As the opening chords of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, God Bless Africa, soared through the magnificent Norman nave and transepts of Norwich Cathedral, it was clear that the service of thanksgiving for the life of Harold Bodmer would be very much like the man himself: uniquely individual, deeply thoughtful and just a little bit mischievous.

Harold, taken from us suddenly and shockingly at 61, part-way through his ADASS presidency, was the product of two cultures represented exactly by the service: the traditional singing and the bold, bright colours of African choirs, summoning vibrant images of his homeland, interwoven with Abide With Me and the darker shades of dress of the hundreds of mourners from the country he adopted. Our two tribes stood united in grief. 

The tributes were to an utterly dedicated public servant, a loving family man and someone for whom no one ever – well, hardly ever – had a bad word. When we hear such eulogies at funerals we tend to think,  Oh yes – and the rest, and perhaps catch the eye of someone else who knows better. But a sea of heads nodded agreement when Peter Hawes, a longtime colleague of Harold at Norfolk County Council, spoke of him as “one of the most universally liked men I have been privileged to know”. He concluded: “If just a small piece of his character rubs off on us all as a result of this tragedy, the world will be a better place.

Harold Nevile Bodmer - ‘Had’ to his friends from childhood, it emerged -  was born and brought up in Bulawayo, in then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. He studied social work at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, and was present in that country during some of the worst violence perpetrated by the apartheid regime against its people, including the killing of schoolchildren in Soweto for protesting against being taught in Afrikaans.

In his presidential address at the ADASS spring seminar in April, Harold spoke movingly of that formative experience. “From a position of privilege,” he said, “I saw at first hand the powerlessness and desperation of people who had no safety net, no employment, no running water, desperately inadequate healthcare. It was a rapid lesson in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and something that has stayed with me for the 39 years of my career."

Harold had been jibbing at the oppressive white rulers of southern Africa from an early age: at 10, we have learned, he refused to join schoolmates in signing a letter of congratulation to Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith on his unilateral declaration of independence. In 1977, when Harold was 22, he bought a one-way ticket to the UK to escape compulsory military service in Smith’s war against nationalist guerillas.  It was derisively called “taking the chicken run”, but James Reilly, who had done the same some 18 months earlier, observes that it took real guts.

“Few will appreciate, as I do, the courage and resilience he would have mustered on leaving school to take up social work and then to leave family and home to avoid fighting,” says James, ADASS associate and former treasurer. “This was so profoundly counter-cultural to the predominantly racist and very macho milieu of the beleaguered white minority community that we grew up in. Such actions of working with black communities for their empowerment and avoiding the draft were seen as a deep betrayal and would have elicited many racist and threatening taunts from ‘friends’ and even some family.”

London in 1977 – IRA bombs,  the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the Sex Pistols - must have seemed a strange place to the boy from Bulawayo. But Harold quickly found his feet and employment as a then unqualified UK social worker, completing his accreditation as he undertook roles for local authorities in London and for Cambridgeshire County Council before joining Norfolk in 2003, initially as an assistant  director. He became executive director of adult social services in 2006, leading the creation of distinct commissioning and provider structures and spearheading closer integration with local NHS services.

Tributes from Norfolk colleagues have clearly reflected Harold’s popularity around County Hall and the deep respect with which he was held.  Cliff Jordan, leader of the council, has described him as ”the very epitome of public service and of the caring profesions”; Wendy Thomson, the council’s managing director, has spoken of his kindness, generosity and commitment to Norfolk and to social services, powered by an unshakeable belief in social justice and human compassion. “We must all be awed by his ability to live these values over many years of doing a top job in the midst of political and financial challenges.”

Kind, generous and principled, but no soft touch. Peter Hawes, now managing director of Norse Commercial Services,  a facilities management spin-off owned by the county council, recalled in his contribution at the cathedral how Harold would in meetings lull you into a false sense of security with his gentle bonhomie: only too late would you realise he had walked away with everything he wanted. If he was agitated about something, he would caution: “I’m going to get a bit cranky about this.”

His manner won friends and admirers beyond County Hall, too. Sir Henry Bellingham, MP for North West Norfolk,  has described him as “an incredibly able, professional and caring director who commanded huge respect across the region”. To Norman Lamb, MP for North Nofolk and a former care and support minister,  he was “a lovely man who had all the right values and led by example”. Vicky McDermott, chief executive of the Papworth Trust disability charity which operates largely in East Anglia, and current chair of the Care and Support Alliance, thinks Harold was “one of adult social care’s greatest ever champions” and “a man for whom his passion for social care was surpassed only by his determination to help fix the crisis the system he devoted his life to now faces”.

Fixing that crisis – or at least making a start - was going to be Harold’s priority for his year as the 10th ADASS president. He had already served as regional chair and, in 2015-16, vice-president to president Ray James, so he knew his way round Westminster and Whitehall and had heard all the excuses for social care not getting the sustainable funding settlement it so evidently needs. “There is a lot of sympathy for the position that adult social care is in,” he told journalists just days before his death, “but that sympathy doesn’t turn into a cheque.”

His anguish was plain when he spoke at that briefing of it being dishonest to pretend that repeated cuts to social care budgets were not having an impact on older and disabled people and, again, when he talked of the parlous state of home care keeping him awake at night. His plan, which he started to flesh out when he addressed the spring seminar, was  to work with a broad array of allies to build “a social movement about social care”,  a campaign running through to the 2020 comprehensive spending review. “We need to go into the next CSR with it being an absolute given that social care needs to be properly funded,” he said. “So I think this a clear task for my presidency, to make sure that ball is rolling.”

The idea wasn’t Harold’s alone. In fact it stemmed from initial conversations elsewhere. But as soon as he was involved he took a lead with alacrity. David Pearson, ADASS president in 2014-15, is in no doubt that it was Harold’s  personality that made a success of the first campaign meeting, in June, where a host of disparate groups came together to get that ball rolling. “Everybody could see he cared so much about it and of course he had such winning ways,” David says. “Ego was nowhere in it – because he didn’t have an ego.

“Hopefully he created a platform for something we can carry on with. I’m sure it has got momentum, based on the way that first discussion went under Harold’s lead. We owe it to him to make sure we keep up the pace.”

That will require great resilience on the part of ADASS colleagues. Harold’s death has undoubtedly been a body blow to the organisation. Immediate past president Ray James and vice-president Margaret Willlcox have paid tribute to his “enormous contribution to the people of Norfolk, to our association and to the wider health and care sector”.  They said: “Many people have used the words ‘such a lovely, honourable man’, capturing how, in addition to his professionalism and expertise, his values, integrity, compassion, humility and warmth meant Harold was not only deeply respected but also held in great affection by so many people.”

Of all those grieving, however, none will be feeling the loss of Harold so keenly as will his immediate and loving family: his widow, Julie, his daughter, Holly, and his sons, Joel and Sam, all of whom spoke with enviable composure at the service of thanksgiving.

Harold and Julie, a Brit, met at Manchester Airport while both volunteering for a charity providing holidays for disabled children. They were married in 1980.  The family home was by all accounts a place of great warmth and not a little hilarity: Sam said he had never laughed so much as with his father; Joel recalled Harold’s “unconventional parenting style” and him once taking the dog for a walk and coming back without it (it was retrieved). To Holly, he was “a social butterfly”, at ease with people of all ages and backgrounds and with a knack to put them at their ease. At her own housewarming party, she discovered him in the kitchen offering someone a job.

There was boating on the Norfolk Broads,  golf,  The Archers – Harold was devoted  - and he had recently taken up rowing. If he loved anything better than rooting round bookshops, it was classic and vintage cars. According to Joel, Harold could tell at a glance the make of a vehicle and year of manufacture, and would delight in pointing out discrepancies in films and TV programmes like Only Fools and Horses, a particular favourite. Surely not to the point of getting cranky about it, though.

He and Julie had been due to holiday in South Africa only weeks after his death and they were looking forward to further trips – Australia, India, sailing in the Mediterranean - after  his planned retirement in 2017.  “We thought we had time,” she said, poignantly. The evening before his death, they had gone to the beach at Cromer and eaten fish and chips and talked about all the things they would do. She took her last photo of him, “looking wistful”.

Africa was never forgotten. In 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and again in 1994, when South Africa held its first free elections, the children were assembled before the television and instructed in the history and the significance of the momentous events. And as well as enthusiastic involvement in the local community association in Norwich, Harold actvely supported two charities working with orphaned and disadvantaged children in Zimbabwe, The Mudeka Foundation and Norfolk-based Mashinga Trust.

At a reception following the service of thanksgiving, Tapila Kundoro, a Zimbabwe-born social worker with Norfolk children’s services, told the gathering how Harold, “a humble man”, had invited him for coffee when he had joined the county council. Then and on many subsequent occasions, they had chatted about the old country, reminiscing about its beauty and its fine people but shaking their heads together at its misfortunes. “”Harold was part of our family,” said Tapila. “Goodbye, Harold. Goodbye, son of the soil. May you rest in peace.”

Harold Nevile Bodmer, born 27 January 1955, died 20 July 2016.

Donations in Harold’s memory to The Mudeka Foundation or Mashinga Trust may be sent c/o R J Bartram & Son Funeral Service, 31 Hargham Road, Attleborough, Norfolk NR17 2ES


Written by David Brindle who is public services editor of the Guardian