E. R. Braithwaite, a Guyanese author, diplomat and former Royal Air Force pilot whose book “To Sir, With Love,” a memoir of teaching in London’s deprived East End, was adapted into a hit 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier, died on Monday in Rockville, Md. He was 104.
Mr. Braithwaite’s companion, Genevieve Ast, confirmed his death to The Associated Press. He had taught English at Howard University, in Washington, and lived in the area for many years.
The book chronicled his efforts — as a courtly, Cambridge-educated military veteran who had been denied employment as an engineer because he was black — to motivate a group of unruly adolescents raised in a slum in early-1950s Britain, which was still slowly recovering from the austerity of the war years.
The students’ antisocial behavior, casual racism, penchant for violence and, worst of all, self-hatred horrify the new teacher, whose colleagues expect little of the pupils.
He takes them to museums and tells them about his childhood. Slowly, he gains their trust by showing respect and affection, which, for most of the students, have been in short supply. (The title of the book comes from an inscription his appreciative students wrote on a pack of cigarettes they gave him.) He also develops romantic feelings for another teacher, who, like the students, is white.
The memoir was praised for offering a sympathetic account of race and class without naïveté or excessive sentimentality.
Born of Oxford educated parents — both mother and father — in British Colonial Guyana, Braithwaite eventually went from being an unemployed, racially discriminated, Ph.D physicist in London, to a teacher, best selling novelist, social worker, consultant to UNESCO, Permanent Representative to the U.N., and professor at NYU and Howard Universities.
He is a man who has looked at life as a whole, not defining himself by any one moment or career, a true Renaissance man.