As I lifted Mr Abdul Rehman Qureshi’s coffin and carried it towards a nearby positioned helicopter for the final leg of his journey to Sargodha, my mind completed a whirlwind tour of my forty-four year association with the former principal PAF School/ College Sargodha and Aitchison College, Lahore.

From a humble educational environment, I was able to complete an arduous selection process and finally reported to PAF College, Sargodha. On my second day, I decided I wouldn’t be able to cope with the demanding standards of written and spoken english at the college. I worked out a strategy to quit; I would ask for emergency leave to visit my “sick grandmother,” and I would not return. So, on my third day, I entered Mr Rehman’s office with tearful eyes and requested for leave. “Well! Well!” he said. “If I let you go, you won’t return. Moreover, the reason you have narrated for leaving does not exist. Now, tell me what the difficulty is.” Seeing the complete failure of my strategy, tears began rolling down my cheeks; with a choked throat and eyes fixed to the ground, I could only muster two words, “Sir! English.” By now, I was crying loud enough to be heard outside the principal’s office and two teachers entered to witness the unfolding soap opera.

Mr Rehman started talking to them in Urdu-cum-Punjabi. Then he turned towards me and said, “Please do not go by our dresses, we are all Urdu medium. Like you”. I asked him why all the teachers insisted that I speak in english. “So that you strive to learn English quickly,” he replied softly. By now I had decided to reverse my decision and stay back. Seeing signs of ease on my face, Mr Rehman went on to consolidate. He informed me that my position on the merit list was pretty high and that there were 25 other students with an educational background similar to mine; and that all of them had been grouped together in one section for focused attention on spoken and written english. By this time, my english teacher (Mr Rafique Raja) had been summoned to the Principal’s office. Mr Rehman looked towards him and said, “Mr Rafique! I have recovered him. Now over to you.” Then he turned towards me and said, “Well, well! Now go back to your class. Learning english is no longer your problem.”

This interaction that lasted for less than ten minutes changed the course of my life. From then on, there was no turning back. Two years down the line, I stood in front of Mr Rehman to receive a prize for my performance in a small English debating contest. After another year, I was on the editorial board of the college magazine. While handing me the approved draft of the magazine, he looked at me affectionately and quipped: “Well, well! Your reason for crying no longer exists!” This narrative is applicable to most of Mr Rehman’s students. He always took it upon himself to help each one of us overcome all sorts of difficulties, whether curriculum related or extracurricular.

His responsibility was to produce quality leadership for the Pakistan Air Force. However, due to spillover effects, his students have done well in all walks of national activity. Five Air Chiefs of the Pakistan Air Force, one Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, two federal ministers and numerous high ranking civil and military officers were his students. Moreover, four Air Chiefs and one Army Chief of Bangladesh had also been his students—all Sargodhians.

Modern Physics and Leadership were his favourite subjects; both demanding imagination and innovation. He was a staunch believer in democracy. Mindful that most of his students would one day end up in senior military positions, he would often stress: “The military has no right to assume political rule, it is akin to a watchman forcibly taking over administration of the house that employs him for protection!”

I saw him under stress only on three occasions: first, while striving to give us a healing touch after the 1971 war; second, on the issue of development and implementation of the “Honour Code”; and third, when due to an oversight by the Punjab University, my batch had to confront an ‘Aero Engines’ question paper based on a dated syllabus. On all three occasions, his conduct was remarkable. He was a beacon of light.

After the 1971 war, East Pakistani staff members and students who formed 25 percent of the college strength were gone forever. Having lost our teachers, friends, and half of our country, we were desperately looking for an anchorage to restore and reconstitute ourselves. Mr Rehman provided us the shoulder against which we could lean and vent our traumatic emotions. His response was always calm and fatherly, couched in historic references. He would often refer to Indira Gandhi’s post 1971 war speech to the Indian Parliament, in which she had ridiculed the very foundation stone of Pakistan— the ‘two nations’ theory, and tell us how and why she was wrong in her assumptions and assertions.

He had put in a lot of effort towards composing the “Honour Code” for students (cadets). Once the pretty looking small booklet was out, he ensured that each student had heard the contents personally from him. Conspicuously missing were the visible steps towards enforcement; he quietly created an environment in which desired traits became our second nature well before leaving college.

Upon receiving information about the dated question paper he said, “Someone has goofed up. I would say that I have goofed up. It was my responsibility to ensure that no one goofs up, so I accept responsibility and will ensure remedial action.”

On the farewell for my batch, his address was soul piercing; “…Soon you shall all be first class officers, so start exhibiting first class qualities— behave first class, wear first class, travel first class, strive for everything in a first class way….at times you will be under pressure to hide facts. Do not take the easy way out. Speak first class—the truth…be honest while rendering advice to your superiors, always say what you feel is right and not what he wants to hear; at times you will have to pay a heavy price for that; do that—for that is what a first class leader ought to do— and that is what the “Honour Code” demands of you.”

His son, Dr. Sohail Rehman, was a day scholar in the college. Rules did not require him to abide by hostel norms after college hours, but his father did; because “Dad did not want to differentiate between one son and the remaining 359 sons.” Once Mr Rehman was outstation, so Sohail took a chance with his father’s private car and drove though the students’ residential area. The matter came to Mr Rehman’s notice on his return, and poor Sohail had to do corrective drills for one week.

Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt has aptly paid glorious tributes to the distinguished principal: “The services and contributions of late Abdul Rehman Qureshi in the field of education will never be forgotten and he will always be remembered as a beacon of light and a source of inspiration for generations to come. Abdul Rehman Qureshi was an educationist par excellence.” His Life Time Achievement Award is certainly long overdue.

The writer is a former student of Mr AR Qureshi. He can be contacted at kiqbal1234@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter