A tribute to a North-East legend, who touched countless lives at the grass roots through his love of rugby, nature, and the people of Durham. Rest in peace, Fergus King...

IT speaks volumes about the respect and affection that Fergus King earned in his lifetime that, within hours of word spreading that he’d passed away, Sir Bill Beaumont was on the phone to rugby friends in the North-East to check the news and express his sorrow.

Fergus – gifted player, inspirational grass roots coach, and giant of a man – was a legendary figure in these parts: “the great man of Durham rugby”.

Speaking from Spain, Sir Bill – Chairman of World Rugby and former England captain – said: “Fergus was what the sport was all about. He was willing to put in a huge amount of time and passion for community rugby, and he will be sorely missed.”

The rest of this tribute has been compiled with the invaluable help of Steven Colwell, chairman and coach of Bishop Auckland Rugby Club, manager of England Counties North Under-20s, and a man who considered himself “extremely lucky” to have Fergus as a friend.

“He had more roses than Hampton Court,” observed Steven, in describing how many honours Fergus had collected from English rugby.

Fergus, who was awarded the MBE in 1998 for services to rugby and the environment, died in James Cook University Hospital, Middlesbrough, after a ten-month battle against cancer. He was 73 and leaves his devoted wife, Dianne, two daughters, Sarah and Caroline, and three grandchildren.

The son of Bishop Barrington School headmaster Bert King, Fergus was born and bred in Willington, was proud to live there, and never left.

At six feet six, with enormous hands, an intimidating gaze, and huge appetite for the physicality of sporting battles, he was made for rugby, though he came to it relatively late.

“He was a very straight-talking man. Outspoken, direct, but not rude or hurtful to people,” said Steven. He just made his point quickly. He was warm and incredibly kind but didn’t suffer fools.”

Fergus established himself as a talented second row forward at Durham City before joining West Hartlepool, where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of All Blacks star Allan Whetton in rugby’s top flight. However, apart from a brief spell as a coach with Bishop Auckland, he never ceased to be a Durham City man and returned ‘home’ for the rest of his career. Fittingly, he was to become the club’s president.

For all that he achieved as a player, it is his immense contribution to coaching – and the impact he had on the lives of countless young people – that is his greatest legacy. Starting with Durham City Colts, Fergus had a massive impact on the juniors at Bishop Auckland; West Hartlepool; North of England Colts and Under-21s, England Colts; England Counties North Under-20s; Durham County Colts, Under-18s, Under-20s, Seniors; and Durham University.

More than 30 years ago, he wandered down the drive at the home of Ted Wood – The Northern Echo’s overall Local Hero of 2008 – and asked if he needed a hand running Durham University RFC. From then on, he was immersed in student rugby – coaching the second team for much of the time – and becoming club president. Ted described him as “the best friend I ever had”.

Two years ago, Fergus was awarded the prestigious Vaughan Parry Williams Award for his national contribution to the student game, but he enriched young lives far more deeply than on the rugby field. Having served for more than 40 years on the body that morphed into the Environment Agency, he had a deep love and knowledge of nature. That passion led to him educating his students about the heritage and beauty of the North-East, with trips to the coast, and treating them to lunch in country pubs.

One of their abiding memories of times spent with Fergus was him singing “Wor Geordie’s lost his penker” – his trademark song – on the bus on the way back from games.

“The students loved him and the support they have shown him throughout his illness has been both heart-warming and deserved in equal measure,” said Steven.

Fergus met his wife, Dianne, at Willington Cricket Club and they were happily married for 29 years, though their relationship spanned 40 years. “Try before you buy” was the way they explained the gap.

“Dianne had a hand in everything he did and was so proud of everything he achieved,” said Steven.

Despite being desperately ill, Fergus still managed to discreetly ask Steven to get Dianne a wedding anniversary gift because he didn’t want her to think he’d forgotten.

“He took his treatment on the chin. It was an awful road, but he didn’t grumble. Towards the end, he was still focussing on rugby, despite the realities ahead,” said Steven.

Fergus King will be remembered for lots of reasons other than his passion for rugby and nature. He was a lover of trains and cats, an avid collector of memorabilia, joker, prolific swearer, human sat-nav, and whittler of fine walking sticks.

Tributes have flooded in from around the world – from international rugby officials, players, former opponents, team-mates, and students past and present.

All of them remembering a giant of a man who has left a giant legacy.

I WAS also sorry last week to hear of the passing, at 97, of remarkable war veteran Joyce Dowding.

At the age of 18, Joyce, from Redcar, was conscripted into the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute (NAAFI), catering for servicemen in combat zones, and was one of the first women to land at Normandy after D-Day.

It was a privilege to visit Joyce, below, at her care home last year when Redcar Racecourse made her guest of honour at its 1940s Revival Day in support of the Royal British Legion and Help For Heroes.

Over a cup of tea, we chatted about her wartime memories: “It was quite frightening when we landed in France because we had to climb down a rope ladder and it kept swinging away from the ship, but I was just proud to have been able to do something to help,” she told me.

Then, she looked up and asked: “Is your tea hot enough, love?”

Rest in peace, Joyce.

The Northern Echo:

NEWS has also reached me that Peter Dodsworth, who for 30 years kept The Northern Echo supplied with the hugely popular Horace and Doris cartoons, is recovering from a heart attack.

The cartoons of the battling couple, who reflected the lives of many readers, were created by Peter’s business partner John Morris. Even after John’s death, Peter continued to supply the cartoons to the Echo from his precious archive.

The good news is that Peter, now 82, is back home after expert treatment at James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough. Here’s to a a speedy recovery – and more rest than Horace was ever allowed.

The Northern Echo: