Monday 07 Mar 2022

Tribute to George Walker

It is with great sadness that we have learned of the death of George Walker, Director General of Ecolint from 1991 to 1999, on 4 March 2022. Read on for Emeritus Foundation Archivist Alejandro Rodríguez-Giovo's eloquent obituary for George Walker.

Members of the Ecolint community wishing to express their condolences are encouraged to send a message to George Walker's family via the online Book of Condolence.

George Walker
(25 January 1942 - 4 March 2022)

Although grass-roots initiatives are no doubt the hallmark of Ecolint, the school also owes much to those who, while they were at the helm of our institution, not only contributed their own educational vision but also played an inspirational role by fostering a productive and consultative, moral and intellectual climate that brought out the best in their hundreds of colleagues. It would be no exaggeration to affirm that, among the distinguished individuals to whom Ecolint has entrusted its leadership over the decades, George Walker stood out as a truly exemplary figure.

George Walker

It could be said that Professor Walker* was animated by the idealism and passion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau — qualities that, in his case, were beneficially tempered with the reasonableness, common sense and hands-on knowledge that Rousseau all too often lacked. Even more important than Walker’s outstanding intellect, expertise and lucidity, however, were the kindness, compassion and integrity that he brought in equal measure to his demanding role.

A scientist with two degrees from Exeter College, Oxford, Honorary Fellow of the University of York and later Professor of Education at the University of Bath, George Walker was appointed Ecolint’s Director General in 1991. This turned out to be what Shakespeare would have recognized as a “marriage of true minds.” Rapidly Walker established a harmonious and productive working relationship with staff that led to the drafting and signing of the Convention collective de travail (CCT), an egalitarian collective labour agreement that is unique among Switzerland’s schools. In the purely educational field, he took the bull by the horns and integrated into a single tronc commun the bureaucratically cumbersome and inescapably divisive English and French Language Programmes, thereby restoring Ecolint’s original, actively and intrinsically bilingual vocation.

Professor Walker also took a long, hard look at Ecolint’s flagship extracurricular activity, the Students’ United Nations, founded in 1953 by Robert J. Leach. Over the years we had generously shared the organisation of SUN with other schools, but its quality had declined as Ecolint’s control of it was diluted. Walker decided to re-launch SUN in 1993, under the name of “Students’ League of Nations”, and he secured its reinstatement within the UN’s Geneva headquarters (from which SUN had been excluded in 1974), where it has since flourished.

Walker also revived the politically engagé leadership style of his predecessor Marie-Thérèse Maurette, who directed the school for two decades (1929-1949), and to whom he devoted a captivating and greatly admired biography. Repeatedly he criticized in public the bombing of civilian targets in Baghdad by coalition forces during the Persian Gulf War, which had endangered students in the UNDP-sponsored Baghdad International School (an educational partner of Ecolint). Like Maurette, Walker believed that Ecolint had a moral duty to raise its voice against war and injustice, even if some feathers were ruffled. He shared her fervent vision of the school’s heritage and mission, healthily coupled with sincere considerateness towards all those around him and a receptiveness to alternative viewpoints. 

His tall, spare figure striding purposefully from one venue to another, but always pausing to engage students and colleagues with a kind word or an interesting comment, soon became a welcome sight. Professional successes or personal woes were unfailingly acknowledged by Walker with thoughtful, hand-written congratulations or condolences. Walker’s affable accessibility enabled one to drop by his office on the top floor of La Grande Boissière’s Le Manoir at a moment’s notice, where he would receive one warmly and with a slightly mischievous smile, as one recovered one’s breath after the steep climb (I once made him laugh by cheekily pointing out that his choice of office was strategic, intended to soften up interlocutors who approached him indignantly to voice a grievance — not that there were very many of the latter). It’s easy to remember him giving you his full, considerate attention, whatever your concern, with a twinkle of benevolent humour in his eyes, as he sat directly facing you on a swivel chair (never from behind a desk) with his long legs crossed, invariably turning the plain, gold wedding ring on one of his graceful pianist’s fingers with the fingers of the other hand.

Indeed, Walker’s distinction as a classical pianist added a full but entirely independent dimension to his already rich personality. In a notably successful partnership with Ecolint’s legendary music teacher and Hungarian virtuoso György Kukorelly, he performed in concerts at the Conservatoire de Genève and even recorded a dazzling CD of Mozart, Schubert and Ravel sonatas. 

When Professor Walker left Ecolint to become Director General of the International Baccalaureate in 1999, it was not only mélomanes who regretted his departure – with good reason, as it happened, since he left a leadership vacuum from which it took the school several years to recover. He has now left Ecolint’s world-wide community with another vacuum — one that no further development, nor the passage of time, can satisfactorily fill.

Alejandro Rodríguez-Giovo
Emeritus Foundation Archivist

*Although he insisted that our interaction should be on a first-name basis, such was Professor Walker’s stature that I feel it would be presumptuous of me to refer to him as “George” in writing. 

Published works by George Walker include: 

  • To Educate the Nations, John Catt Educational Ltd, 2002
  • To Educate the Nations 2, Peridott Press, 2004
  • Marie-Thérèse Maurette, Pioneer of International Education, Ecolint, 2009
  • Glimpses of Utopia, John Catt Educational Ltd, 2013

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