"One of the prerequisites of true friendship is that you are always prepared to give your friend 'time' when they want to talk to you. Genuine conversation is perhaps the best way of letting them know that they are important in your life. Time is the stuff that life is made from and is our most precious of gifts we can bestow upon another.
When I was training to be a Probation Officer up in Newcastle in 1970, I shared a rented house with three other trainee probation officers on the course. One was called Fred. Fred was an ex-miner and the oldest among us. He left school at the age of 15 years without any qualifications and had worked down the pit for 34 years before being accepted to be a trainee probation officer at the age of 53. Being non-academic, he naturally found studying harder than the rest of us and having no educational qualifications and certificates he was always amazed and extremely proud to have been accepted on the course. I had my student practice placement in the same Probation Office as Fred in Jarrow and being students in a large overcrowded office, we worked from two desks that was set up in the tea and coffee rest room.
Whenever other officers took a tea break they naturally had to walk by our working desks and would want to talk to us for five minutes while they drank their coffee. This went on most of the day and interruptions to our work was constant. Being studious and eager to get out there as a qualified Probation Officer and change the world, I would not to engage in all the chit chat and would try to get on with my work as politely as I could. Fred however, was only too willing to listen to the 'passers through' and engage in conversation with them for as long as they wished. Over the four months we worked from the Jarrow office, other officers seemed to confide in Fred on a daily basis, telling him personal things that they would tell no other.
I once asked him why he did this, especially as it was so disruptive to his daily tasks and studying and he replied in words I'll never forget: 'People need to talk, Bill, and some folk need to talk more than others. When people stop to talk to me, the greatest respect I can give them is to listen and engage with them. I found out long ago that when you don't talk, there's a lot of things that end up not getting said. My dad died without ever telling me that he loved me. When I worked down the pit and came home tired at the end of a hard shift, my children would be asking me 'Daddy this and daddy that' and being physically shattered I'd often tell them to ask me later. One day my 7-year-old son got knocked down and killed outside our house by a lorry and that experience eventually changed my life. At the time, all I could think about were questions he'd asked me the previous night which I'd been too tired to answer and which I'd put him off with an 'Ask later, son.' Then I realised that there would be no later and that they'd always remain unanswered. That experience told me that the first duty of love, especially to one's children, is to listen. Ever since then I have listened to my heart and have learned from the death of my boy. If I pass this course I'll be glad, as will my wife, Brenda and family, and the rest of the street will probably throw us a big party. But if I fail, I'll fail knowing that I always listened and that is important to me and the folk I listen to.'
Fred sadly never finished the Probation Officer's Training Course at Newcastle. Three months before the course completion and final exams, while driving home by car from Newcastle to Redcar one Friday night, he incurred a heart attack and died instantly at the wheel, before crashing it into the side of the road.
His funeral made me both sadder and happier than I'd ever been in his presence. I cried to know that I'd never see Fred again and it was heartbreaking to see the tears of his bereaved wife and children. I also cried with happiness however to see nearly two hundred neighbours, friends and family who'd attended to pay their last respect. Rarely have I come across a man so loved; a man who never gave less than was needed and more of himself than was asked for. Each spoke lovingly and highly of Fred and almost everyone who voiced their praises said, 'He always made time to listen. He was a true friend.'
The operative lesson which I learned from Fred and which I have tried to incorporate into practice ever since has been the distinction between 'having' time to talk and listen and 'making' time. Fred taught me that people are worth making time for. God bless you, Fred. You were a truly good person and would have been a great Probation Officer, and I believe that knowing you, made me a better one!" William Forde: May 29th, 2015.