By JAMIE ALTER
Countless Woodstock graduates such as myself will have indelible images of Mr Ajay Mark overseeing sports events from behind his Ray-Bans with his trademark whistle hanging around his neck.
This is a man who embodied sports, who excelled at multiple sports and who coached sports for nearly four decades at Woodstock. He is, in many ways, Woodstock.
Mr Mark gave 39 years of his life to the school, but the Mark family has served Woodstock for three generations totalling over 130 years. Let that rest in your head for a moment; you will seldom find such an association at a school.
Thus, news of his retirement came with more than a tinge of emotion. I received the news from the man himself, when Mr Mark called me last week, and after our call ended many thoughts flooded the mind. Full disclosure: my father and Mr Mark were close friends, for nearly five decades. Mr Mark was best man at my father’s wedding, and the two motorcycled from Mussoorie to Kashmir once.
It was inevitable after excelling at sports for Wynberg Allen – he held the Mussoorie inter-school long jump record after a distance if 19’10” which had not been broken since 1953 – that Mr Mark would go further. He roller-skated from Mussoorie to Amritsar – an Indian record which still stands – and played football for Lucknow University and tennis for Guru Nanak University. In July, 1981, he joined Woodstock as a teacher in the Physical Education Department.
Where does one begin to even sum up his career at Woodstock? Five years after joining, he was promoted to HOD of the PE Department, a post he held with distinction until 2012, minus two sabbatical years (1990-1992) when he and his family moved to Newton, Kansas. At Bethel College, Mr Mark pursued courses on Sports Medicine and International Development, simultaneously coaching track & field and badminton at the college and basketball and football at Hesston Middle School.
Mr Mark coached the prime of Woodstock’s athletes in track & field, basketball, football, badminton, tennis, volleyball, hockey and cricket. From the outstanding athletes he coached, names such as Bonnie Crider, Joan Rommelie, Jenny Ray, Francis Kiwanaku, Valmik Mundukar, Roshan Jaisenghi, Steve Sato, Karim Wahid, Gaphel Shrestha, Charles Waitara, Andrew Kemp, Sonam Dorjee, Mathew Sailo and Youndonla Gonsar still evoke excellence for old-timers and alumni.
He also organised Sports Days for Woodstock’s students and employees, coordinated with the Mussoorie Sports Association for the inter-school ‘Olympics’ for years and started and chaperoned many Activity Week offerings such as cycling and rafting. He is also credited with starting the five-a-side Indoor Football Tournament for students and staff of schools in Mussoorie and Dehradun.
Which is why the saddest moment of Mr Mark’s Woodstock career was when Sports Day and Employees’ Day were scrapped from the Sports program. I know personally how deeply it hurt him.
The sport closest to Mr Mark’s heart is basketball. He started the prestigious Win Mumby All-India Basketball Tournament in 2000 when the new gymnasium was completed, and coached the senior boys’ basketball team from 1986 to 2011. On his watch, the Woodstock boys and girls basketball teams won the Win Mumby six times, including in both sections in 2000 and 2004 which is a record. In 2011, he finished coaching basketball on a high after Woodstock won the title once again. From 2012 to 2020, Mr Mark served as HOD Sports and Student Life Coordinator; beyond Woodstock, he has been vice-president of the Uttarakhand Basketball Association since 2018.
During these years, he continued to play the Jackie Football Tournament to take his association as a player in the competition to 25 years, during which he scored the most goals for Rock Blues Club.
In November, 2017, Mr Mark was diagnosed with stage three to four lymphoma. The news jolted the Woodstock and Mussoorie community. He underwent chemotherapy in Ludhiana and then the USA. His recovery completed, he returned to Woodstock after nearly a year and got right back to coordinating Win Mumby, the indoor five-a-side football tournament and inter-house and inter-school cross country.
I marvelled at the spirit and resilience of the man, who had overcome cancer and was back at work with the same gusto I had seen during my school days. I met him in the staff tea lounge not long after his return, and Mr Mark greeted me with that same smile and enthusiastically updated me on Woodstock sport.
Credit for this also goes to his wife, Sanjaya, who has been a pillar and a constant in his life at Woodstock. She, too, is part of the fabric of Woodstock, having worked there for 37 years as teacher, Elementary and Middle School Coordinator and Head of Community Engagement. The Marks have raised two wonderful daughters, Ayesha (’02) and Serena (’05), and are proud grandparents to three children whom they visit annually in Duluth, Minnesota. Indeed, if there is one aspect of his life where Mr Mark’s tone turns more animated than when discussing Woodstock’s sporting achievements, it is his grandchildren Cayden, Rohan and Riya.
For me, the indelible memory of Mr Mark is not one from my own vision, but that of my father’s, as astute an observer of sport and the human spirit as there have been. My father graduated from Woodstock in 1968, having excelled at almost every sport offered. When he returned from the US a little under two years later, he remembered hearing the name Ajay Mark spoken with reverence whenever sport in Mussoorie was mentioned. Here was the fastest runner in town, a track and field star and skilled cricketer and footballer who was the pride of not just Wynberg Allen but the community.
“Jamie, he was a tremendous athlete … a superstar,” my father once told me with awe in his voice.
Go well, sir, into your new innings.
(Jamie Alter is a sports writer, journalist, author and actor).