Francis Cecil Lopdell was born on 17 May 1890 at Wrights Bush, Southland, the son of John Francis Lopdell, a timber clerk, and his wife, Teresa Martha Monk. His father had studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and emigrated to Southland in 1884, where he farmed until 1889, then went into partnership in a sawmill. Frank went to Park School, Invercargill, and Southland Boys’ High School, where he played in the First XV. In 1907 he became a pupil-teacher at Middle School, Invercargill, and from 1910 was an assistant master. Lopdell remained at Middle School until 1914, occupying positions of increasing seniority. In 1915 he was appointed to Geraldine District High School.
He enlisted in the 3rd Battalion of the Otago Infantry Regiment in May 1916 and served as a sergeant in France. He was wounded in December 1917, and after returning to New Zealand he was discharged from active service in January 1919. He continued to serve in the Territorial Force until he went on to the reserve of officers with the rank of lieutenant in 1930. Lopdell’s wartime experiences strengthened his Christian belief and he remained an active member of the Presbyterian church throughout his life, serving as an elder and a member of its public questions committee.
From 1919 to 1921 he was head teacher of Waimatuku School, a two-teacher school in Southland. He completed his BA as an extramural student of the University of Otago in 1921, then took a year off teaching to read for an MA in history. He was appointed assistant master at Southland Technical College in 1923. On 18 December that year he married Helen (Nell) Merrie Howie at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Invercargill. They had met when teaching 100 children in one room. They were to have two daughters.
Lopdell was vice principal of Auckland Training College from 1929 to 1935. His work there was distinguished by the good working relationships he built up between the college, the staff in the schools where the students did their practice teaching, and the education board and its inspectors. The college was closed in 1934 as an economy measure during the depression, and Lopdell was seconded to the Auckland primary school inspectorate.
In 1936 he was appointed principal of Wellington Teachers’ Training College. The college had been closed for three years, and Lopdell was the only member of the new staff with experience in teacher training. It was a daunting new start for the college, but with the Labour Party in government and Peter Fraser as minister of education, the future was full of promise. Lopdell was a Labour supporter who was convinced of the importance of the new freedom that Fraser wanted to impart into public education.
The depression years and the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe convinced Lopdell of the importance of the links between education and democracy. To him, a school or a teachers’ college represented the community in miniature, with its virtue depending largely on the spirit animating its corporate life. The essential requirement, he felt, was that all members of the college community be honest with each other and trust each other. As well as involving his staff in the development of the programme of studies, he explored ways of consulting student opinion. He strongly supported students’ associations in a wide range of cultural and sporting activities, believing that students preparing to teach in schools under the new conditions must themselves have inquiring minds and broad interests. He attracted a lively and talented staff of lecturers who, in turn, nurtured the talents of students who were enrolling in increasing numbers. Wellington was unquestionably the liveliest and most innovative of the four teachers’ training colleges during his 12 years as principal, and many students who later distinguished themselves attributed their personal awakening to the ethos of openness that Lopdell fostered.
In 1948 Lopdell was appointed to the new position of superintendent of the Auckland region of the Department of Education. This senior position had been established to give the department an executive presence in the Auckland province, where population pressures were creating heavy demands for new schools and classrooms and for education services. In 1950 he returned to Wellington to the head office of the department as chief inspector of primary schools, one of the department’s most senior positions.
Throughout his career Lopdell had been actively involved in moves to increase the opportunities for teachers to attend refresher courses and, as chief inspector, he initiated the Department of Education’s first residential courses for principals, teachers and inspectors. He retired in 1952, but stayed on part time until 1956 as the department’s first officer for in-service training.
Frank Lopdell collapsed and died on 2 September 1960 while speaking at a funeral gathering for Frank Combs, his old friend and colleague. He was survived by his wife and a daughter. The Department of Education’s first residential centre for the in-service training of teachers, at Titirangi, was named Lopdell House in his honour.
Frank Lopdell was known to thousands of teachers, who respected his wise, kindly counsel. Those who worked closely with him learnt from his humility, consideration, and sound judgement, from his tolerance of opinions he did not share, and his patience and ability to take long-term views.