Obituary written by Robert Lisvane (SH 63-68)
With the death of John Kitching on 27 December 2020 the School, Trinity Hall and the Skinners’ Company have lost a faithful friend, advocate and supporter; his widow Aline and his children Dodo, Johnny, Nicola and Hélène a kindly, generous and beloved husband and father; and a world-wide circle of friends a delightful companion.
John was born on 10 December 1934 in Colombo, Ceylon (as it then was). He went to a boarding school in Nuwara Eliya and then, aged 10, travelled to England to go to Brunswick School and then to Tonbridge, to Manor House. His sporting and academic career at Tonbridge was stellar: he was in the XI, the XV, the Hockey XI, and also in first teams for athletics and squash. He was successively Head of House and Head of the School; and he won a scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. No wonder that several of his Tonbridge contemporaries describe him as “an Olympian figure”.
John’s National Service was spent in the Royal Air Force (where he made lifelong friends), first at RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey in Lincolnshire, where he was appointed Senior Cadet and became one of 20 Acting Pilot Officers selected for pilot training in Canada. At RCAF Penhold in Alberta John trained on Harvards (making many friends among the cosmopolitan course) and then graduated to the T33 Silver Star jet aircraft. He was awarded his Wings in February 1955, returned to the UK and trained on Meteor IVs at RAF Driffield, followed by a course at RAF Pembrey battle school flying Vampire Vs. He continued as a Flying Officer in the RAAF until the Auxiliary Squadrons were disbanded in 1957.
At Cambridge, as well as being an all-round sportsman and scholar (he described himself as reading “athletics and history, in roughly that order”) it was in athletics that he excelled, gaining an athletics Blue and coming first in the high jump in the 1957 Varsity Match and second in the javelin (reversing those places in the following year’s Match). He was a member of the combined Oxford and Cambridge athletics team which toured the USA in 1957, and he won the javelin in matches against Harvard & Yale, and Penn & Cornell. Ranked No 1 in the UK with the javelin, he represented England at the Commonwealth Games in both javelin and high jump.
After Cambridge, he went on a Harkness Scholarship to Stanford Business School. He married Anne Healey and came back to the UK to work for McKinsey and then Standard Telephones, specialising in take-overs. With his young family he went to Harvard Business School, took an MBA and published articles in Harvard Business Review, which he continued to do over succeeding years. He ran the Boston Consulting Group and following his divorce worked in Monaco, turning round failing companies; and then set up as an independent consultant. During a year’s Fellowship at the Wissenschaftzentrum in Berlin he wrote a book describing, as he put it, “why takeovers don’t work”; and he lectured at Davos. He met his future wife Aline (a Professor of Spanish Literature at the Sorbonne) on the Côte d’Azur. As he said: “The romance covered Berlin, Paris and London, and we finally settled down in the 16me arrondissement”.
His consulting career was extensive, including the flotation of Abbey National, biotechnology development for Monsanto, and a number of highly successful venture capital initiatives.
It was typical of John that he should give his loyalty, time and effort to the institutions that had figured in his life. He was a Governor of Tonbridge during the greatest building programme since Victorian times, and as a member of the School’s Foundation Board he injected energy and expertise into fundraising, and later was a great supporter of the move of the Old Tonbridgian Society from its venerable role to a much closer engagement between the OTs and the School. He was an enthusiastic and active President of the OTs, always making time to come over from Paris for School events.
He was an enthusiastic Skinner and frequent attender at Company events. He joined the Livery in 1969 and served as an Extra Member of the Court 1991-94. He was a robust but constructive critic of the Company’s investment policies (and of “year-on-year” as a measure of performance); and when I was Master he asked me to guess the present value of a £1,000 endowment given by my predecessor in 1350 (at 2 ½ % compound interest). I fell well short of the answer: £14.217 billion…
At Trinity Hall he was Chairman of the Development Board, spearheading an immensely successful fund-raising campaign, as well as acting as adviser to successive Masters.
John was the most hospitable of men. He was a staunch member of Brooks’s, and at lunch there the conversation would range far and wide, always with John’s astute observations and insights on an extraordinary range of topics. He had the rare skill of resuming a conversation months or years later with the impression that only a few minutes had passed. And he maintained his enthusiasms and passions – one of which was improving the life chances of the young – long after lesser men would have hung up their ambitions.
Those who knew John Kitching will have counted it a privilege. He was a man of generosity, humanity, wisdom, imagination – and humility: his autobiographical note for one grand Cambridge occasion was headed Apologia pro vita sua. We are the richer for having known him, and the poorer for having lost him.