end was near.
Building contractor Ong Keng Tian, who has known Mr Tan for more than 50 years, said at his wake: ‘Last week, he called me to help make funeral arrangements. Even now, when I talk about him, I want to cry.’
No matter how busy he was, Mr Tan always made time for his family, taking them out for meals and on holidays, said his wife, Mrs Tan Hoon Hwee, 62.
He died in his sleep on Wednesday afternoon in hospital, leaving behind two sons, aged 29 and 34.
His funeral tomorrow at the Church of the Ascension (St Andrew’s Village) will be attended by more than 200 students from the Boys’ Brigade, school band and prefectorial board from St Andrew’s Secondary School.