Teachers’ Day on 16 May was supposed to be a day of celebration for teachers and even ex-teachers – but for the teachers, students and alumni of St John’s Institution, it was a day of mourning.
Friends and fellow Johannians woke up to the sad news of the passing of James Gonzales, a well-known and respected teacher.
James, as he was popularly known, was a St John’s teacher for over three decades. He had also studied at this school for over a decade. A true blue Johannian in every respect, James, even after retirement, was always willing to lend a helping hand to the school.
Born on 16 February 1939 in Seremban, James had a distinguished career as teacher, state athlete, trade unionist and president of the Rawang Rotary Club (of which I was a member). He also served the community where he lived as internal auditor of the Bangsar Park Residents’ Association.
In his school days, James was an outstanding athlete and represented Selangor in athletics, winning many trophies in the 1950s. Many of his peers and classmates vividly remember James for his success in athletics. To improve his performance, he would run barefoot on the railway tracks in Sentul Pasar, where he then lived.
A science graduate from Loyola College in Madras, James was a teacher for his entire working life. He was much liked by his students, as he used his innate public relations skills to deal with even the most difficult students. He had a knack for transforming them into responsible citizens. Even after he retired, students would come up to him, greet him and take him out for meals.
Once, James told me, a senior politician invited him to his office to have a talk about the latter’s sons. The politician lamented to James about the problems he had with his sons, who would entertain their friends at a club on the politician’s account. James told the father that as far as the school was concerned, they were well behaved and did not give any problems.
James’s teaching abilities were recognised beyond St John’s Institution, earning him the Tokoh Guru (outstanding teacher) Federal Territory award a few years after his retirement in 2002.
As secretary of the Federal Territory branch of the National Union of the Teaching Profession, James helped many teachers resolve the issues they faced. A close friend Jerome Fernandez, former deputy president of the NUTP, was quoted as saying, “James played a pivotal role in developing and strengthening the branch. The steady increase in our membership bears testimony to his hard work spent in the office. No issue was too small for him.”
James was also Rawang Rotary Club president in the 1990s, and during his tenure, many projects were realised. He always spoke without fear or favour about the tenets and values of the club and the need for members to personify its ethos. It was an honour for me to serve as bulletin editor during his term as club president.
I had known James since 1973, when my family first moved to Bangsar Park. He was always there to lend me a helping hand, sometimes without even being requested. He would do this for all his close friends.
James was a loving husband and father and doting grandfather. He gained immense pleasure in looking after his six grandchildren, taking them to school and for swimming and music classes.
A die-hard opposition supporter, he would attend many opposition rallies and fundraising dinners with me. An avid reader of The Rocket, he would scour Kuala Lumpur for a copy. After reading it, he would drop it in my letterbox.
At every general election, both of us would be the first two in the queue at the polling station, turning up half an hour before it opened. In the 2018 general election, I took James in a wheelchair to vote: he was determined to vote for PKR’s Fahmi Fadzil, who in the end won the Lembah Pantai parliamentary seat.
A lover of good food, James would travel all the way to Rawang for lunch at our favourite restaurant together with me and our two friends, Peter and Gana. Shopping in Rawang was always on his itinerary, and he would vouch that consumers could get more value for money in this small town compared with KL.
James always had the time to be humorous with his friends and would spend a few minutes with them whenever he met them anywhere. So I felt deeply disturbed to see him in a sombre state each time I visited him during his illness.
Rest in peace, James. You are deeply missed by all your friends and all those who cherish your friendship and sense of humour. Gone but certainly not forgotten.