It was with great sadness that we heard of the passing away of our former Principal, Dr. Donald Sykes on Boxing Day, 2020, at the age of 90. Mansfield was very dear to Donald and he was held in great affection by generations of Mansfield staff and students. His long and close association with the college goes back to 1955, when he came up to read theology. In 1959 he became a theology tutor and was successively Senior Tutor, Principal (1977-86), Senior Research Fellow (1986-9) and Honorary Fellow from his retirement in 1989. 

Donald was born in Sunderland in 1930. His father Leonard was ordained into the ministry of the Congregational Union of Scotland in 1937 in Rhynie and served in several Scottish churches. After going to school in Airdrie and Dundee Donald read classics at the University of St. Andrew’s. This was followed by National Service in the Royal Army Educational Corps, about which Donald told some amusing stories. He won the Guthrie Scholarship to Cambridge from St. Andrew’s University but then elected to go to Oxford. After taking a First in Theology at Mansfield (1955-7) he returned to Scotland in 1958 to Jordanhill College of Education in Glasgow, where he was awarded two diplomas, one of them in Religious Education. He then taught classics for a year at Glasgow High School before returning permanently to Oxford and Mansfield, where he replaced Erik Routley. His Oxford doctorate, on St. Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth century Archbishop of Constantinople, was awarded in 1967. In 1969-70 Donald taught for a year at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, returning in 1987-8. St. Olaf awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Divinity in 1979.  

Donald was a dedicated scholar, primarily of Early Church History. In his first years at Mansfield he concentrated on the Eastern Greek-speaking church, conveying a deep understanding of the early church fathers. Later he discovered Augustine and turned westward. He continued his research well into retirement, converting a garage into a densely packed library in Headington and later reproducing his library in his home with Sarah in Blisworth, Northamptonshire. But it is above all as a teacher that Donald will be remembered: for this he had a real vocation and influenced many generations of students who appreciated his scholarship, his encouragement, his humour and his pastoral care: he went out of his way to help any student who needed it and will be fondly remembered by many.   

In the 1970s Donald was a very successful Senior Tutor at Mansfield. He went on to be elected as the college’s first lay Principal in succession to George Caird. The hospitality for which Donald and Marta were already renowned continued in the Principal’s Lodgings, with regular entertaining of students, SCR colleagues and visitors. But the serious financial problems and the challenges of achieving college status in a University that did not want more poor colleges gradually bore down on Donald and he became seriously unhappy in his role as Principal. It became clear that it was best to step down and return to the tutoring which he loved. It took courage to make this decision and return to the Senior Common Room in his former role, but with great support from his family and from the college too, Donald made this transition successfully and made a full recovery.      

I clearly remember my first meeting with Donald, in the dining hall at Mansfield, when he and Marta returned from their year in the USA at St. Olaf. Mansfield had a true family atmosphere then, and their return was eagerly awaited. I soon understood why, when they radiated warmth and kindness that evening. All those contributing to this obituary have stressed the affection which Donald aroused among colleagues, staff and students. He was not only lovable and kindly but sharply intelligent and happy to converse on a wide range of topics which reflected the breadth of his reading and interests. He had a deep interest in both classical music and jazz and regularly enjoyed the London Review of Books. Donald had a deep love of things Scottish and I recall his giving a radio talk on the Scottish poet Edwin Muir. He had a wonderful sense of humour, often characterised by sotto voce remarks at formal dinners and solemn moments during the annual Commemoration, and he was a notable raconteur with a considerable stock of highly entertaining anecdotes.      

The tragic death of Marta at the age of 59 was a deep and lasting blow to Donald and his sons Roger and Martin, but he was blessed to find new love with Sarah, a family friend and doctor,  whom he married in 2002. In early years of their marriage they were able to visit Martin and his family in New Zealand. Donald and Sarah were able to enjoy eighteen happy years together, even in later years when Donald began to experience a degree of dementia, first at Blisworth and latterly at Bovey Tracey in south Devon.                           

With thanks to Charles Brock, George Caird, John Creaser, Peter Jupp, Don Rudalevidge and Roger Sykes for their contributions. 

Dr Tony Lemon, Emeritus Fellow Mansfield College.


We were delighted that last year, we were able to send Donald a ninetieth birthday card signed by many of his friends and colleagues, which reportedly gave him great pleasure. We hope to hold a memorial service for Donald in Mansfield College chapel which was so dear to him, when circumstances allow.