'Amazing' school staff member and daughter of former NCFC goalkeeper loses her cancer battle
PUBLISHED: 08:14 30 July 2019 | UPDATED: 13:16 30 July 2019
A Norwich school closed for a half day so colleagues could attend the funeral of Gaynor Sawyer, who will be sadly missed by the community
"She was a kind, warm and welcoming person, with a carefree outlook on life and a fundamental faith in humanity. She was honest, but didn't judge, and spoke her mind - and liked others to do the same. She could always put you at ease with her 'don't worry' attitude and would stand up firmly for those she cared about."
Maxine Mountain's talking about her "amazing best friend and work colleague", Gaynor Sawyer, who died at the age of 55 after a battle with cancer.
They worked at Norwich's Tuckswood Academy, where Gaynor's personality and "people skills" touched the lives of many children and adults over the years. Gaynor was initially a teaching assistant; later, she became Tuckswood's parent-school liaison officer.
Her warmth, compassion, loyal friendship and love were reflected in an outpouring of sadness and shock in the days after her death. There was quite a display of flowers left on the gates of the south Norwich school.
When her funeral was held at St Faiths Crematorium, the school closed for half the day so friends and colleagues could pay their respects. Maxine says no-one took issue with that.
Many people, now grown up and with families of their own, still remember Gaynor fondly because of the support she gave them in childhood - especially if school wasn't their favourite place to be.
"She would listen to them, moan with them at times and then somehow talk them around to doing what they needed to do," says a friend. "At work she helped so many families. Always there as a listening ear…
"She had a job title, but her role would take two pages to detail. She was what she needed to be at the time."
Spirited and caring
Gaynor was born in Norwich in September, 1963. She was the daughter of Bonnie and Kevin Keelan, the former Norwich City goalkeeper. Gaynor went to Thorpe St Andrew (high) School, where she was herself quite sporty.
After leaving school, she worked at Little Plumstead Hospital for four or five years as what was then called an auxiliary nurse. Gaynor is spoken of as a spirited and caring person, whose traits were perfect for her chosen professions in hospitals and schools.
Gaynor and Robert decided to marry (on January 4, 1986) after a whirlwind romance - less than three months after first meeting, when it had been love at first sight.
They'd go on to have children Scott and Ben, and twins Josh and Chanel. In time, all four would present her with a grandchild.
The children's favourite
Gaynor spent two decades or so working in schools. She started at South Harford Community Middle School.
That's how the two friends met, 14 years ago. Gaynor was Maxine's daughter Holly's teaching assistant - "The favourite amongst the children even back then.
"All the kids loved Gaynor. That's how I learned about her - because my daughter would come home and say how much fun she was. Not that they would get away with anything, but she was someone they could talk to."
After South Harford closed in 2007, the friends moved to nearby Tuckswood Academy. Maxine worked initially as a dinner lady, before quickly becoming a teaching assistant too.
Six years ago, Gaynor became the school's PSLO - parent-school liaison officer - helping pupils and families.
If children were absent, she would make the phone calls to check why; if they were having troubles or difficulties, at school or sometimes out of school, she'd be their point of contact. She had an amazing reputation and relationship with them, says a friend.
"It was definitely her ability to speak with people that made Gaynor perfect for such a job. There weren't airs and graces. She basically wanted to help the children enjoy being here. They trusted her. She had a knack of helping them through it."
Maxine says: "She enjoyed hearing the children tell her of their achievements and dreams, and followed their lives even after they had left school."
Her warmth and wisdom wasn't rationed to youngsters.
It's said she became the school's "go to" adult: offering support to pupils' families but also being there for colleagues. One friend said that "if we found ourselves going through times of difficulty, many would turn to Gaynor for support. She would always be only too happy to give it, and genuinely would fight anyone's cause".
Dignity and fortitude
It was a few years ago that Gaynor was first ill with cancer. Maxine says her friend then had a better spell, but the disease returned suddenly late last year - pretty advanced and aggressive.
The diagnosis wasn't good. But she continued to work way past the point where many people would probably have given up. Friends and colleagues almost had to tell her that she needed to rest.
Maxine says: "Gaynor bore her illness extremely bravely and with great dignity and fortitude. She took the attitude that it wasn't going to change her, and she didn't falter in her dedication to the big and little people in her workplace."
It was only a couple of months or so before she died that Gaynor left work. At that point, the thinking was that perhaps she might "only" have a chest infection to deal with, and might return if that could be treated.
She had a near-constant stream of visitors when she later went into hospital. She knew she was poorly, but she never knew how poorly. She told folk she didn't want to know how ill.
A friend says: "She certainly didn't know the full extent of how bad it was. The family did, but she made it clear she didn't want to know. She didn't want to hear a time diagnosis. She was so brave."
It was only later, says Maxine, that children at the school were told Gaynor wasn't going to be able to return. "It was a very tough assembly. You try to protect them, but we couldn't, really, from that."
Robert and her mum Bonnie cared for Gaynor at home up until she died in her husband's arms at 2.30am on Sunday, June 23.
A Cancer Research UK Race for Life event was organised in her memory at the school, with pupils gathering sponsorship for each lap of the grounds they completed. It has already raised more than £2,000, with counting not yet finished.
"I never once heard a word of complaint from Gaynor about her illness; she was brave and dignified," says Maxine. "And although she was taken from us all too soon, she has certainly left a smile on our faces and warmth in our hearts."
Liked a good dance tune
Maxine remembers Gaynor as someone who was on her phone constantly, chatting to the many folk she knew. "Wherever she met people, they stayed friends. She was one of those people who never lost friends."
Gaynor enjoyed "girls' nights out", too - mainly round people's houses. "Clubbing wasn't really our thing later on!" She did enjoy a good dance tune, though, and wasn't slow in telling a DJ if his choice of tracks wasn't to her taste!
"She liked being around people. Even if she was feeling a bit poorly, she didn't want to take a day off, because she didn't want to be on her own."
Maxine says of her friend: "She is loved by so many on the Tuckswood Estate, most of whom know her from her work at our local school, and she will be remembered fondly and missed hugely by more people than I can count."