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Dennis Chisholm of Budo: an impactful life

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Dennis Chisholm of Budo: an impactful life

© Photo of Sandra & Dennis Chisholm by John Bikangaga Jr.



Budonians of my generation are in mourning. Dennis Chisholm, the senior physics teacher at King’s College, Budo from 1964 to1973, died in Scotland on Tuesday July 11. He was 89 years old, and a week shy of his 59th wedding anniversary. It was a saddening loss of yet another of the great influencers that shaped our worldview, our social conduct, our attitude to work and the pursuit of excellence. 


Chisholm, who was born in Scotland on January 27, 1934, had a master’s degree in physics, and was also a graduate in Christian Religious Education. After wedding Sandra on July 18,1964, the couple set sail from London nineteen days later. They disembarked at Mombasa, and travelled by train to Kampala, arriving at Budo in time for the beginning of the third term (semester).  


For the next nine years, Budo was their home. Their house on the western spur of the school campus afforded them a magnificent view of the sparsely inhabited rolling hills of Busiro and Mawokota counties of Buganda, and unobstructed views of the marshlands and the blue waters of Lake Nalubaale (Victoria) to the south. 


Beholding the gloriously orange sunsets from his perfectly situated house must have been gold for Chisholm, an avid photographer whose camera’s shutter-release button worked overtime. All those publicly available photographs on the internet, books, and magazines, showing Budonians and the school’s 1960s/1970s landscape are mostly the work of Dennis Chisholm. Pity that they are not credited to him.


Chisholm was a passionate collector of Ugandan wooden furniture. Andrew Mugisha Bikangaga, a Budonian (1968-1972) who became a lifelong friend of the Chisholms, was amazed by the collection of beautifully finished Mvule wood furniture that graced their dining and living rooms when he visited them in their home in Lockerbie, Scotland in 2011. They had had them custom-made in Uganda and shipped home. 


Chisholm executed his assignment as senior physics teacher with universal acclaim. He made the subject quite accessible and enjoyable, and enabled most students to pass the examinations in physics. Many pursued careers for which it was a mandatory foundation. 


Chisholm, who was also the housemaster of Africa House, was a much-loved teacher. He understood human nature, especially the adolescent. He was a guide and friend, not a fear-inducing taskmaster. He even drew students from other dormitories close to him. Like a few other teachers, he was not averse to allowing at least one of his charges to break Budo’s strict code of conduct. “He used to smoke secretly,” one of my schoolmates disclosed to me. Chisholm once invited that schoolmate to his house for coffee, which he brewed himself. He then lit a cigarette and offered it to the young man.” Most of his guests turned out very well and became outstanding professionals. 


Whereas I did not partake of his forbidden offerings, Chisholm’s greatest and most enduring influence on me was an appreciation of good sound reproduction that added pleasure to my enjoyment of music. When he invited a group of us to his house for a long-forgotten reason, I was immediately struck by a strange rig in one corner of his living room. It was a complete Akai sound system, with a large upright Reel-to-Reel Tape Deck Recorder, a vinyl record player, a separate amplifier, and two very large rectangular Akai boxes with a reticulate grill that he told us were the speakers. (We now know that they were not as humongous as they appeared to my inexperienced adolescent eyes.) 


He used our visit to educate us about sound reproduction. The concept of converting sound to an electrical signal as it passed through a magnetic field, then back to sound via wires connected to vibrating cones in a box, came alive to me as I sat in Chisholm’s living room. It was an example of the kind of applied education we received from men and women who used every opportunity as a teaching moment.


Notwithstanding previous encounters with sound reproducing contraptions, nothing had prepared me for Chisholm’s rig. The sound was stunning. Further visits to his house were as aurally rewarding as the first encounter. More than half-a-century later, a love affair with well-recorded music, reproduced through carefully matched audio-equipment, remains the single most important impact that Budo had on me. The physics of sound remains an abiding interest, nourished by frequent conversations with my friend Mugisha wa Bikangaga, whose outstanding knowledge of the subject was nurtured by Dennis Chisholm. Truth to tell, I have forgotten most of the other physics that I learnt in the science laboratories at Budo. 


The Chisholms were blessed with two children while at Budo. Now in their fifties, Andrew is a management consultant in Grenoble, France, and Ian is an engineer in Edinburgh, Scotland. Andrew has a son and Ian has two sons. 


In a speech to a gathering of Old Budonians in New Jersey, USA in May 2005, Chisholm remembered how good Budonians were to his little children.  He later recalled people and experiences that added great value to his life. Among them was a man called Kongo who sold the most delicious roasted groundnuts at Budo. Uganda was a “beautiful country of beautiful people.”  


The Chisholms left Budo in 1973. He became the Principal Physics teacher at Lockerbie Academy in Lockerbie, Scotland. “It was quite a shock getting back to teaching in this country,” Chisholm wrote to Mugisha in 2010. “If it hadn’t been for Idi Amin, I am sure we would have been back in Uganda within six months. Students at Budo wanted to learn, but here (Scotland) they just couldn’t be bothered.” 


He missed the extra-curricular activities at Budo. “Culturally the (Scottish) school was very weak,” Chisholm wrote. “I looked back nostalgically on the concerts, plays, choirs, clubs, upper school lectures – even going round when on duty (at Budo) to see that students were not “eating fire”. (Reading after official “lights-out.”)


Chisholm, who retired from teaching in 1995, had already maintained a busy schedule for years with voluntary community work, including leading a choir that he and Sandra started in 1974 and handed over to others in 1991. He worked as an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland, including conducting many funerals, preaching the Gospel, and leading worship services three to four Sundays a month. He also worked with people with drug addictions, and with two charities in Scotland that focused on HIV/AIDS. 


The Chisholms enjoyed living on their one-and-a-half-acre property, surrounded by fields and wildlife. They credited Budo for their preference for “country life and space to breathe.” Sandra taught primary school for 20 years and played the organ at their local church. Now 82 years old, she is in retirement.  


Budo of my time had many gifted, kind, generous and friendly teachers. They gave of themselves without holding back. Chisholm was among the best. Modern generations that call non-relatives “uncle X” or “auntie Y” would have called him Uncle Chis. Like his colleagues, his positive influence on us was enormous. That is why his death has struck a chord of sadness that approximates that triggered by the loss of a close relative. 


We celebrate a great life of a very good man. We praise God for his life and service. We are confident that the Lord will shield Sandra, Andrew, Ian, and the Chisholm grandchildren with His Grace. He will be cremated on Thursday August 3, 2023. The best way to honour his memory is to share our time, treasure, and talent freely and intentionally with people in need.  

© Muniini K. Mulera

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