John McAleer

Born: January 16, 1968;

Died: April 14, 2021.

NOT too many people, perhaps, knew of John McAleer outwith the Stirlingshire town of Falkirk, where he lived and worked. But within Falkirk – that was a different story entirely.

John was a well-known figure in the Marks & Spencer Foodhall in the retail park. Before that, he had worked in the food department of the big M&S store, up in the High Street. And long before that, he had been a familiar figure in Sleeves, a much-missed record shop in the town centre.

It was in his last few years, as a customer assistant who performed a host role at the M&S Foodhall, that he became known to hundreds of people. He stood outside in all weathers – and, latterly, in these Covid-19 times, with a mask covering the lower half of his face – and greet them by name.

He took pride in being able to remember them. As his younger brother Michael recalls, he often did memory training to help him.

But he was always cheerful, always welcoming. “Go right in, Mrs ---”, he would say as another shopper waited in line with a trolley (It was never her Christian name he used: he was quite formal that way). “Thank you, John”, would come the response.

Often he would tease them: “A round of applause, please, for Mrs ---- as she leaves the store”. He made people smile. Not an easy task, when you are doing it, hour after hour after hour.

Sometimes, if people, for whatever reason, wherever he was, failed to respond to his friendly, outgoing manner – well, then he could be slightly confused. He never could quite fathom why some people could not be friendly. But they were in the minority.

When he had the time outside M&S, he would chat about things that mattered to him. He spoke affectionately of his family, and his young teenage son, Adam.

He had an encyclopedic knowledge of music. He adored U2, The Beatles, The Doors, Simple Minds, Led Zeppelin and Adam Ant. He had even sung in a few local bands, back in the day.

In 1985 he and his brother attended a Wham! concert at Ingliston, alongside (in Michael’s words) “10,000 screaming girls”; and he went to Paris, and the Pere Lachaise cemetery, to visit the last resting-place of The Doors singer, Jim Morrison.

He would recall his Sleeves days and his fondness for rock and pop memorabilia, such as concert programmes and tickets. He was looking forward to going to concerts again, once lockdown restrictions had been eased and life could get back to normal.

He died last month, aged 53, very suddenly. He had complained of chest pains to his wife, Lesley, after doing some weeding in the garden. An ambulance was called, but he collapsed.

What was remarkable – or not so remarkable, given his popularity – was the subsequent outpouring of grief once news of his death became known.

Within a few weeks, many thousands of pounds had been donated in support of his family, via the JustGiving website and via donations from Foodhall customers.

The original target on the former was £500: the figure currently stands at £13,750. Within the Foodhall, where a book of condolence was opened, £8,000 has been raised.

“Every time we left Marks & Spencer we would talk about what a nice guy John was. He spoke to you like a friend and I’m sure that really lifted a lot of people, especially during the lockdowns”, said one woman as she contributed money to JustGiving.

“You were a true gentleman and legend. The nicest guy in any shop I have ever been in”, wrote another. An anonymous donor observed: “Falkirk was blessed with a beacon of kindness who, even in a few minutes or seconds, made everyone around him feel important. Such a special man, who touched so many lives”. A fourth described him as “the face of Marks & Spencer, Falkirk”.

John was born to Charles and Agnes McAleer in Luton in January 1968. When he was three, they moved to Falkirk after the parents separated. “I must be the only person left”, says Michael, “who can remember John when he had an English accent”.

Educated at Shieldhill Primary and Woodlands High, he was a very good footballer when young, renowned for his ability to cross the ball. He could bend it like Beckham long before Beckham himself could. But he was eventually distracted from the sport by work and by Lesley, the young Falkirk woman who would, in 1992, become his wife. They had first met aged 17 on a weekend trip to Blackpool.

He was also a talented artist, “and he probably had the most beautiful penmanship you would ever see”, Michael recalls.

John’s first job was a YTS position in a Falkirk camera shop. He started at Sleeves in 1984 and worked behind the counter for six years. He went on to Our Price records in Stirling and Edinburgh, then to Dillon’s book shop in Stirling. As a map representative he travelled across Scotland on behalf of Estate Publications.

His final pre-M&S job was at Thomas Cook Direct. Dealing with people by telephone was all very well, but by some distance he preferred face-to-face contact. “How he remembered everyone’s name is beyond me”, says Michael. “He used memory tricks and word-association to help him and to let him get a little bit closer to customers. But, still, it is a pretty tough thing to pull off.

“John kept himself so fit and he ate all the right things”, he adds. “He could spend three hours on the tennis court.

“He gave his all to everything, regardless of the size of the task. He took the view that if he was spending eight hours at Marks and Spencer, it was not a case of going through the motions. He would make it an experience for the customers and himself. John was not an academic but he made it up for that in drive and sheer curiosity. He was a voracious reader. He was a guy you could talk to about any subject.

“I always used to say that if I had had John’s drive, God knows where I would be in life. I would be pretty far. But if he had maybe had my more naturally academic side, God knows where he would have been”.