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In Memoriam – Roderick Cavaliero (21 March 1928- 27 August 2018)

Roderick (Roddy) Cavaliero, who has passed away, was Deputy Director General of the British Council, Great Britain’s cultural arm abroad. During his many years as a British Council officer he was Director in India, and for four years in the 1970s, Director in Rome. Roddy was also a historian, writing several books on the knights of Malta and the Ottomans. He had a particular love for the Romantic poets and was an active Board member of Rome’s Keats and Shelley Memorial House.

I had the privilege to work with him when he became chair of the British School at Rome’s Executive Board and, later a Trustee. Everything I know about management I learnt from this extraordinary man. His passing set me thinking about those times at the British School at Rome in the 1990s.

Roderick (Roddy) Cavaliero

Roddy Cavaliero was a larger than life character in every sense. He was introduced to the British School at Rome’s Executive Committee in March 1990, during my second year as Director. The elfin and kindly chairman, Sir Alan Campbell, had known Roddy in Rome during the latter’s tenure as Director of the British Council. Roddy had intervened to help the School when its taxation circumstances were under scrutiny in 1977, winning Sir Alan’s admiration.

“He can be a bit of a bull in a china shop,” Sir Alan had discretely warned me with a benign smile. And so, in a sense he was. At his first meeting the Honorary Treasurer wanted to pare the School’s British Academy’s proffered budget back, helping Mrs. Thatcher’s government to save public money. I stood my ground, and as many academics and artists buried their heads, Roddy in his typical booming voice introduced himself by coming to my aid with a clear clarion call for everyone to support my numbers. Irritated, the Honorary Treasurer called for a vote. Briefly perplexed and obviously reluctant to pitch the Treasurer against his Director, Sir Alan hesitated then nervously called for everyone’s views. Roddy was the first to offer his support. Unanimously everyone else followed suit and the Honorary Treasurer, without hesitation stood up and departed the hushed room. Within weeks Sir Alan had persuaded Roddy to become his successor as Chairman, but not before Roddy consulted me to earn my support for his candidacy.

For four tumultuous years Roddy changed the British School at Rome with his breath-taking energy. I need only note that in March 1990 when this memorable meeting occurred, the School was still employing an accountant in London with a pen to insert all numbers into a folio-sized ledger that followed exactly the same formula going back to the School’s beginnings. This was a metaphor for a deeper issue that had to be confronted as the UK scrutinized public spending as never before.

So the British School’s fax hummed to Roddy’s daily and sometimes hourly missives that consumed countless batches of luminous paper. Roddy was the architect of a new British School that was destined to have all its governance issues in order in time for the inception of the ground-breaking 1992 Charity’s Act. He revised the charter. He developed a vision then a mission statement, then annual reports and management plans, searching for the School’s appropriate strategic direction so that it might broaden its financial base to protect it should government threaten the institution. He brought new experienced individuals to oversee the financial overhaul of the School and to launch the alien idea of development. Most of all he energized the School’s administration, experimented with closing its London office, while investing in Rome’s management. His efforts sound both presumptuous and overly bureaucratic listed this way. They were not. Every decision was based upon listening and debating. Being a large man he might appear autocratic, but he was always inclusive as a point of principle.

As for the School’s purposes, Roddy was sometimes puzzled by conceptual art but his intellect refused to be indifferent; he had to understand the artists. So began a halcyon period where the School and the British Council collaborated on a monthly project or two. As for the humanities, he revelled unabashedly in bringing the School closer to his beloved Romantics championed by the Keats and Shelley Memorial House.

Then, too, there was Roddy the man, always thoughtful towards his gentle and caring wife, Mary. For Mary and Roddy life was to be lived in company. They loved to debate with academics and artists. Of course, he was a showman, whether he sat in the audience attending a lecture with a miniature battery fan, or when with Trollope-ian oratory he delivered lectures on romantic poets or his forebears, Maltese crusaders.

Malta deep down was in his blood - Roddy was a crusader. He recalled his defeats more often than his successes. But his successes were on the grand scale. He belonged to a generation of humanists who stumbled into management and by dint of Britain’s increasing economic problems found themselves pitched against government to defend their values. He was most of all an exceptionally kind and patient tutor to me, a wonderfully resilient mentor – I was an irascible archaeologist after all – and any room he entered lit up with joy as he bowled into it, his huge frame and looming presence soon inculcating an unforgettable cacophony of laughter.

What the British School at Rome records (including boxes of fading faxes) will show – and at heart Roddy found supreme pleasure in archives – is that Roddy Cavaliero was the unexpected and mesmerizing difference between an age when the School struggled and an age when it has prospered.

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