Telegraph journalist and education reformer John Izbicki, has died aged 91

  • 10 Jan 2022

He saved Margaret Thatcher from a drunken journalist, but was his own man.

John Izbicki was a journalist with the Telegraph for 30 years, covering the City, education and then Paris,writes Anne McHardy.  

A Jewish refugee from Nazism, he arrived in Britain at the age of nine on 3 September 1939, the day that the UK declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland.

He had been born Horst Ibicki in Berlin, the son of Selma and Leonard Izbicki, who had moved to Berlin from Kolberg (now Kołobrzeg, in Poland) after the first world war. His father’s haberdashery store was one of 7,500 Jewish businesses attacked in 1938 on Kristallnacht. He always said that he shouted himself so hoarse during the attacks that his vocal cords never fully recovered. 

His father managed to get visas and train tickets and they prepared to leave.
On his first morning in the UK, Horst and his mother had slept in a Leicester police cell, and he woke to the smell of frying bacon. The kindly station sergeant asked the hungry boy his name. The reply, “Horst, sir”, prompted the response: “What sort of name is that?” Over his first bacon breakfast Izbicki and the policeman negotiated, and John emerged both fully committed to bacon and to renaming himself John, after the sergeant’s son.

Eventually the Izbickis settled in Manchester, where John went to North Manchester grammar. He left at 16, did national service with the Royal Army Service Corps, read French and German at Nottingham University, went into journalism in Manchester and in 1959 joined the then Daily Telegraph. When he joined the Telegraph, until the City Editor insisted on using Izbicki, he was given no byline or bylined John Howard, the Anglicised version of his mother’s maiden name,  since a name so foreign was deemed  inappropriate for its readership. “It would frighten the colonels,” as he put it. 

His background gave him a lifelong desire to help all refugees. He was regularly involved in the Jewish community, providing witness evidence, help organise Holocaust memorials, including speaking at Westminster Abbey.

As his autobiography, Between the Lines (2013) recalls his Fleet Street days, including a friendship with Margaret Thatcher which began when she was education secretary after he rescued her from a drunken journalist at a headteachers’ conference by asking her to dance. He also enjoyed warm relations with the teaching unions, notably the National Association of Head Teacher and National Union of Teachers, and performed regular comedy turns at their conferences.

John, a campaigner for educational reform, left the Daily Telegraph in 1989 to become public affairs director to the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics and played a leading role in their successful campaign to become universities. He then became communications director at one, the University of North London.

We became friends in the 1990s when I was editing Guardian Education and John was looking for a school with refugee pupils for a concert in the Royal Albert Hall. I introduced him to my husband, Terry Farrell, then head of a comprehensive in Haringey, St David and St Katherine, where black pupils made up 90 per cent of the school, including many refugees; it also had a gospel choir.

In 1972 John married Maureen Ryan. She died when their son, Paul, was six; Paul settled in Australia, where his son, Tyler, and daughter, Chloe, were  born. When in 1986 John married June Walker, a special needs teacher, she already had two children, Patrick and Anna, from her first marriage, so providing what he called his “off-the-peg family”.

John Izbicki.  Born Berlin November 8,1929. Died Kent December 8, 2021. Survived by June, Paul, Tyler and Chloe and stepchildren Patrick and Anna

Francis Beckett writes: I met John Izbicki in the first half of the 1970s.  He was charming, witty, urbane, smartly dressed, with a beautiful dark brown voice and an accent that sounded as though it had been honed on the playing fields of Eton.  I took him at first for a proper Daily Telegraph toff. I could not have been more wrong.

The dark brown voice was a legacy of the Nazis.  As a terrified little boy, John heard his parents’ shop being smashed up by Nazis on Kristallnacht, and screamed so hard that he permanently damaged his vocal chords.

The accent was that of a man who spoke only German until he came to England in 1940, aged nine, and then worked at it until he could speak the language without an accent, and even write elegantly in it.  The clothes, the wit, the urbanity were the natural attributes of a man who might have become an actor had he felt financially secure, and who performed throughout his life – educationalists of a certain generation will never forget his annual turn at the National Union of Teachers conference.

He worked for the Telegraph, but he was his own man, reporting honestly, and trusted alike by Margaret Thatcher and the leaders of the education trade unions.

 It was a pleasure and a privilege to know him.

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