David Parkin hears inspiring stories in a spectacular setting and remembers a gritty pugilist and smooth operator

IF there is a more historic and impressive venue to celebrate your degree graduation than York Minster, I’d like to see it.

Oxford and Cambridge colleges boast so much heritage amid their dreaming spires, but when it comes to breathtaking buildings, York Minister takes the biscuit.

I joined an audience of well over 1,000 people there this week to see one of the six graduation ceremonies held at the Minster by York St John University.

Invited by former Royal Armouries chairman Ann Green, who is the university’s Pro Chancellor, I watched as several hundred students received their degrees from Chancellor Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York.

The university also bestowed honorary doctorates on Yorkshire sporting champions, paralympian Hannah Cockcroft and rugby league great Jamie Peacock.

If you’ve not seen the Archbishop of York in action, he’s great fun.

He even pretended to throw Jamie Peacock his honorary degree scroll as if he was passing a rugby ball.

It all helps to put the students at their ease on a nerve-wracking day when they collect their degrees and head out into the wide world.

One who rushed passed Dr Sentamu too quickly for a photograph to be taken was called back so his big moment could be captured on film.

Both Cockcroft and Peacock gave brief but impressive addresses to the students.

Jamie made the point that everything he has won and all the plaudits he has gained, including receiving an honorary degree, was down to being part of a team, so his team mates also deserve the credit too.

He told the students that they also had a team around them that had helped them achieve their academic qualifications – parents, family, friends and university staff.

He pointed out the things that we can’t rely on others to give us are effort and enthusiasm.

“Only you have the choice over how much you put in every day. Be accountable to yourself and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”

Words that whatever age and stage of your career you are at, we can all learn from.

At the ceremony the day before, DJ Chris Evans received an honorary degree.

He talked of the risks he had taken putting £2m of his own money alongside a huge multi-million pound loan to buy Virgin Radio from Richard Branson for £85m.

He then advised all the students to go and have a great night out celebrating their achievements, before setting off on their career paths.

York St John might be one of Yorkshire’s newest universities, but it boasts a wealth of history.

It marks a double celebration this year, it being 10 years since it became a university and 175 years since it was founded as York Diocesan Training School with its first student Edward Preston Cordukes.

Given hundreds of students now graduate at each of the six ceremonies held at York Minister, I remembered the advice of one lecturer when I received an honorary degree at Leeds Metropolitan University three years ago.

“Pace your clapping so you have enough left for later in the ceremony and your hands aren’t red raw after half an hour.”

Wise words, leaving me with the energy to head out past the celebrating students throwing their mortar boards in the air on the steps of the Minster, to head to the conferment lunch held in the beautiful Hospitium building in the Museum Gardens beside the River Ouse.

Celebrity chef James Martin was there ahead of receiving an honorary degree at the graduation ceremony in the afternoon. His father was catering manager at Castle Howard and James was a celebrated student at Scarborough Technical College before going on to a decade of success and becoming the housewives’ favourite on Saturday Kitchen.

It was nice to bump into two old friends at the lunch. Coach and presenter Jon Hammond and lawyer Russell Davidson are both on the board of the institution.

On my table at lunch was an inspiring individual called Alan Rayment.

Alan, who had both legs amputated after contracting MRSA almost 20 years ago, has taken part in many sporting challenges, including triathlons, and cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats.

But the Scunthorpe athlete, who has always got around in a wheelchair, decided he wanted to walk his fiancee down the aisle at their wedding this year.

Not only did Alan achieve that with partner Heather, he also completed a mile walk on his prosthetic legs in August this year.

His inspirational story featured on the ITV show This Time Next Year last week.

Alan received an honorary degree from York St John University in 2011 and still returns to this seat of learning to tell his incredible story.


IN a year when we lost The Greatest, Muhammad Ali, you would understand that the passing of other boxers has been overshadowed.

The death this month of former British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight champion Jack Bodell, aged 76, didn’t attract many headlines.

But he had a distinguished career, beating Joe Bugner, fighting Henry Cooper twice and sparring with the legendary Ali.

The former miner from Newhall, near Swadlincote in Derbyshire, won the 1961 ABA championship at light heavyweight before earning a reputation as a gritty, awkward southpaw, campaigning professionally at heavyweight during the 1960s and early 1970s.

It was a time when Britain was blessed with a clutch of decent heavyweight boxers, as well as Cooper and Bugner, there was Brian London, Joe Erskine, Billy Walker, Johnny Prescott, Danny McAlinden and Carl Gizzi – who Bodell beat for the vacant British title in 1969.

He lost the Lonsdale belt to Henry Cooper in his next fight before regaining it two years later along with the Commonwealth and European titles from Joe Bugner.

Jack also fought American contender Jerry Quarry and hung up his gloves after he was stopped by McAlinden at Villa Park in Birmingham in 1972.

After he retired from boxing he opened a fish and chip shop in Coventry, which his former sparring partner Muhammad Ali opened for free in 1973.

Why do I know so much about Jack Bodell, who I never met?

Well, he sent a telegram of congratulations to my parents, a journalist and photographer who had covered his career, when I was born.


IN this year when we seem to have lost more notable people than normal, another departure came last week with the death of Hollywood actor Robert Vaughn at the age of 83.

The sauve Vaughn was the last surviving member of the cast of The Magnificent Seven and also appeared as spy Napoleon Solo in hit television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

He worked right up until his death and was well known in recent years for his appearances in BBC TV series Hustle playing a character we all most associated with him – a well dressed smooth talker.

I also remember his appearance in a few episodes of Coronation Street, playing the cravat and blazer-wearing suitor of cafe owner Roy’s mother.

The incongruity of this Hollywood star sitting in the Rovers Return pub was embraced with gusto by the talented writers of the soap opera.

When introduced to factory girl Julie, she asked where he was from.

“I’m from Palm Springs, Southern California,” replied Vaughn, who played the wonderfully named Milton Fanshaw.

“Ooh! That’s where my prunes come from! I’ve got you to thank for keeping me regular.”

Have a great weekend.

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