Tony Woods, big heart behind St Charles Lwanga, breathes last

Tony Woods

Mr Tony Woods, the legendary former principal of St Charles Lwanga High School in Kitui County.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

A lay missionary of Irish descent who spent three decades as headmaster of St Charles Lwanga School, which he built literally from scratch into an academic powerhouse in Kitui and the country, has died.

Tony Woods, who was the Chancellor of Lodwar Diocese until his death, died after a brief illness at Eldoret Hospital at the age of 79.

Sources told Nation.Africa that Mr Woods fell ill on Tuesday evening shortly after checking into a hotel in Eldoret town and was rushed to Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital from where he was transferred to Eldoret Hospital after his condition deteriorated.

According to Mike Nzule, the chairman of the St Charles Lwanga School Old Boys Association, the legendary missionary had travelled from Lodwar to Eldoret for meetings on the day he fell ill.

Develop Lodwar 

"He fell ill after checking in and it was actually the hotel staff who rushed him to the hospital," Mr Nzule told the Nation by phone.

The Chancellor was supposed to attend meetings with stakeholders running development programmes in Lodwar.

A statement from Bishop John Mbinda of the Catholic Diocese of Lodwar confirmed his death, saying Mr Woods died on Thursday morning while undergoing treatment. 

"It is with great sadness that I have learned of the death of our chancellor, Anthony Woods. He was an outstanding educator who will be remembered for his dedication, humility and drive to achieve," the statement said.

Mr Woods dedicated his life not only to teaching but to shaping generations of students, some of whom went on to become prominent figures in government, the military, the judiciary and the private sector in Kenya and beyond.

Two sitting MPs from the county - Makali Mulu (Kitui Central) and Gideon Mulyungi (Mwingi Central) - are old boys from the school, which has produced many other notable figures in the country, including renowned lawyers and captains of industry.

His monthly salary for all these years, sources say, went into helping needy students from every corner of the country and he never acquired any property during his working life. 

In one of his last media interviews with the Nation on the 50th anniversary of his stay in Kenya, Mr Woods said it had been a wonderful and very fulfilling journey and expressed his wish to be buried in Kitui after his death.

"Every time I come to Kitui, especially Lwanga, I feel like I'm getting a fresh injection of hope, especially when I meet my former pupils from all over the country, I feel very satisfied," he said.

In 2017, the old boys of the school held a parents' day party to welcome back Mr Woods, an event that was largely about celebrating the missionary who taught at the school for three decades.

The party also coincided with the annual commemoration of St Charles Lwanga, the Ugandan martyr for whom the school is named.

Mr Nzule, the school's alumni chairman, said the former pupils had come together to build Mr Woods a befitting retirement home in recognition of his immense work in mentoring them during their formative years.

The finance director of leading haulage company Mitchell Cotts, who left the school in 1990, said the students' discipline was at its best when Mr Woods engaged them.

"During our time at the school, pupils never needed a teacher's permission to go out. Our permission slips were signed by the prefects on duty and all we had to do was to be in full school uniform," Mr Nzule recalled.

He said Mr Woods rarely used the cane, preferring a diplomatic and counselling approach to discipline. He would go round all the dormitories every evening to check on the pupils and see if they had any concerns that needed his attention.

What still amazes most of the former pupils, says Mr Nzule, was the compassion and unyielding passion of their former headmaster to ensure that needy pupils remained in school even when their fee arrears were overwhelming.

He used to raise funds from well-wishers at home and abroad, which he then credited and cleared the fees owed by most of the students.

"Under Mr Woods' leadership, St Charles Lwanga became the fourth best school in the country in 1981, and maintained top rankings throughout his stay, especially in the Ukambani region," he said.

Surprisingly, Mr Woods never bought a car for himself or a school van in those 28 years. The school survived on an old Yamaha motorcycle, registration number KUD 750, which was the headmaster's best friend.

"He used the motorbike to take sick boys to hospital, do shopping for the school and run all errands, including fetching water and collecting mail from the local post office," he explained.

Mr Nzule explained that it was this selfless devotion to duty and service to humanity that pricked the conscience of the old students to reward Mr Woods with a posh retirement home within the school compound.

Funeral plans are underway.