In a matter of days, Vic, Phoebe and I will remember the passing of our Dad. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year. And, as is often the way, things haven’t been as straight-forward as he planned, and as we hoped they’d be. Along the way we’ve had some dearly-held beliefs challenged. But, such is life. Others might desecrate his legacy, but he lives on in us, and in his grandchildren. Nothing can ever take away the fact that he was our father, and we did, and will always, love him dearly. I picked the photo accompanying this because it’s always made me laugh – Dad, me and Vic in full-blown 70s mode, on a wonderful family trip to France. Good times. Check out those collars!
With sincere apologies for the delay to everyone who asked (my only excuse is that severe melancholia has rendered me a little useless in many Dad-related matters), I’m posting the text of the eulogy I wrote and was honoured to deliver at Dad’s memorial service at Trinity College at the University of Melbourne. It’s a slightly amended version of the one I gave at his funeral at Bass. Not an easy task, but one I was honoured to perform. I only hope I did him justice. Text as follows:
Today, we are gathering to give thanks for the life of our beloved Willie, in this beautiful chapel at Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, the source of so many of dad’s fondest memories.
On Tuesday, we held a funeral for dad at the Anglican Church in the small South Gippsland town of Bass. It would be impossible to find a more appropriate place to farewell dad than the Bass Church, in the town named for the 18th century surgeon explorer for whom dad developed a lifelong fascination.
The culmination of dad’s pursuit of all things Bass was when he purchased the compass that George Bass and Matthew Flinders used to navigate Bass Strait. The two young men battled perilous seas in a small, wooden boat named the Tom Thumb and were the first to chart and explore that part of the Victorian coastline.
Dad’s obsession with Bass is not so surprising, really. Not only is the family farm just a few bends upriver from where the explorer made landfall on the site for the modern day town of Bass – a place as close to dad’s heart as any other on earth – but it’s easy to see an affinity between the two men. Both were surgeons, both gleefully challenged convention, both were trailblazers, and both left an enduring mark on all who met them.
Born in the northern Victorian town of Tallangatta in 1943, dad’s older sister, Liz, recalls being chased around the garden by Willie and Margaret, who threatened her with bees cupped in their hands. Dad spoke often of those bucolic days at Double Gully. I like to imagine that the freedom and joy of his country upbringing fuelled his adventurous and often irreverent nature. That irreverence came to fruition here at Trinity, to the consternation of the college staff. One of his more creative pranks was when he and some mates including David Wells made a hollow in an orange, filled it with gunpowder, and wedged it onto the ceiling light fitting in an Associate Dean’s room. The ensuing pulpy explosion when the Dean returned to his room and switched on the light left quite a mark.
Despite being a surgeon, that most conservative of professions, dad was something of an anomaly. He was a true eccentric – an oftentimes cheeky and flamboyant showman. Dad loved recalling the time his nephews, Doug and James Little, both rather imposing young men, dressed in black suits and sunglasses and accompanied dad to a function at Crown Casino. Doug and James spoke into their sleeves and waved a path through the crowd for dad, playing the part of bodyguards. This caused a near-riot of people clamouring to identify the VIP in their midst.
But dad wasn’t always this brash. Mum recalls dad telling her about the days he spent as a child, hiding at the bus shelter to avoid going to school where he never really felt accepted. But this shy little boy disappeared when dad launched himself onto the Melbourne social scene. Wicked Willie – he of the garish bow-ties, pink pocket kerchiefs, diamente-studded specs, silver-topped cane, and full-length capes – found his wings.
The first time I saw dad resplendent in his green satin-lined Order of St. Lazarus cape was, somewhat appropriately, on the battlements of a Turkish crusader castle overlooking the Aegean, where he was to walk me down the aisle. True to form, he even managed to upstage me on my wedding day.
There wasn’t any point in trying to talk him out of the cape. Dad wasn’t one to take ‘no’ for an answer. His Trinity mates recall dad, desperate to get into the MCG on grand final day, putting a false cast on his leg. To complete the picture, he leaned heavily on a cane. Much to his friends’ surprise, dad did manage to talk his way into the ground. Only one person caught him out… a voice boomed out of the crowd… dad had been spotted by one of his University lecturers – “Wilson – anyone with an injury such as the one you are trying on, would be holding the cane in his other hand”.
Willie has always been a fan of the grand entrance, a skill he put to fine use in his work as a coat-seller in the VSO production of ‘La Boheme’, and in the chorus of Joan Sutherland’s performance of ‘Lucia di Lamamoor’. Ever the charmer, dad managed to convince La Stupenda to allow him to take a cast of her hands. He commenced the operation before the soprano took her final curtain call. The plaster of Paris was not yet set, so dad was compelled to accompany her onto stage, shielding the bucket and her hands from view behind a large, velvet hat. Although dad feigned embarrassment, he loved every minute of it.
And certainly, no-one who was at the Woolamai races when dad descended from on high in his helicopter halfway through race 4 will forget that entrance. Horses bolted, jockeys fell, and our wonderful friend, Rodney, who is also an official at the racecourse, will never live that one down. Asked once by one of his nurses whether he had learnt to fly his helicopter, dad dryly responded: “no – but I have learnt to land it”.
And Willie always liked flashy modes of transport. In his youth, it was the British racing green MGB roadster. Then the Fiat, the Porsche and the Mercedes. But he couldn’t bring himself to sell any of them. I inherited the MGB, and Vic had fun on the roads with both the Porshe and the Mercedes.
This was because dad was a deeply sentimental soul. He was a strong believer in marking occasions. One of his dearest friends and colleagues, Dick Sutcliffe, describes him as the consummate gift-giver. As an example, dad managed to track down the only hieroglyphic-literate engraver in Melbourne to engrave gifts for my daughter Cleopatra in the ancient Egyptian script. It also seems appropriate that both Phoebe and Victoria were born on noteworthy occasions. On Vic’s birthday, Bastille Day, dad would fly the French flag from the balcony at Glen Avon, our family home in Malvern. He would also recount with glee Phoebe’s youthful utterance: “I have the same birthday as Jesus!”
Dad’s attachment to history won’t surprise anyone who’s visited Bass River. The walls are plastered with history. In fact, if you sat still for too long at Bass, you’d just as likely find that dad had super-glued a George Bass memorial 50c piece to your forehead. For those of you who know of dad’s propensity to adhere Bass coins to every conceivable surface, it will likely strike you as highly appropriate that we adhered a handful of coins to the lid of dad’s coffin to send him on the way on Tuesday.
As Rodney McAllister, who lives at the farm and has known dad since they were both teenagers, can attest, dad has been prepared to go to great lengths to preserve historical relics. Let me set the scene for you. Midnight. Archie’s Creek, South Gippsland. Two men in a fast car with a swag of tools. After learning that the Archie’s Creek dairy factory had been requisitioned for use as municipal offices, dad and Rod resolved to liberate the plaque that adorned the factory entrance, which had been dedicated to Willie’s father by Governor Rohan Delacombe. Willie’s dad, Jo Wilson, was the manager of the factory. After detaching said plaque, it was hidden under dad’s bed at the farm. Giggling with glee at the success of their undercover operation, Rod and dad were horrified when two policemen turned up on the doorstep the next morning – on an unrelated matter as it turned out. It was six months before dad dared hang the plaque on the wall.
Dad’s determination to preserve his father’s legacy reflects his fierce loyalty to his family. He adored his mother, Marian, and stayed true to Jo’s one-eyed support for the Bombers. Dad doted on Margaret’s son, Richard, – a relationship made all the stronger by the fact that dad helped deliver him. Richard describes dad as his hero. Recently, dad was speaking to mum after seeing his grandchildren, Roman and Cleopatra. He said that he at last understood the meaning of eternal life – living forever through his grandchildren.
Dad did have an extraordinary knowledge of history – one which he was happy to share with anyone who’d listen. He was a brilliant raconteur and had a lifelong penchant for recital. His first date with mum was a stroll along the disused Wonthaggi railway reciting Bertrand Russell. In later years, it was Hilaire Belloc and Gilbert and Sullivan. Of course he lost one of his most potent factoids when, thanks to the Da Vinci code, the Fibonacci Sequence was introduced into popular culture. He never forgave Dan Brown for that.
But dad was never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story. His sister, Liz, would remember playing chauffeur to mum and dad during their early courtship because dad hadn’t told mum he was too young to drive. The truth was only revealed when my grandfather unwittingly gave dad the keys to his car to drive mum into town. The still un-licenced 17-year-old Willie, unwilling to fess up, drove down the road, only to be pulled over by the local police.
Setting a pattern that was to persist for the rest of his life, dad charmed his way out of that one. And, just as dad charmed with his creative and intriguing tales, he was also a deeply gifted and creative man. Although he excused himself from much of the heavy work with the memorable refrain: “These hands are worth millions, you know”, he art-directed countless projects with Ray and Gavan at the farm over the years. From plough and rabbit-trap sculptures, to driftwood frames and appliqué light shades, evidence of dad’s creative spirit is all around us at the farm.
But his skills and interests were boundless. He was a true Renaissance man. At various times he was a pianist, a knitter, a tap-dancer, singer, metal-engraver, racehorse owner, stud-cattle breeder, and multi-linguist. Although his French skills did fail him on one particularly memorable occasion when, on a family trip to France, dad told a French gentleman that his cat was choking and coughing because he had swallowed horse balls – the French words for ‘hair’ and ‘horse’ being very similar.
Dad did have a phenomenal mind. Seldom was that so evident as when he and Rod sat down to do the Age crossword on Saturday mornings. His general knowledge and memory for facts were extraordinary, although he did resort to ‘phone a friend’ privileges with Vic, Phoebe and me in the race to beat Wendy and Don MacDonald. At such times, he’d declare: “well, I’m glad to see the millions of dollars I spent on your education weren’t wasted”.
But, of course, dad was best known for his surgical skills. His colleagues speak in awe of his abilities as a plastic surgeon. He was a pioneer in the field of plastic surgery when silicone was something you used to seal glass, and botox was found only in a biohazard lab. Before plastic surgery became fodder for tabloid headlines, dad was using his skills to save lives and give people hope for a better future through reconstructive surgery.
And where surgeons are criticised for being emotionally detached, dad was adored by his patients. At times, he cared too deeply for his own good. The little boy who used to hide behind the bus shelter grew up to be a man who wanted to befriend everyone.
We’ve all heard dad speak of his ‘very dear friends’. And he did have many, from all walks of life. He maintained long and close relationships with so many – in no particular order – his sisters’ families, Al and Sylvia Richards, Rod, the Pettits, the Strongs, the Sutcliffes, the MacDonalds, Lady Potter, the Niselles – I could go on for hours.
Along with the rest of you, Phoebe, Vic and I have precious memories of dad. The best of times were when he cut loose and had some fun with us – amping up the ‘slip-and-slide’ with dishwashing liquid, sending us plummeting headfirst down the hill to the lagoon at the farm; daddy wrestle-fights; letting us shift gears in the car while he was driving and, for Phob, entertaining her with Groucho Marx impressions in the car on the way to her wedding.
Dad had such staying power, it’s almost impossible to believe that he’s gone. As you’d know if you’ve attended one of his dos at the farm or Glen Avon, or if you’ve been out on the town with Willie, dad was quite the party animal. I remember sneaking home at the age of 19 or so, just as the sun was rising, terrified of being caught by my parents. As I snuck in the front door, I heard the back door creak open. Dad was sneaking home at the same time. We looked at each other, laughed, and never spoke of it again.
I never thought anything would slow dad down. But he was mortal after all. And as much as the last few years have been terribly difficult for him physically, it’s been a mixed blessing for us, his daughters, and for Andrew, Adrian, Roman and Cleopatra, because it forced him to slow down a bit to give us some time to catch up with him.
Despite everything, I’m glad that his last day out, the Friday before he died, was lunch at his beloved Melbourne Club with Pettit and other friends. It seems a very fitting last drinks.
And now, although he has gone, as Roman says: “Grandpa will live here in my heart forever”. We love him, and always will.