Engineer and college principal;

Born: April 2, 1932; Died: August 14, 2012 .

John Reid, who has died aged 80, was a college principal and engineer who lived by the mantra that there was no limit to what was achievable: you just had to make it happen.

Also a passionate believer in being the best you could be, he led by example, going from school dux to top apprentice, marine engineer and, ultimately, college principal, inspiring thousands of students as a lecturer and an architect of the University of the West of Scotland.

A big presence, physically and in personality, his combination of working-class life experience and academia, along with his colourful turn of phrase, saw him affectionately dubbed Strathclyde's Rab C Nesbitt of education.

The son of miner George Reid and his wife Margaret, he was the youngest of nine and was born in Bishopbriggs. Educated at Milton School, he won a bursary to Glasgow's prestigious Hutchesons' Grammar School but turned it down in favour of going to Possil High School, a certain reluctance to wear the cap required for Hutchesons' cited as the reason.

Already a high achiever, having been dux at Possil, he went to Drysdale and Co engineers in Yoker as an apprentice engineer where he was routinely named apprentice of the year. From there he embarked on a life at sea, aged 21.

He joined the Merchant Navy and sailed the world for the next six years, working his way up to gain his chief engineer's ticket. By this time he had already met his future wife, Elizabeth, at the Crow Road tennis club, and they were married in Clydebank Church in 1959, nine months before his last voyage.

On his return to dry land he put himself through a degree course, gaining a BSc in mechanical engineering from the new University of Strathclyde, and his teaching certificate in the mid-1960s.

He then moved into the field of marine engineering, working at Weirs Pumps, where one of his key roles was liaising with the Institute of Marine Engineers in London, of which he became one of the youngest fellows of his day.

Although he was offered the opportunity to work in London, he preferred to remain in Scotland and decided his future would be in education. He took a post as engineering lecturer at Glasgow's Stow College and was later promoted to head of department.

His next move was to Hamilton as head of Bell College of Technology's engineering department. Later he was appointed principal of Motherwell College where he remained for five years.

He had been hoping to retire at 60 but, aged 59, was offered the top post back at Bell College. There he set about reinventing the college, feeling it had not reached its full potential. His ambition was to see the institution gain university status and he was a key driver in that campaign, laying the groundwork for its transformation.

Although it did not become a reality until several years after his retirement in 1998, he was exceptionally proud of it emerging as an integral part of the University of the West of Scotland.

During his years in education Mr Reid had instilled his own brand of enthusiasm in countless students, believing he had more to offer as a lecturer having had the benefit of working at sea and in industry before embracing academia.

Variously known as JR, Rab C in a suit and allegedly the self-styled Big Eagle – flying above and keeping an eye on the staff and students – his dynamic style was tough and challenging and he was sometimes seen as a bit rough round the edges. But he was also tenacious and the sort of man who, if he was going to do something, had to give it his all. He joked that if he'd been a refuse collector he would have ended up as the director of cleansing.

A man whose many acquaintances included the likes of trade union activist Jimmy Reid and politician Donald Dewar, he once toyed with the idea of entering politics and considered standing as an MP, though that would also have meant a move to London and away from his family.

But above all he believed that in life it did not matter what anyone did as long as they made the best job they could of it. That he had come from an impoverished background simply reinforced his conviction that great things could come from small beginnings. Predeceased by his daughter Elizabeth, he is survived by his wife Elizabeth, son John, daughter Margaret and six grandchildren.