A personal tribute to legendary County Durham teacher, community leader, grass roots sport administrator, and local hero, Charlie Donaghy, who passed away last week, aged 86...

THE incomparable Charlie Donaghy filled a forest’s worth of pages in his voluntary role as chief contributor to the Local Heroes grass roots sports supplement during my time as The Northern Echo’s editor.

Therefore, the least I can do is fill a page in Charlie’s honour following his death, aged 86, last week, having lived with dementia in recent years.

As so many have said, Charlie was kindness personified and people loved him for it: his adoring family, of course; but also the pupils at Wolsingham School who thrived under his guidance; and the vast army of grass roots sport enthusiasts, whose lives were enriched, and whose names made it into print in the local paper, thanks to his administrative skills and willingness to take on the jobs no one else fancied.

It could not have been more fitting that Charlie was born in Sunniside because he had a natural warmth, and there wasn’t a side to him that was remotely dark. He was one of life’s givers. He did things. Made them happen.

Like the time his beloved Tow Law Town Football Club was in the financial mire following the foot and mouth disease catastrophe in 2001. Attendances were down, gate receipts had plummeted, and it was Charlie – the ever-enthusiastic fundraiser, the problem-solver – who came up with the solution.

Sir Bobby Robson, the boy-done-good from Langley Park, was manager of Newcastle United at the time, having managed some of the all-time greats during a career that also took in Ipswich Town, Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven, and England. Romario, Lineker, Ronaldo, Gascoigne, Figo, Stoichkov, Van Nistelrooy, Shearer – he coached them all.

Sir Bobby had dined at football’s top table, but Charlie took a punt on writing to him. “Bobby, I know you’re a busy bloke…but is there any way you could do a Q&A at Tow Law?” he wrote.

“I’d love to, Charlie,” was the swift reply. Date to be confirmed. Fee not discussed. Pie and peas the only incentive mentioned.

The story is beautifully recounted by Charlie’s son, Ian, in his book A Pocketful of Kindness that’s dedicated to his dad.

It turned into a night Tow Law will always remember. Tickets were like gold-dust and the Ironworks Road clubhouse was too small to cope with the huge demand, so the venue switched to Tow Law Community Centre.

Two armchairs were placed on the stage, with Charlie acting as master of ceremonies, while Sir Bobby answered questions from the audience.The scheduled finishing time of 9.30pm was extended to midnight, the bar staff had to scuttle off to Walter Wilson’s to replenish the beer stocks, and Bobby even helped Charlie’s wife, Alice, with the raffle.

“So, Bobby, what do I owe you?” Charlie asked his illustrious guest.

Sir Bobby considered the question, taking into account the beer he and his chauffeur brother had been served, along with the best pie and peas they'd tasted, and the "charming" company of Alice.

“If I give you £20, will that cover it, Charlie?” replied the great man.

In one night, Tow Law FC’s financial woes were eased, and it was never forgotten. Several years later, following Sir Bobby’s death, Charlie held another fundraiser. A total of £4,100 was presented to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, and Lady Elsie, Bobby's wife, was made club president.

Lady Elsie was among those to pay tribute to Charlie last week: “It was always a pleasure to spend time with Charlie,” she said. “He was a gentleman and a wonderful supporter of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. I know he’ll be greatly missed by his family, friends and all at Tow Law Town.”

MY own favourite memory of Charlie goes back to 2013 when he was crowned the overall winner at The Northern Echo’s annual Local Heroes Awards, a year after he was honoured by being asked to carry the Olympic torch through Darlington.

Each of the community champions who had carried the flame through towns and cities up and down the country, were presented with limited-edition commemorative torches to keep, and Charlie was, naturally, proud of his.

A year later, I asked Charlie if we could borrow his Olympic torch, so it could play a starring role in our Local Heroes Awards ceremony.

The idea was that, as host for the event, I would make a dramatic, running entrance into the marquee at Hardwick Hall Hotel, at Sedgefield, while carrying Charlie's pride and joy.

Before I came in, the audience would be shown a video – filmed weeks in advance – of me leaving The Northern Echo’s offices, in Darlington, and carrying the torch to Hardwick.

Along the way, I jogged up the A66, rode a jet-ski up the River Tees, paddled a canoe through the Tees Barrage, and ‘swam’ the lake at Hardwick Park.

Seconds after the film ended – with me climbing out of the lake in a wet-suit – I’d then be handed the torch as I burst into the marquee, as if the elaborate journey had all just happened.

It was all going to plan. The film was being shown to the audience, and I was waiting in the wings to make my entrance, when the shattering news was broken to me that a technician had accidentally trampled on Charlie’s torch and left it badly dented.

There was no time to try to make amends. I simply had to run in with a bent Olympic torch, then fretted all through the awards ceremony about how I’d break the devastating news to Charlie.

Amid the happy scenes after he’d been deservedly crowned the winner, I jumped off the stage, walked over to him, explained what had happened, and offered my profuse apologies

I fully expected him to be livid but, instead, he smiled, put his hand on my shoulder, and said: “Hey, don’t worry, bonny lad, these things happen.”

The torch was sent off for repair but, despite the best efforts of expert panel-beaters at Sherwoods garage, it could never be fully restored to its former glory.

It now hangs – still slightly wonky – in Wolsingham School.

Charlie, bless him, never said another word, and gave his £500 prize-money to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.

OF all the tributes that have been paid to Charlie since his passing, there is one that moved me more than any other.

It came from his son, Ian: “It’s fantastic to have a hero…even better if you call him Dad.”

Isn’t that just lovely? Rest in peace, Charlie Donaghy. Thanks for everything – and sorry again about the torch.

  • Charlie’s funeral is at St Phillip and St James Church, in Tow Law, on Wednesday August 3 at 11am. The collection will go to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation  of course.