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Kirk's half-century

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After nearly 50 years as a civil servant, Richard Kirkpatrick has retired from his post as chief officer of the Public Services Department. He spoke to Nigel Baudains about his career.

After nearly 50 years as a civil servant, Richard Kirkpatrick has retired from his post as chief officer of the Public Services Department. He spoke to Nigel Baudains about his career. IN 1960 a young man joined the States Insurance Authority as a clerk - little knowing that he would become the island's longest-serving civil servant.

Yesterday saw the retirement of Richard Kirkpatrick after 47 years.

Widely known as Kirk and having held various chief officer roles for the past 28 years, he is used to being the 'captain'.

His last job as chief officer with the Public Services Department was a far cry from his days with the Insurance Authority when he earned £5 per week less 1s 3d insurance (about 6p in today's money).

Work in those pre-Frossard House days was in the former St Paul's Church. The building, which was knocked down in 1973, was on the site of the sunken garden at Ann's Place.

'There was netting and polythene across the roof to stop things falling,' said Kirk. 'You'd hear a thump and see another piece of plaster or slate had fallen above your head. It was just one big space and you might say it was the first open-plan office.'

His job initially was selling insurance stamps, the idea being that you bought one each week for 3s 5d (about 17p).

Tomato growing was a particularly affluent industry then and growers would buy their stamps annually in one go.

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'They'd ask for 52 stamps and when I instantly said it would be £8 17s and 8d they thought I was a mathematical genius, but I was doing it all the time and I still remember it now.'

The young Kirk was a keen cricketer and on one occasion his boss, JP 'Johnny' Robert, who most knew as Fatty, refused him leave to open the bowling for Guernsey in the annual inter-insular.

Kirk raised the matter with Jurat Carl Blad, a highly distinguished cricketer himself who had scored a century for Elizabeth College against Victoria.

'He told me: "You work for the States don't you? Take it you are playing".'

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The next day Kirk had a visit from JP Robert.

'He told me he'd been thinking about it and it was a great honour to play cricket for Guernsey so I could have the day off.'

By 1970 he had risen to the post of pensions supervisor. That same year he left the job to take a middle management post with the Board of Administration.

Between 1973 and 1975 he studied on a block release basis at Portsmouth Polytechnic, now a university, for a diploma in middle management studies. He was the first Guernsey student to get the qualification and the only one that year to pass with distinction for marks higher than 75%.

His project was writing Guernsey's emergency plan, including aspects such as dealing with shipwrecks, floods and pollution, and of using a mobile administration unit that could be towed to the scene.

He would later become Guernsey's receiver of wrecks but he was originally understudy to States supervisor Louis Guillemette.

One morning in February 1974 Kirk was driving to work along the west coast with the intention of checking progress on the Elwood Mead freighter that was stuck on rocks at Vazon. He got a huge surprise when looking over the sea wall as the shore was covered in wood and people were collecting as much of it as they could. Unbeknown to him at the time, the previous night's storm had claimed the Cypriot freighter Prosperity and its crew of 18.

Mr Guillemette responded to a call from Kirk and rushed to the beach.

'This is how you deal with it Kirk,' he said and the two men walked over to a man who was just finishing loading a trailer with timber.

After polite introduction, Mr Guillemette told the man he must take the wood to the States yard where he would be given a receipt enabling him to claim salvage rights later. '**** off,' said the man who promptly climbed aboard his tractor and drove off down the coast road with timber in tow.

'It was difficult to keep a straight face because he was my boss.'

Another amusing tale related to the construction of the Victoria Marina. The Board of Administration president, Henry Henchman, disagreed with advice from Technical Services that the gate could not be built without sheet piling.

'So he just went around to several consultants until he found one that said it could and told them that it had to cost less than £75,000 or else,' said Kirk.

The final cost was £74,975 and Kirk said other budgets suffered that year as a result.

Between 1975 and 1978 Kirk worked for the Advisory and Finance Committee as a senior officer, firstly as executive assistant and later as principal assistant to the States Supervisor.

In June 1978 Kirk was appointed director of postal services. During his time with the States-run Post Office, postal and philatelic profits soared dramatically. In his last year, philatelic sales made a record profit of £1.84m (about £5m. at today's prices) which in real terms he said has never been bettered.

One of the most lucrative issues was that for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

Post Office Board president Peppino Santangelo organised stamp issues himself. One time he and Kirk travelled to Basingstoke to the headquarters of De La Rue, who printed a few sets of stamps.

'We were one of their best customers and they gave us the full treatment in the boardroom which had a white carpet,' said Kirk.

In 1982 Kirk was appointed chief executive for the Board of Administration, the Transport Board, the Civil Defence Committee and the Emergency Council. He has held the post, or its equivalent, ever since.

He said civil servants occasionally disagreed with politicians.

'It's not a major issue and civil servants are paid to sort it out.'

He said his political master for the past three years, Deputy Bill Bell, had been a complete gentleman to work with.

Office-wise, a significant problem in recent years had been handling overspends on the New Jetty, the Airport Terminal and St Sampson's Marina and he conceded it had been very difficult to get things finalised.It just seems to be one obstacle after another and you seem to be relying on third parties all the time.'

On the practical side, things such as the dock strikes that occurred soon after he joined the Board of Administration and the Prosperity disaster had both involved huge amounts of work.

'The fire aboard the Commodore in 1993 was a very serious situation too as the ship was burning in the middle of the harbour.

'You can't hold a board meeting to see how you are going to put a fire out on a ship at two o'clock in the morning.'

He has no doubt that budgetary restraint will be a key issue for his successors.

'The problem will come in the next two years when the public start complaining that we're not repairing the roads or that the sewer network isn't being extended. I think the problem is that some people don't seem to see that budget restraints and cuts in services are linked.'

He predicts road quality could be the first noticeable difference.

Kirk believes the civil service is still a worthy occupation but said that there was a lot more uncertainty attached these days with risk of redundancies.

Only once or twice had he thought about leaving the civil service, but it was something he had never pursued.

'I came up from the bottom and I think anyone else can if they are prepared to work hard enough,' he said.

Kirk was born in the Second World War at Burton-on-Trent to a Guernsey mother, Beryl,

nee Paine.

His father, Reginald, was a private in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps at the start of the war, and colonel by its end.

Kirk, 65, is married to Mary,

a retired floral display organiser. Their son Simon, 28, is now a chartered accountant working in London having formerly passed a law degree at university.

Kirk remains very active, playing tennis three times per week and he also has an interest in DIY. In sport, he represented Guernsey at cricket, rugby and athletics including cross-country.

He is not planning on putting his feet up and he would be interested in offers of management or director roles though probably not on a full-time basis.

Earlier this month, he retired from his post as treasurer of the Guernsey station of the RNLI which he had held since 1982.

Adrian Lewis is the new Public Services chief officer.

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