Leading members of the food, farming and education sector in Norfolk and Suffolk paid tribute to the retiring principal of Easton and Otley College.
David Lawrence transformed a run-down, under-invested college campus into a nationally-respected and progressive centre during his 22 years as principal, an invited audience of about 250 guests was told.
This year’s President, Robert Carter DL, and at least six other former Presidents of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association were among the gathering at Easton on Thursday, June 25.
RNAA Chairman, Sir Nicholas Bacon, a former RNAA President himself, and past Chairman of Governors at Easton College, highlighted just some of David Lawrence’s remarkable achievements.
Earlier, the vice-principal Christina Sadler, said: “His strategic leadership over the past 22 years as principal has developed a once ageing and under-developed Easton campus into the land-based–centre of excellence.
“In 2010, David saw the great opportunity of turning Otley College in Suffolk to its land-based roots and delivered a successful merger in 2012.”
“To illustrate his transformation leadership, when he first arrived at Easton (in 1991), the college only had 100 full-time learners and a budget of less £1m. Today, it has over 2,400 full-time learners, as well as 800 apprentices, and 300 higher education students and a turnover of £24m,” she added.
Sir Nicholas, who had led the college’s initial £1.6m appeal to build the sports’ hall complex, said: “When I became involved with the college 18 years ago, the only thing that you will see is the grass you’re standing on.
“Burlingham was a sad place, falling down; this was a pretty sad place, it was standing up but it had asbestos in most places and not a lot of money had been spent on it for some considerable time.”
“David was a past master of being able to identify areas for diversification – sports, public services and all successful but never ever losing that agricultural base,” said Sir Nicholas, who admitted that he had gained a stone in weight by hosting the.fish and chip Friday lunches to woo support for that first appeal fund.
David’s ability to comprehend the labyrinthian vocabulary of the further education sector had made it possible to obtain crucial development funding.
“Every Secretary of State it seemed wanted to re-create an initiative or do something different, but they had not bargained on David’s ability to get as much money out of them as he possibly could.
In the dying days of the Labour government’s £2.6bn fund for the further education sector, David was one of only two agricultural colleges to get funding. He secured £18m for this college,” said Sir Nicholas.
“And that is the thing which has put this college completely and utterly on the map. It was a remarkable thing to have achieved,” he added.
“David made a hell of a difference. And it is a remarkable testament just looking around at these buildings, that one can say that actually he made it all happen,” said Sir Nicholas, who is also the RNAA’s chairman of council.
In reply, Mr Lawrence, also RNAA president in 2012, said that he was “really humbled” by the attendance of so many at his retirement drinks party. “Very early on in my career at Easton I promised the industry and key stake holders . . . that I would help to deliver a college we could all be proud of.”
“We have become a key player nationally with our merger with Otley College. It is only right that Norfolk and Suffolk should be at the forefront of agricultural education. Whilst there will be many challenges ahead, with industry support, excellent staff support and a critical relationship with the University of East Anglia, anything is possible and we have made so many steps towards it,” said Mr Lawrence, who has retired to live in Cumbria.
He also thanked governors, staff, friends and especially his wife, Sarah, and family for support over so many years.
He was presented with a painting of the White House, the college’s offices, by the artist John Hurst and many other gifts.
Among the many guests were former RNAA Presidents, Richard Jewson (the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk), Henry Cator, the Rt Rev Graham James (Lord Bishop of Norwich), David Richardson and Baroness Shepherd.