School headmaster and Naval Reserve officer was ‘a charismatic leader of integrity’

Simon Harper with Ireland and Ulster rugby star Rory Best at the opening of Portadown College's new sports facilities in 2018
Simon Harper with Ireland and Ulster rugby star Rory Best at the opening of Portadown College's new sports facilities in 2018

An international rugby star and a former education minister are among those who have paid tribute to Portadown College principal Simon Harper who died suddenly while on holiday in Scotland.

Past pupil Rory Best said he was “incredibly saddened” at the news, while Peter Weir MLA described Mr Harper as having played a “crucial role” in the Northern Ireland education system.

Having taught at Rathfriland High School and Regent House in Newtownards, Mr Harper took over as principal of Portadown College in 2009.

“He played a crucial role in local education and many will join me in mourning his passing,” Mr Weir said.

“I think we’d have been on a very similar page. I met him on a couple of occasions, and I think there was a strong, burning desire in his heart to preserve the best of education for all our young people.”

Ulster and Ireland rugby star Rory Best tweeted: “Incredibly saddened to hear of the sudden loss of Mr Simon Harper, principal of my former school @pcportadown. Thoughts are with his family & friends.”

A tribute issued on behalf of the Portadown College community said their friend and colleague was a “highly charismatic educator and leader” whose lifelong passion for outdoor pursuits and Duke of Edinburgh award expeditions instilled a “lov-e of the outdoors in all of the young people who participated in these ventures”.

It is understood Mr Harper was on a walking holiday when he died. The exact cause of death is unknown but he is believed to have felt unwell after completing a walk.

The school tribute added: “Proud of his Banbridge roots and passionate about his Ulster culture, he demonstrated a reverent respect for tradition, as exemplified through his meticulous attention to detail and great pride in leading the College’s annual Act of Remembrance. Indeed, Simon often reflected poignantly on the sacrifice of others and had served proudly as an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve for almost a quarter of a century.

“In jovial banter with students, staff and governors, he also shared his love for sport, in particular his longstanding support for Ulster and Irish Rugby, alongside Coventry City and Crusaders football teams.”

A statement from Rathfriland High School paid tribute to Mr Harper Simon as a man of unquestionable integrity: “Simon was a great school leader who had the needs of the pupils at the core of all he did. His integrity was unquestionable. He was true gentleman. He will be greatly missed in the field of education.”