Big Bob's legacy: The Bob and Mary Fuller Fund

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'See all, hear all and say as little as possible.'

There are a small number of characters from the College’s recent past about whom returning Johnians are known to grow misty-eyed.  One of them is Bob Fuller, Head Porter from 1969 to 1985 and known as ‘Big Bob’ on account of both his stature and temperament. Bob and his wife Mary, better known as 'Mrs Bob', were a much-loved team, and it seems that the College’s affection was more than returned. On Mary’s death in 2010, it was revealed that she had bequeathed the whole of the couple’s estate, a total of £197,000, to the College Choir. Through the extraordinary generosity of her legacy, the Fullers’ long and happy relationship with St John’s will endure for generations to come.

Bob and Mary married in 1945 after a wartime courtship. Bob relished his time in the army despite postings in the Arctic, North Africa and the Ardennes, and four injuries which left him carrying shrapnel for the rest of his life. He returned to service for one more year after his marriage, this time to India, where he saw the Mutiny and Partition before finally returning home and being demobbed. With characteristic stoicism, he commented, ‘It had been a long time, but I had not worried much’.

Mary forbade any return to military service for Bob after the war, much to his disappointment. He later wrote that ‘settling down was Hell.’ The couple lived for a time at Corpus Christi College, where Mary was in service to the Master, and Bob found work at St John’s in the vegetable garden. Finding the work not to his taste, Bob was pleased to be appointed New Court Porter in 1960, a job that suited him much better: 'I enjoyed a Porter’s life; it was like being a Lance-Corporal in the Army again.'

Bob rose to become Head Porter in 1969 and loved the increased contact it brought with students and Fellows alike. His motto as Head Porter was, sensibly, 'See all, hear all and say as little as possible.' Bob was passionate about College sport, particularly cricket, boxing and rugby, to the extent that Mary was often a grass widow in the summer. As one of the affectionate obituaries written after Bob’s death noted, 'It was Mary’s unselfishness that enabled Bob to give so much of himself to the College and to place the College so deeply in his debt.'

In 1974, Bob and Mary were appointed keepers of the graduate hostel at 12 Madingley Road, where their kindness to the students in their care, who were often far from home, was exceptional. Bob and Mary had no children of their own and found enormous pleasure in their connection with the young people in their charge.

Bob’s career at St John’s was not without controversy and his opposition to the admission of women was well known, although he grudgingly conceded on his retirement that the women undergraduates were ‘not so bad’. It seems that his initial antipathy was not shared by the new intake of women, and Bob blushed at being referred to as a ‘cuddly bear’ by one of their number in a BBC documentary. He remarked later that he never lived this comment down amongst his fellow head porters.

The Fullers’ long relationship with St John’s did not end with Bob’s untimely death a few short months after he retired. Mary outlived her husband by 25 years and on her death at the age of 93, she made the couple’s final gift to the College. Bob and Mary had been devoted attendees at Sunday evensongs in Chapel and this had clearly meant a great deal to Mary. She specified that her bequest should be used to establish the Bob and Mary Fuller Fund, with the aim of providing a gift to every chorister leaving the College School, commemorating their time in the Choir. The generosity of Mary’s bequest will enable the College to fulfil her wishes and in addition support choristers’ bursaries, which enable gifted musicians to join the Choir who might not otherwise be able to afford the fees of the College School.

It is remarkable that this couple, who were far from wealthy, made such a difference to St John’s, both during their lifetimes through their extraordinary devotion, and afterwards through the generosity of their legacy. They will be remembered fondly by those Johnians who knew them and with gratitude by those choristers who will benefit from their gift.

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