Pat Ashworth speaks with Derbyshire-based retired Colonel John Doody about a difficult childhood, overcoming adversity and finding happiness

Great British Life: Colonel John Doody with wife JacquelineColonel John Doody with wife Jacqueline (Image: Archant)

There is a determination in every fibre of Colonel John Doody’s being. His motto is Carpe Diem – ‘Seize the Day’ – and in publishing his life story, From Stripes to Stars, he wants to send out the message that ‘anything is possible and achievable in life, no matter what background you come from.’

He had a tough start in life. Born in Ilkley and brought up in Wharfedale, he was sent away to The Royal Hospital School, an austere boarding school run by a naval charity when his mother contracted TB. He didn’t see either of his parents again for four years, a time he describes as ‘a bleak, unsettled period, when I was shuttled between school and various people’s houses, and none of them was my home.’

His parents barely communicated with each other, and with the eventual departure of his father – a former radio officer in the Merchant Navy, who suffered from shellshock - his mother was unable to cope and handed him over to grandparents. ‘At home nobody thought I was special. They saw me as an unwanted object, a waste of space, and I saw myself that way too,’ he says. ‘Failing the 11+ exam made it worse.’

It was a miserable childhood by anyone’s standards. The school felt like a prison: the diet was inadequate; he made no friends; he endured initiation rites and was constantly bullied. Sport was the only thing he was good at: he loved sailing and he sang in the chapel choir. His father, who had given the school permission to beat him if he transgressed, suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to a sanatorium for electric shock treatment.

Great British Life: Colonel John Doody with wife JacquelineColonel John Doody with wife Jacqueline (Image: Archant)

In 1957, when he was 15, his half-brother, Edward, who was in the RAF, tragically died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 19. The young man had been something of hero to John, who determined that he would both match and surpass Edward’s achievements. It didn’t augur well at first. His grandmother died, another blow that left him reeling. John left school in 1958 with just three O Levels, in maths, chemistry and geography, and decided to go and train to be a manager at the chemist chain, Timothy Whites and Taylors.

Here, he revelled in working with staff who ‘treated me as a colleague and not as a serf.’ By the age of 18, he’d managed to buy himself a Lambretta, and he worked his way through the company to become manager of a Timothy Whites shop in Leeds. One incident there remains in his mind and continues to haunt him. He had not seen his mother for many years and had accepted both his father’s picture of her character and his version of events.

So when she came by chance into the shop at Leeds, he refused to see her. Only later in life, when he was clearing his father’s house, did he come across letters begging for news of ‘my dear son John’ and expressing how much she had missed him.

‘My father had made her out to be a wicked, uncaring woman. Only now did I realise how much of my life, my most vulnerable, growing-up years, had been sacrificed to my father’s business. The realisation left me distraught,’ he writes.

He had a few happy years working in Redcar. And then he happened to pass by the Army recruiting office in York, and decided on the spot that he would like to become an officer. His lack of qualifications prohibited that but they signed him up as a trainee technician with the Royal Corps of Signals and sent him off to Catterick.

There, he was top of the class. He discovered an aptitude for engineering and technical drawing and rediscovered the Christian faith that he believes has sustained him throughout his life. It was the first time, he writes, ‘that I in believed in myself. I could be powerful. I could be successful. I could change the world. My enthusiasm got me noticed. It became clear that I was a private soldier being groomed for commission.’

He was promoted to Corporal but failed the officer selection board. During the posting that followed in Germany, he took time out to cycle 2000 miles around Scandinavia, which coupled with sports and adventurous training, ‘built up my confidence and maturity to levels I would not have thought possible in the days when I was the boy who would never make anything of himself.’

He volunteered for a two-year tour in the Middle East with a paramilitary force in the Persian Gulf, and whilst in Dubai, studied for the necessary qualifications in English Language and Literature: ‘What I never forgot was my aspiration to become an officer,’ he says. He was summoned back to Catterick for the commissions board, which he passed, and was selected for officers training.

And then he was off to cadet school in Aldershot. His father watched his commissioning parade, and for the first time in his life, he heard his father say, ‘Well done, John.’ Posted to 16th Signal Regiment in Germany, in 1971, he met and married Janice Dale, a teacher at the garrison school. Their daughter Joanne was born in 1972. He was promoted to Lieutenant and selected to attend a two-year degree level course in telecommunications engineering and management at Blandford Forum.

Now he powered ahead with advanced maths, electronics and electro-mechanical engineering, along with accounting and project management, and became a Communications Trials officer in the Royal School of Signals. Three stars on the shoulder. A second child, Simon, born in 1974. Now he was appointed Acting Major and Chief Instructor Operating Trades at Eighth Signal Regiment in Catterick. Now he had a crown on his epaulettes and here he began a long association with the Army Benevolent Fund.

He continued to relish every new challenge that being a Royal Signals Officer presented: ‘The air fairly buzzed,’ he writes of his time at the Royal Armaments Research and Development Establishment at Fort Halstead in Kent, where he found himself engrossed in advanced mathematics and computer algorithms.

Family life was good, with both children happily settled at boarding schools – Joanne at Abbots Bromley and Simon at Smallwood Manor. Given the nature of Army life, ‘the main consideration was to ensure both our children had a well rounded, uninterrupted education with none of the distress that had ruined my childhood years.,’ he writes. Promotion to Lieutenant Colonel was ‘like a flower unfolding inside of me. A flag unfurling. Now I knew I had far surpassed anything my brother had achieved.’

There were difficult times: he became a ‘complete workaholic, which solved nothing’ when he was required to spend most his time at the Ministry of Defence in London. With promotion to Colonel, he became Director of Army Battlefield Information Systems Procurement and until his retirement in 2003, was Senior Military Officer and Head of User Requirements at CESG, the information security department at GCHQ. On retirement, he formed Interlocutor Services Ltd, a cyber security company advising industry on strategic cyber security matters. At 78 he is still involved in the business.

Double tragedy struck his life: in 2014, at the age of 42, his daughter, Joanne, suffered a massive stroke. ‘Five years on, she is still fighting and I’m very proud of her,” he says. ‘She has had to fight like a warrior.’ Two years later, Janice died from cancer, and since that time, John himself has had three major and two minor operations to eliminate cancer.

At a ‘dreadfully lonely time’, he met and married Jacqueline James, who ‘walked into my life to bring me new love, caring, understanding, joy and happiness every day. We are madly in love. She banished the dark shadow of loss and the sun started shining again in my life and hers.’

The couple, who have settled in Chesterfield, believe in living every day to the full. ‘Life isn’t a rehearsal,’ he says. ‘You have to take every opportunity you’ve been granted. God has given me time again to enjoy life.’

He remains committed to caring for Joanne. Writing the book has been hard: ‘I am pouring out my heart,’ he says. Parts of it have been hard reading for the family but the book is a legacy for them, ‘so that they will know where they have come from. I touched on things that were very sad but also things that were inspirational.

‘I’m thinking about writing another, about surviving cancer. I had major surgery recently when I nearly died, and I got over that – surgeons removed 60% of my liver and now I’m on the road to recovery. God has a plan for my life. Carpe Diem.’

From Stripes to Stars is available to purchase on Amazon, amongst other places.