Yvonne Smith

In 1954 I made one of the most momentous decisions of my life by joining the communist party of Australia at the height of the cold war. This was sparked by the execution of The Rosenberg couple as spies, but was also the culmination of years of personal questioning of the values of our capitalist democratic society and my abhorrence of capital punishment.

My father once told me that when my mother was in labour with me he was sent to bring the doctor for the delivery, and in his nervous haste backed the car into the garden tap sending water gushing skyward as he sped off. I was born safely on that day the first of May 1928. Perhaps both events contained a hint of prophecy.

My father was a stern man-of-his-time but caring and diligent as a parent, growing vegetables and fruit trees in the large back yard of our modest home in North Brighton. He extended the house, made my sister, Moya and I, a walk-in play house, and used his skills to make inlaid cigar boxes which he sold to one of the big tobacconists in the city to extend the family income. This became even more necessary as the great depression hit after the Wall Street crash of 1929. Government policy was to cut workers’ wages and living was very hard, even if you were lucky enough to retain your job, as was my Dad, albeit with reduction of income.

The “Willys” car in Greville St, Prahran,
outside the barber shop where Aunt Jean & Uncle Bert lived in the upstairs flat

The firm which Dad worked for were importers of high class English woollen worsted material, and my father the salesman to the many bespoke tailors in and around Melbourne. Hence the provision of a car, which I remember as an odd and draughty little car with cellophane/mica windows and a ‘dicky’ seat, which Dad adapted for use as a passenger seat, so that my Mum’s younger sister and son Glynne, one year and a half my senior, could ride with us. Moya and I regarded Glynne more as our brother because we spent so much time together. This car was replaced later by what I knew as the ‘Willy’s’ which was an exceptional improvement in comfort, especially in our occasional trips to bushland which was quite close to the outskirts of Melbourne. We would boil a billy and come home with arms full of wattle, bluegum and pink and white heather or, depending on the season, field mushrooms or blackberries. My mother then seemed happy and playful, coaxing my father to join her in a song – she had a very sweet voice, and tending us lovingly in our childhood illnesses and accidents. Tragically, just a few short years later she died of cancer at the age of thirty five. I was seven. The shock and grief of her death hit hard for all of us. For me it had long term effects of loss of self-esteem and anxiety and was to take many years of struggle to overcome.

The outbreak of war in Europe meant that the firm which employed my father, which relied on importing, had to fold up, and the ‘Manpower’ as it was called, decreed that Dad was to be Government Inspector of woollen mills in Daylesford and Ballarat, which were in wartime production. Thus we were to be in the care of my Aunty May, one of Dad’s sisters, a war widow with two sons, one of whom was in the Airforce heading for England. Dad built a bungalow in the backyard for her teenage son so that we could have a room apart from the shared bedroom, and space for him when he could get down to Melbourne. This happened sooner than was expected when some of my adventures turned into near disasters. Forbidden to own a bicycle, I would borrow one or failing that I would be ‘dinked’ on the bar of one of the boys who were the mates of my best friend’s brother. This was totally forbidden. Unfortunately, we had a pile up turning the corner into Acland Street and I ended up in the Alfred Hospital with concussion. Another time by coming off a horse at full gallop (hired at Caulfield stables) and breaking my arm. There were other incidents which I am sure were a trial for my aunt and required my father’s intervention. However, we remained there until the end of the war when we moved to a house in McKinnon with my father at last.

In the intervening war years much had changed. The USSR was “our brave ally”. Sheepskins for Russia was a popular cause and sometimes at the pictures when the Anthem and the Stars and Stripes was played there would be a chorus of “what about Joe?” meaning of course Joseph Stalin. In Ripponlea, the Eureka Youth League opened a shopfront youth club which I visited a couple of times and enjoyed.

Capitol Theatre Ushers 1950s

By then I had a little more freedom and was able to visit my Aunt Freda, my mother’s older sister who “took me in hand”. This was the beginning of the healing of my fragile ego. Aunty had divorced her philandering husband and supported herself and young son by working, also helped by my grandma. She was a pianist and used to play the accompanying music for the silent movies. She was later one of what were known as the Capitol Girls, chosen pretty girls who were the ushers in the new Capitol theatre in Swanston Street, and sometimes took part in performances on stage. She smoked cigarettes in a holder, liked a drink and would talk casually of topics not spoken about at my Aunty May’s. I loved her, but my Aunty May thought she was not a ‘proper’ person which of course did not deter me in the least. Aunty Freda and Uncle Don (she married again) often discussed social justice issues and wartime topics such as opening the second front. I was introduced to many contemporary authors and some classics. She encouraged me to have my own view on life. These views were leading me to Marxism.

A most sad event was the death of my adored cousin Glynne. In 1946, at just twenty he contracted the most virulent form of Poliomyelitis and died within a very few days; the last to die in Victoria of Polio, as the Salk vaccine was released only months later. Paradoxically, as I was leaving his home in shock after hearing the terrible news, I literally bumped into Donald, a close pal of my cousin who had just come down on leave from Japan where he had been stationed, and had to break the awful news to him. He was greatly affected, and I invited him to come home to my family. We struck up a friendship, finding to our mutual glee, that we both wanted to change the world. We were married in December 1949.

During the first  year of our marriage we were apart, as Donald was in the Navy stationed in NSW. At the time he joined he was young and at a crossroads in life, having already lost his father and with his mother remarried. He took this step before we met. He was now desperate to be released from what would have been twenty years’ service. He was opposed to the Korean war, and on that basis he sought a discharge, which he won but which possibly put him on ASIO’s files for life!

Our first child, Roderick, was born November 1950 while Donald was still away, but on his return we were very lucky to have the Sunshine house, half of which he inherited from his mother who died not long after our marriage. Donald had studied art at RMIT and was a talented artist, he had also been a trained Radar operator in the Navy but finding a suitable job locally was not easy so he took a factory job nearby. Nevertheless, as an active communist his skill in producing silk screen posters was an asset, and we were hellbent on campaigning for political change. Many nights were spent sailing forth with a tub of homemade paste, a brush and an armful of posters to advertise our messages on suitable lamp posts and spaces.

We continued our interest and study of political economy, Marxism, etc, in study classes and discussions for local groups, central lectures when possible but also in cultural and entertainment groups such as New Theatre which brought to life Australian folk music and produced classic and significant plays and satires. But we were also, over time, subjected to inroads into our privacy by phone interceptions, ‘spooking’ in cars outside private homes, photographing at public demonstrations even though the CPA was a legal organisation and none of this was justified.

Drawing by Mary Leunig for ‘Taking Time’ – removal of Koorie children 

The Union of Australian Women, UAW, was an organisation allied to the Women’s International Democratic Federation, WIDF, set up in Europe at the end of the war. I was invited to a meeting to set up a local group. Alison Dickie, the President of the Victorian Branch, spoke of this group of radical women who wanted to be heard and valued as equals. I was so impressed by her quiet will to make the world a better and safer place, I joined immediately and agreed to be secretary. We set out to right a long overdue removal of a surcharge in gas prices which applied to a wide area of land between West Footscray and Sunshine, which previously had been open land and now was fully built up with public housing, for which the Gas company still charged the higher rate,  After much lobbying we succeeded in having this rectified. This spurred us on to campaign for many needed improvements, from bus shelters to public meetings on contraception and other health and child related issues, to factory gate meetings about equality and equal pay. We asked Koorie women, active in the land rights struggle to speak at our meetings.

In 1957 Donald’s health deteriorated and he was hospitalised and diagnosed as ‘Anxiety state’, which was bad enough but seemingly reassuring in terms of serious physical illness. But early the next year he died suddenly. We were later to be informed it was haemorrhage from a brain tumour. Needless to say this was the most catastrophic personal loss. I had taken a secretarial job at the Hospital just a few months earlier to shore up the family income. Our children, Rod and Jeff were seven and three respectively. My family, friends and comrades all supported me and the children but there seemed nothing for it but to continue on working. The pay was not great however, and when I was offered a job at the railways union (ARU) which paid equal pay (naturally) I took up the offer. Donald’s death was finally accepted as war caused (he had been stationed at an airfield close to Hiroshima) and I was paid the war widows pension. The back pay enabled me to buy a small car. I was then able to enrol Jeffrey at the Footscray Creche, and get to work and home on time.

1961 Equal Pay Demonstration – Yvonne centre front of picture

It was another five years before I went into full time work again. In that period there was a lot of activity collecting signatures to an ACTU petition (61,000 sigs) presented to the Commonwealth Government asking for Equal Pay, helping organise and take part in the marches. With the UAW, lobbying for the first Australian currency (other than the Queen) to feature a woman – Caroline Chisholm; “Boycott War Toys” committee resulting in at least one large toy distributor declaring they would not stock them.  I married a long time dear friend and fellow communist Bill Smith.

In 1966 I went to work for the A.M.I.E.U. – Meat Industry Union – better known as ‘the butchers’. This position gave me the opportunity to also work in an area giving special attention to the needs of women workers. I was later appointed by the Management Committee as Claims Officer in workers compensation and award disputes, as well as editor of the Victorian Union Journal’s Women’s section, where I achieved a small degree of fame by heading my article about Vasectomy “A Cut Above the Pill!” There was a gradually growing awareness within the union movement of the importance and value of working women. Some teachers got equal pay at this time.  Restrictions on married women in the public service were lifted. The  Union had been urging the ACTU to step up action for Equal Pay. The 1969 test case was for the women meatworkers, many of whom came to the buffet teas held by the union to keep them informed.  These were bright and carefree events where the women themselves expressed in no uncertain terms, belief in their right for equal pay.  At one of the meat works in Melbourne the shop committee decided that everyone was to heat or prepare their own lunch food instead of wives waiting on husbands! A small step for Equal Opportunity! But the ’69 case was a big disappointment, applying to only about 10% of women covered by the Federal Award. We had to wait another three years.

Action for Adequate Child Minding was sponsored by Unions and community organisations at Richmond Town Hall and was just one of the many meetings at which I and many other women were finding their voices. We crowded the Trams cheerfully refusing to pay full fare, to publicise women’s unequal pay rates. I made my debut on the ‘Stump’ at Yarra Bank. Women invaded the men only ‘Bars’ of pubs. The 1972  Equal Pay case was won thanks to the newly elected A.L.P. All prior Commonwealth Governments had opposed the claim.

Bourke St, Melbourne – Vietnam Moratorium 1970

1969 our family moved to Middle Park. The Vietnam war was still raging and coming closer to the age group of my boys, both of whom looked very unfavourably on this conflict. Both Bill and I were active in opposing the war and conscription. One of my first memories of this time was, with others, trying to stop the intake of conscripts at the barracks; lying on the damp ground to impede entry and being carried away by the police; the Moratorium marches, and we also had a draft resister hiding away in our house for a period. We did what we could and were overjoyed when the war eventually ended.

I had also been involved in the Victorian (U.N. Organisation) Status of Women’s Committee and was asked to take part on the national committee. We convened a large meeting of women’s groups and individuals to alert women and plan towards the coming U.N. Conference and ‘Tribuna’ in Mexico City the U.N. Year of Women, 1975. I remember the conference well, mainly because after all the work, I was unable to attend. This was because I was playing my Viola (not solo!) at a South Melbourne Orchestra Sunday concert. I had, at forty three years of age, started to learn the violin, as it was something I had wanted to do much earlier but events got in the way. Difficult as it was, I have no regrets and much pleasure in having been able to join in with musicians over the many years, and still with ‘Allsorts’ at U3A. However I was able to get to the ‘Tribuna’ together with 60 other women from Australia. It was a very exciting experience  and several unions back home published my report in their journals. Bill came with me as I had some time for a holiday and we were able to see some of the remarkable Inca constructions and relics.

The UN World Conference of International Women’s Year opened on 19 June 1975 in Mexico City with 110 delegations present at the opening session.

Often in the UAW office there were requests from students and others for information about the events which shaped the progress of women in society, and I felt the need for a concise book which would set this out. Thus “Taking  Time” A Women’s Historical Data Kit was born and in 1986, with grants from the Women’s Trust, the Reichstein Foundation, The Bicentennial Authority and the support of several unions, it was published.

After retirement Bill and I travelled in our combi van throughout much of Europe which is another story. When we came back, Save Albert Park was upon us and, yes we did join in, and our house was one of many homes which sported large signs on our rooftops opposing the Grand Prix. That battle is yet to be won. But we met wonderful people who enriched our lives immeasurably. I call myself a ‘cyber’ protester now, in my nineties with ongoing involvement in struggles for asylum seekers, conservation and anti climate change campaigns, and giving support to the brave and resilient young people and oldies too, who speak out about injustice and are working still to change the world.

Sue Taffe

Introducing Sue Taffe: Sue is currently tutoring the course, ‘Rethinking Our Story, Part 2: The Uluru Statement, January 26th and other matters’. She is a Melbourne historian and has published two books: FCAATSI Black and White Together and A White Hot Flame: Mary Montgomerie Bennett – Author, Educator, Activist for Indigenous Justice, published in 2018. She holds a Master of Arts and a PhD in history.

Sue researched and wrote the permanent online exhibition, ‘Collaborating for Aboriginal Rights’ which can be found on the National Museum of Australia website.

Sue retired after completing A Hot White Flame. Marketing the book was brought to an abrupt end by the Covid lockdowns. Sue had wondered how she was going “to do that retirement thing.” Her thoughts on running a class at U3APP being, “perhaps it is the last thing I can usefully do, with regard to my research work” on earlier cross-cultural collaborations for Indigenous justice and the challenges we face today.

Sue refers to Ian Spalding, who had a “really strong influence on me.” Ian and his wife, Barbara, were original 2004 members of U3APP and Barbara is a life member. As a young man in the 1950s Ian Spalding had travelled around Australia visiting Aboriginal missions and camps and seeing firsthand the appalling conditions of life for first Australians. Horrified by what he saw, Ian Spalding with a group of supporters edited a journal On Aboriginal Affairs to educate non-Indigenous Australians about the systemic injustices facing Aboriginal people and contribute to the groundswell movement for reform which culminated in the 1967 referendum and the land rights campaigns of the 1960s.

Sue gives an example of systemic racial discrimination in the 1960s. If you were Aboriginal and contracted tuberculosis and lived in Queensland, you were not eligible for the Commonwealth Government’s tuberculosis allowance which was designed to keep those who contracted the illness at home so they did not infect others. Kath Walker (she later became Oodgeroo Noonuccal) alerted the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) to this discrimination and FCAATSI took up the matter.

Dr Barry Christophers, a Richmond GP, who was a FCAATSI office bearer and Joe McGinness, the Aboriginal president of FCAATSI, a wharfie who lived in Cairns, worked together to highlight this injustice. Joe interviewed Indigenous tuberculosis patients in the hospitals and clinics in north Queensland. He sent this information down to Barry in Melbourne and Barry worked within his medical networks in the Australian Medical Association to apply pressure on the Federal Government to amend the `Tuberculosis Act, even threatening to raise the issue with the United Nations. In February 1965, after a sixteen-month campaign targeting members of parliament, health bureaucrats, doctors and even the Governor-General who was patron of the Tuberculosis Association, they succeeded in getting the Act amended so that Indigenous sufferers would be eligible for the allowance.

At University, Sue studied Anthropology and Sociology in her undergraduate degree. For the following 20 years, she worked as a teacher. Sue and her husband lived in Canberra for twelve years, where she taught at Narrabundah College which offered a course in Aboriginal languages and culture. Sue taught this course gradually learning more and more about Aboriginal history, languages and culture. Rachael Perkins, daughter of Charles Perkins, was a student at this school.

Returning to live in Melbourne, Sue continued working in education, running a program from the Catholic Education Office to assist secondary teachers to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into their curriculum. This was “very forward thinking at that time.” It was during this time that Sue met Ian Spalding. He would come and critique their work and, along with Aboriginal educators, provided guidance for secondary school teachers, interested in expanding their knowledge and broadening their perspectives. Sue reflects that the momentum generated by reconciliation groups set up across Australia, organised through the then Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in the 1990s, has sadly been lost when it is most needed now.

Reflecting on more current controversies, Sue responded that she is somewhat ambivalent in respect to changing the date of Australia Day. Her personal view is that it would be better to celebrate on another day, as the “vehement feelings that Aboriginal people have against it, will not go away.” Sue asks, “What are we celebrating on Australia Day, the arrival of ships?” Laughing at the absurdity of it, “it’s not as though we are celebrating an achievement, just the arrival of ships with convicts, so it makes sense to shift it.” Sue wonders if many are aware that in 1938, Aboriginal people came to Sydney for the sesquicentenary to protest on what they regarded as a day of mourning.

Sue supports the Uluru Statement from the Heart, as it expresses a strong case for acknowledgement and inclusion. How can Indigenous Australians have no sovereignty when they were here for 60,000 years? Did they lose it because Europeans arrived?

Sue feels apprehensive however, concerning likely conservative opposition to it. Many may be suspicious, fearing that the Voice to Parliament will have too much power. A community education campaign is much needed.

If the Voice to Parliament isn’t managed well, “my greatest fear is that it might fail.” Reaching an agreement on the words that are acceptable to the Opposition is essential otherwise it will just turn into a fight and not do any good at all.

Recent valuable initiatives in our society, such as the establishment of the Koorie Court Magistrates Court of Victoria show we are capable of creative thinking. Young Offenders may be taken out to the bush by elders as an alternative to putting people in jail.

Connection to country: Sue related an interesting experience conveying the importance of connection to country. She was engaged with an interview programme with an Aboriginal organisation which took her to the Murray River in New South Wales. The Aboriginal cameraman on the project from the Echuca region teamed up with an Aboriginal man who was from further down the Murray. These two men were both from an urban environment. They talked to each other by first establishing ways in which they were connected. They did this by telling each other river stories, comparing how they were similar but also how their stories differed in relation to their own history of the Murray. This mattered and both men needed to establish communication with each other in this way before talking about other content for the interview.

A White Hot Flame: During the course of Sue’s interviews with Barry Christophers about his work in the 1960s, he had talked about Mary Bennett who died in 1961. Barry had described Mary as the ‘spiritual mother’ of FCAATSI. Sue’s interest in Mary led to a decision to write her biography.

In the 1930s Mary was opposed to taking Aboriginal children away from their mothers and became a strong advocate on their behalf. Interestingly, white feminists at the time promoted the separation of children from their mothers as being the best thing for them. Mary was convinced that this was wrong. Her views at this time were later upheld by British psychiatrist John Bowlby whose Attachment Theory reinforced the need for unbroken care between mother (or significant parent figure) and infant during the first three years. Mary Bennett was then in contact with the United Nations and informed the Western Australian Government of Bowlby’s research findings which led, eventually, to an end to the taking away of children on racial grounds.

Moving to other current themes, Sue agrees that movies and sport can influence our culture, assisting people to examine their own attitudes and be more open-minded towards Indigenous Australians.

Programs such as those run by Melbourne Indigenous Transition School in Richmond, also at Melbourne Grammar and Warragul Regional College are valuable in assisting Indigenous students to find pathways into mainstream education. Sue fully endorses such programmes.

Sue confides that she started the second term of her course with “some trepidation,” knowing that she does not have the answers, she is in the same boat as her students. “I am just another person trying to work out how we can go forward and what roadblocks there may be.” When asked if she has a sense of achievement after finishing her book, Sue accepts that it was an effort, but it was also a wonderful experience. She had been all over Australia gathering information. The project was mainly self-funded, with a little outside help.

While writing A White Hot Flame Sue visited many of the places where Mary Bennett lived and worked, in northwest Queensland, Kalgoorlie, Mount Margaret Mission, which was a “privilege.” People shared stories with her, “you feel a strong sense of responsibility, you have to get the story out.”

Sue located a series of professional photos sent to the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Rights by Mary Bennett, in a folder in the State Library of Victoria. She related “one of the most memorable experiences of my life,” a very moving occasion was when she showed these photos to living descendants in Kalgoorlie. Sitting around a large table, Sue told them her purpose was to return the photos to them and to ask their permission, in the interests of education, to put them on the ‘Collaborating for Indigenous Rights’ website. She recalled how they looked at these photos “in silence” they had never seen them before. The Elders in the group conferred together and gave permission to display copies in the National Museum.

Sue is looking forward to doing some U3APP courses, to being a “student” again. She enjoys taking their Border Collie for a daily walk to the beach. Sue and her husband have a house at Marlo where they can enjoy the ocean and go bush walking.

Interviewed by Felicity May and edited by Sue Taffe

Team IT

Meet The Fabulous Five – aka Your Team IT

Team IT at U3A Port Phillip is a go-getting gaggle of gals who keep the wheels of IT churning, turning out Courses as fast as the Tutors and Course Coordination Team can produce them; while simultaneously fending off foes like the fiendishly evil Covid-19, they bravely handle any crisis that pops up – with diligence, dedication and aplomb – and still manage to have heaps of fun doing so.  

Each Member of Team IT has their own special skills, but their main aim is a joint one, namely the smooth operation of U3APP Courses; maintaining and constantly updating our great Website, keeping our Members up to date with regular e-Bulletins, responding to queries from Members, while constantly researching new ways to improve services for our Members, and all the time devising daring ways to keep the deviously devilish villains at bay.  

This has been more than usually apparent during the recent onslaught of that dastardly evil villain, Covid-19, when Team IT swung into action to make sure defeat was never an option, enlisting the help of Zoom, a little known super heroine who quickly took the world by storm with her ability to keep people connected, positive and above all – healthy.

Captain Marvel – secret identity Helen Vorrath

Special Powers:  Super Brain with all synapses firing simultaneously – brain cells never sleeping.  No evil virus, technological or pathogenic can sneak past her guard.  With vast experience and stupendous stores of IT information, Helen uses her Super Brain to constantly think up new ways to improve U3APP for the benefit of all; doesn’t let devious enemies like Covid-19 stop her from delivering Courses to our Members.  

Duties:  When not out with the Marvel Team saving the Universe for the umpteenth time, she heads Team IT at U3APP, tutors Courses on Shakespeare, plays clarinet – currently in isolation but with the U3APP Allsorts and jazz group Jam Tomorrow in better days – maintains and updates everything IT, including the U3APP Website and IT Manual.  Along with all this, Helen easily completes her Team Tasks like creating new Courses and assisting Members to manage the hurdles of logging on to the Website and Zooming their Classes.

Likes:  Cats (specifically her cat), yachts (specifically her yacht), Shakespeare, music, good coffee. 

Dislikes: Getting up early, people who think getting up early makes them virtuous, bad coffee.

Fun Secret Fact: Winner Fairsky Fancy Dress Competition, Feb 1969, in mini-dress made out of postcards of the Fairsky (as “The face that launched 48 ships”)

Childhood Nickname: Daisy (or Dazie, as she was usually in one)

Wonder-Woman – secret identity Diane Boyle

Special Powers:  Wonder by name, Wonder by nature; her calm exterior a plethora of patience and perfect problem-solving ability.  This gentle and tranquil facade hides a Woman with decades of IT  experience and an extensive knowledge of all things technical and procedural, which she uses to lasso, corral and tame even the slightest problematic villain who tries to muddy the sparkling clear waters of U3APP.

Duties:  Member of Committee of Management, integral part of the Covid-19 Working Group, helps to maintain and update the U3APP Website and IT Manual, creates new Courses on our systems, including the recent Holiday Program, facilitates Zoom Webinars, responds to queries and concerns from Members and Tutors. Project manager who keeps the rest of the team organised.

Likes:  Scuba diving, travel, quilting

Dislikes:  colour yellow

Fun Secret Fact: can be found doing wasgij

Childhood Nickname: Alice (in Wonderland)

Super-Woman – secret identity Karen English

Special Powers: Super Tech Wizard supreme on all things IT related, including the U3APP Office Equipment.  Multi-Tasker Extraordinaire, able to effortlessly leap from one task to another, or one problem to another in a series of elegant and efficient bounds.  A lifetime exposed to IT technology allows her to slay any evil before it has chance to take even a tenuous hold.

Duties: When not racing around Albert Park Lake faster than a speeding bullet and generally stopping bad people dead in their tracks, or flying into the Office to help with multiple issues, Karen also manages the U3APP Enrolment Team which looks after Class Attendance and Waiting Lists.  With her Team IT mates, she ensures all Courses are created on our Website and helps Tutors and Members alike with the sometimes daunting task of accessing Courses on our Website as well as Zoom. Queen of designing, defining and documenting processes.

Likes:  Travelling seeing new places and learning about their history, socialising with friends and family

Dislikes: Also hates getting up early especially on winter mornings

Fun Secret Fact: Loves the colour yellow!

Childhood Nickname: Kassie or Kaz

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – secret identity Jude Hatton

Special Powers:  No Vampire or Ghoul is a match for this Slayer who takes her role surpassingly seriously.  Superior IT Skills and an innumerable level of ‘know-how’ allows her to tackle any testy task with supreme confidence and ability.  A keen knowledge of everything ‘Computer’ makes it easy for her to stay busy Slaying with one hand while keeping U3APP up to date with the other. 

Duties:  When there are no Vampires lurking and waiting to be Spiked, Jude tutors classes in everything to do with Computers, Tablets and Phones, as well as all her IT duties of creating new Courses for our Members and responding to calls for help at all hours of the day and night.  Sadly a rather vicious vampire attack put Jude out of action for a while, but nothing can keep the Slayer under wraps for long and she’s ready once again to get stuck in to the pointy end of her job.

Likes: Her beautiful dogs (and all Mini Schnauzers), passionate about horses, and Quilting.

Dislikes: Being called ‘Judy’, cats and the colour GREEN

Fun Secret Fact:  Buffy always thought she was destined to be a country girl but didn’t get to prove the point until she was nearly 60, divorced and children all grown up – she bought a beautiful 20 acre property on the top of a hill in country NSW and lived there for an idyllic 10 years surrounded by her beloved puppies, horses (Cruiser and Mystery) to ride, wallabies, koalas, snakes and incredible views and star-filled skies at night.  Yes – she was a country girl after all!!!

Childhood Nickname:  Hey Jude!

Bat-Woman – secret identity Kate Richards

Special Powers:  When the Bat Signal shines out, she answers the call to protect and serve.  With super fast typing speeds, a way with words and a turn of phrase that beguiles all her foes, she’s able to leap from one email to the next in a single key-stroke, dispatching any evil creature that crosses her screen and ensuring that all at U3APP are kept well-informed and guarded against any villainous acts.

Duties:  When not out fighting grime (whoops – crime) and hassling Batman (who’s a real pussy cat btw), during these Covid-19 times Bat-Woman churns out, and keeps the “bullet” in the weekly U3APP e-Bulletin, has Members chuckling with regular posts to our Facebook Page, and along with the rest of Team IT, helps to create new Courses, responds to Members cries for help and generally tries to ensure things run smoothly at U3APP.

Likes:  Chocolate, long walks on the beach with Diesel Dog, Chocolate, Alliteration, did we mention Chocolate?

Dislikes:  when there’s no Chocolate! 

Fun Secret Facts:  has (had) a Brown Belt in Karate

Childhood Nickname: Calamity Kate, Katie-Did

The Choir and French in Song – EOY Celebration

(by David Sharples – Tutor)

On Wednesday 2 December, two U3APP musical groups – The Choir and French in Songs – finished 2020 in style by gathering in the open-air café at Gasworks Park, holding their final classes Face-to-Face for the first time since March.

For the past eight months these Classes have continued Online with Members learning and practicing in the comfort and privacy of their own homes, using materials and music provided by email and through the Choir Websites.

A number of Members met each other in person for the very first time, and all present were able to sing collectively, including songs which they had only previously practiced alone.  The Choir sang music by The Tokens, Miriam Makeba, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and Cole Porter – rounded off by a hearty rendition of “U3A Will Survive”, while French in Songs sang music by Jean Sablon, Charles Trenet, Joe Dassin, Yves Montand, Michel Sardou and Bob Azzam.  The rendition of Sympathique by Pink Martini would have raised the roof if sung indoors.  Both groups provided a finale with a few seasonal numbers to celebrate, with other clientele at the café, and indeed many people passing by, pausing to listen as the two groups sang.  Everyone is now looking forward to being able to polish these songs in normal Shoulder-2-Shoulder practice sessions when we are finally able to hold classes together.

The ITEM Team

Perhaps it’s time for the strangely named ITEM team of U3APP to come from the shadows and reveal themselves. When you hear ‘ITEM team’ do you picture a group of individuals who together believe that they have some special qualities that make them an ‘item’? Sadly, perhaps, that’s not the case. Are they all tech-savvy retirees? Or is it possible that they found themselves being seduced by smooth-talkers into volunteering for U3APP?

No matter what their individual stories, your ITEM team bonded around the necessity and challenge of managing enrolments in every course. As time has passed, you may have noticed that we more commonly refer to ourselves as the Enrolment team, with the IT team focusing on, you guessed it, the IT side of the operation.

So who are we, what do we do and why did we join?

The Enrolment team is made up of five members: Karen English (our leader), Lyn Place, Branko Colavizza, Errol Malta and Julie Smith. The membership of U3APP has grown enormously and thus the number of courses grows and the amount of work required to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.  Karen and Lyn first joined the Enrolment team when everything was done manually with pen and paper, a process that would be impossible now. Karen recognised that to successfully manage the enrolment team, she needed to understand the computer system which at that stage only held the member details, so she joined the IT team as well. This has ensured a strong bridge between the two teams and, of course, as time has gone on the IT team has automated the membership fees, course enrolments and finally the class rolls.

Karen English

In her own words, Karen explains why she fits this team:

‘To be on the team you need to be rather a nerd: read and action your emails every day, love paying attention to detail and like interacting with people. This description seems to fit me.’

Julie Smith

Interesting that Julie describes her motivation thus:

‘I got dragged into this by another team member who had worked with me before and realises I am a bit OCD. I am a mathematician, who ended up in marketing and am now amongst other things teaching yoga (4 classes a week at U3A).’

Branko Colavizza

Is there a pattern? Branko:

‘I had time on my hands and was interested in attending a course a few years back. That encouraged me to offer some of my time as an office volunteer which then grew into being part of the ITEM team.’


Errol Malta

Errol: ‘I work part time as a consultant in clinical research for new drugs…  and as needed volunteering at Port Philip Special School.’  (This could lead to some significant conversations around the development of a covid vaccine.)

Lyn Place

Lyn: ‘I originally joined U3A to enrol in some courses and realised I wanted to give back in some way, so joined the Enrolment team. Contrary to Karen’s assertion, I am not in any way a nerd, in fact I’d be the slowest kid in the class, but persevere.’

It appears that there is no pattern to our choices to be on this team, but the constant is enthusiasm to keep on giving, as you find with all volunteers. And there is also the opportunity to get to know members and to form new friendships.  Speaking personally, in these times of isolation, of solitary walks with faces masked, the familiar eyes of U3A members and the short conversations, at the appropriate social distance, lift my spirits enormously.

So what do we do? The Enrolment team manages all movements in and out of classes. We monitor every automated and manual email that lets us know that someone has joined or left a class and then we update the class lists and e-roll. If the cancellation creates a vacancy in a class with a waitlist then we take the next person from the waitlist and add them to the class. We liaise directly with members if they need help enrolling or removing themselves from a class. We monitor the rolls for attendance and follow up non-attendance in an attempt to keep all classes full and give as many members as possible the chance to enjoy a particular class. To this end, we each have responsibility for one day of the week.

Using the expertise and passions of Branko and Hugh Sarjeant (who has since left the team but still helps Branko) we birthed a program that we lovingly call the ‘Monster’ which is run once a week and alerts us to any rolls that have not been marked, any long absences by members, whether members are doing more of the restricted classes than is allowed and any inconsistencies in the data on the rolls, the website and the waitlist. Any errors that are picked up are addressed by the team. Friday evenings are no longer the same since Monster entered our lives as the report lands in our inboxes just as I, for one, am settling down to dinner and a glass of wine and usually some serious binge-watching. On the up-side, however, gone are the hours of trawling through each eroll and manually checking the data.  At the time of Monster’s introduction, each team member processed between 1000-2000 emails annually and handled countless telephone calls. Monster is much smarter and most communications are now generated through the program!

While all this IT enrolment activity may sound as if team members don’t have a life, of course, it’s not accurate.  Family, travel and hobbies feature in all our lives.

Karen and her husband Kevin love to travel. Kevin suffered a stroke ten years ago and when he recovered enough they decided to travel while they could and have had a great holiday every year and on a couple of occasions two holidays in a year. ‘I love learning the history/geography of all the places that we have visited as being a Maths/Science student, I did not learn much world history/geography. Springing from this interest, is my interest in editing and cataloguing (nerd nature again) my photos using Photoshop. This keeps me very busy in between trips. If I get time, I will also make a photobook of the trip.

‘I have been tracing my family tree for sometime and have collected the family tree information from many of my elderly relatives and recorded it all on Ancestory.com. I recently did the Ancestry DNA test and through that several unknown relatives in England have contacted me and I have been able to further enhance my tree.

‘Then of course I love spending time with my 3 children and 6 grandchildren all of whom live in Melbourne, so I am very lucky.’

For Julie, coronavirus has necessitated her camping in Brisbane, actually caring for her 95 year old mother who lives at home. ‘She is very happy, 24/7 care, three healthy meals a day, and I live on zoom. My yoga by zoom has developed, some of my classes now include people’s pets, and full attendance record goes to Mickey the cat; he is attending three classes a week (1X U3A and 2 I hold privately), and he is getting very good, however I worry about his downward dog pose.’

Julie, too, loves travel: ‘Apart from yoga I love to trek, get into the country with friends, book an air bnb with them and chill out over a good dinner and a glass of red. I have a particular passion for France and usually head to Europe each year. Maybe 2021?’

Errol is still working part time as a consultant in clinical research for new drugs. After working as a Senior Lecturer in universities and then for a large biotechnology company in USA and here in Australia with many small companies, he is enjoying what may be a quieter life in Port Melbourne. Perhaps like most of us, the attractions of the beach walk make exercise much easier, as he’s been managing to get out most days. Especially now since lockdowns commenced he’s been enjoying  getting outdoors, either walking or cycling.

Travel features highly again including to the Galapagos Islands three times, Marquesia Islands, Chile (Atacama Desert) , Ashmore Reef, Ningaloo and the Kimberleys coast. Other interests are astronomy and cosmology, music (rock and classical), nonfiction reading, history, meditation, and as needed volunteering at Port Philip Special School. Errol is also a proud grandfather for the 8th time.

Always the quiet member of the team, when he’s not in covid isolation or volunteering at U3A Branko spends much of his time doing home maintenance at his daughter’s residence to save them some money. This ability came from using logic on how and why things work, and he’s also trying to pass this onto his five year old grandson.  This is a role that Branko plays in the Enrolment team, searching for solutions and then gently coaching and encouraging the rest of us to develop our skills.

Lyn began her working life as a secondary English teacher and quickly moved into consultancy and management roles, always in education.  Travel came reasonably late (too busy working) and immediately became a passion (Italy, France especially) and like so many of us, she is wondering when/if/where post covid.  Keeping fit and active is important to Lyn, either zooming with U3A’s courses, or pounding the footpaths and the beach walk (hello, Errol). Quiet times are spent reading, listening to music (jazz, blues, rock, classical), watching way too much tv and streaming services. ‘I’m also running two book groups for U3A and love the connection, interaction and the way in which everyone has embraced zoom sessions, despite some glitches. It demonstrates the resilience and the capacity of our members.’

So this motley group of people are responsible for all your enrolment queries, requests, and the occasional plea to be included in a full course.  We wrangle the waitlists to make sure that courses are full and that as quickly as someone leaves, the next person who’s been patiently waiting is moved as a replacement. Occasionally, we might be overheard (if there was anyone in ear-shot in covid isolation times) muttering and questioning how and why we find ourselves in this role, most often around enrolment times, but we are extremely proud to be a part of such a successful organisation. It sure feels good to know that we have been playing our part to help keep you actively involved and connected especially in these challenging times.

The Recorder Consort

We recorders are a renegade group at U3A Port Phillip.  We meet off campus at the Middle Park Bowling Club, we Zoom on a private Zoom site and finally we are back together live.

Zoom and recorder playing don’t go together.  Not only is there the timing problem that prohibits most musical work, the program hates the sound of the recorder and tries to block it out as background noise, no matter how much you work on the sound settings.

So here we are back together live at Gasworks Park on the 12th of November, in a sheltered space with walls giving us some sound feedback.

Playing recorders outside can be problematical, as wind can steal the sound away.  But we did pretty well, and given that we had not played together since February, we sounded pretty good.

Not ready for concerts yet, but that will come.

Geoff Parr-Smith
Recorder Consort Leader

The U3APP COVID-19 Working Group

In the beginning

On Friday the 13th of March 2020, members of the U3APP Committee of Management drafted a plan to manage the risk of COVID-19 within our U3A and to prepare for any potential shutdown of operations.

The virus moved fast and within 3 days, the CoM had decided to suspend all face-to-face courses and to close our office.  On Monday the 16thof March, the Ides of March, CoM met, for the last time face-to-face as it eventuated, and agreed to set up a Working Group to manage our Coronavirus Plan.  Pam Caven, Jim Pribble and Diane Boyle were appointed to the Working Group.  At the meeting a trial of remote classes using Zoom and the purchase of one Zoom account was also approved.

And now –

Over half a year later and the Working Group has been working continuously managing the strategy and the day to day decisions needed to allow our U3A to continue its operations.  And we have not just one Zoom account for our remote (or online as we now call them) classes but six!

And it is the same 3 people on the Working Group, who not only have overseen all the tremendous work put in by all aspects of the organisation, but have also come to enjoy each other’s company and become friends.

How do they manage? 

Respect for each other’s skills, a “can-do” attitude and a sense of humour all contribute.  Meeting at least weekly, by Zoom of course, there is a good sense of camaraderie and focus on new initiatives, issue resolution and communications.  In between meetings, they keep in touch with updates on their agreed actions.

Who are they?  Here’s some more info about each of them:

Pam Caven, Deputy President and Events and Functions team

U3APP has been a good fit for me. My career has always been in education as a teacher, lecturer, curriculum writer and author of textbooks.

The power of good teachers. My history teacher in Matric urged me to study History Honours at University. The academic environment was a revelation to me. I loved it.

Reality hit when I was posted to Mildura High School, a cultural shock for someone who had grown up three miles from the Melbourne GPO, although over the course of a year I did come to appreciate the town and its surrounding countryside. From Mildura to Carlton where I lectured in British History at the Secondary Teachers College.

Europe beckoned. I was well prepared for teaching the Industrial Revolution in a London comprehensive secondary school. The undoubted highlight of my time in Europe was the six months I spent in Italy. Three months learning the language at the Universita per Stranieri in Perugia. Bellissimo! My time there left me with a lifelong love of all things Italian.

On returning to Australia via South America I entered the world of TAFE and there I stayed until I retired experiencing wonderful and varied times as a teacher, writer, and an executive in state and federal governments.

I have been on several not for profit boards, including being President of the School Council, when our son was at Melbourne High School,

Following my retirement, I joined U3A Port Phillip and I became an active participant in a variety of U3A courses, too numerous to list and joined the Committee of Management.

I have loved the U3APP experience.

Jim Pribble, member of Committee of Management & Course Coordination team – Tutor Support

I am an American (Yankee)-Australian, born, reared and educated in smallish towns in Southwestern Oregon. I excelled academically and was soon off to University immediately after graduation in 1961.

I graduated from Oregon State University with a BSc and MSc, having spent some years prior to that getting married and serving in the US Army. I entered the workforce in 1974 as a Research Biologist for the Oregon Department of Fisheries, (Research Division) and spent my professional career either as a research biologist or a manager of biological research teams – in the USA and in Victoria.

I first became involved in U3APP in 2009, enrolling for the first time in Shirley Armstrong’s Art Class on Friday mornings. That was my only involvement with U3A until 2017 when I retired from a second, non-scientifically based career, to take a course lead by Geoffrey Levy. I so enjoyed the course that I decided that I would give facilitating a go. Since 2018, I have facilitated/tutored courses, presenting 1 or 2 courses each term.  I really enjoy the experience, especially now that we are delivering the courses on-line.

The COVID-19 Working Group has provided formidable challenges to the intellect and stamina of the participants. The complexity of issues is sometimes daunting, with no apparent solution to the issue at hand.  Owing to the organizational skills and experiences of the group members we have managed to conceptualise, compartmentalise and solve the challenges impinging on U3APP since lockdown in a timely manner.  I believe that the Working Group has served the Committee and membership well. I wouldn’t have missed working with Pam and Diane for quids!!

Diane Boyle, member of Committee of Management and IT Team

I am a Canadian-Australian who has lived in Melbourne more than half my life.  I grew up not far from Toronto, in London, Ontario (a very cold and snow-covered place in winter), and obtained one of the inaugural Computer Science degrees from the University of Waterloo.  My working life was spent in IT, in software development. After taking up scuba diving just prior to retirement, I worked after retirement on a casual basis for a dive safety organisation, Divers Alert Network.

I joined U3APP in 2012 as I was interested in Colin Jones’ Tales of the Sea course.  And when the IT team was formed in 2014, I joined the team as a way to contribute to the organisation.

Bala Thuraisingam

Bala Thuraisingam is a Mechanical Engineer, his expertise being in water pumps. Having retired about 3 years ago, Bala continues to do some consulting work and is a member of the Fire Protection Association Australia (FPAA) and also represents the Association, on the technical committee of Australian Standards for Fire Protection Water Pumpsets.

Bala joined U3APP, seeking an alternate activity following his retirement. “So, I took up Scrabble, as it keeps my mind ticking.” Pre Covid, Bala was a regular member of the Friday Film group.

Bala was born in Malaysia, he was 20 years old when he migrated to Australia, having first obtained a place at Monash University. Changes within the political system in Malaysia led to him making the decision to move to Australia.

During his early childhood years, Bala observes that “Malaysia was really good, in the sense that all religions and races were equal.” The Malays, Chinese and Indians had the same opportunities, there was little discrimination. At that time, the population consisted of 60% Malays, 30% Chinese and 5% Indians, plus other nationalities. They had equal opportunities more generally, also in respect to education. However, this all changed when “the crazy man”, Bala laughs, Mahathir Mohamad became Prime Minister in July 1981. Politics, “became entangled with religion.”

When Bala sought to do a Higher Certificate of Education (HCE), he was unable to do this, due to a quota system being applied in respect to different races. 70% of university placements were given to Malays, “everybody else was struggling to obtain a place.”

Students were required to have obtained a credit grade or rating in the Bahasa Malaysia language.

However at school, this was a 2nd language, single lesson per week class, so together with the low quota of acceptance for non–Malaysian students, Bala failed to gain entrance to university, despite “scoring very good grades in all other subjects. It was very upsetting.”

Bala’s parents were from Sri Lanka, so he was in the bottom 5%. His parents were Tamils and “ran away from Sri Lanka”, due to religious discrimination and violence. They migrated to Malaysia, to “escape persecution.” When Bala was unable to obtain entrance to university, an uncle who lived in Malaysia, “put his hand up” and paid for and supported his migration to Australia. Bala was required to complete a matriculation course, which he did through Taylor’s College in Malaysia. He was accepted into Monash University where he completed a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering degree.

On his arrival in Australia, Bala had nowhere to stay, he had obtained his visa, “had everything sorted out”, but no accommodation in the vicinity of Monash University. One of his schoolmates had a brother who lived in Glen Iris and had given him his address. “So, I just landed here at 6am, took a cab to his house and knocked on the door. It was opened by a man in his pyjamas. I introduced myself, ‘come in, come in’, he says. Then he gives me breakfast and drives me to Monash University.” After some “chit chat”, they organised accommodation with a family, later finding him a place to stay with other students.

This experience of being cared for, along with other students, without discrimination, having his meals cooked by the woman providing homestay accommodation, “was so good, she even packed our lunches.” Bala adds, “I had also never heard a horse go up the road carting milk. I used to hear this clip, clip, clop on the road, wondering what was going on here. All these things were so new to me.”

Bala recalls feeling “very lucky, as Gough Whitlam, was Prime Minister at that time and we all got a free education.” University “was fabulous.” It provided a new lifestyle he had not experienced before. “It was wonderful, I failed one year, having too much fun!” But of course, “then I buckled down, and finished the course.”

Bala’s first employment was as an estimator with Ajax Pumps, he worked in marketing for about 8 years. “But I could see myself not going anywhere, so I decided to start my own business.” He and two partners worked from a small office. “We had two phones each, so 6 phones.” Bala recalls with some amusement, juggling the phones and calls, as they built up their connections with the building industry in respect to manufacturing water pumps.

What exactly is a water pump? “Good question!” Bala laughs and explains, “most households don’t require a water pump as the water that comes into your house is already pressurised, right?” Right! “The pressure reduces as you get higher, so once you get to a certain height, you need a pump to boost the pressure. So, you can think about that concept. You may have a pit full of water, but you can’t get the water out. You need a pump.” Bala laughs at the obvious simplicity of this concept. But in a building, you also have wastewater that needs to be gotten rid of, also fire protection as in sprinklers, which are mandatory once the building reaches a certain height.

Bala and his colleagues came up with the idea of “building packages.” These consisted of a pump, a driver, a control panel and also pipe work, put together as a package. “So, it became a 3 meter by 3 meter skid, complete with all the bits and pieces. All the plumber needed to do was to purchase the skid which is then plugged/connected to Water In, Water Out and Power Supply in a pump room. Our aim was to make it plug and play for the customer.”

Where were the pumps and products made? “We actually pushed all Australian products. The pumps were manufactured by Southern Cross, in Toowoomba.” Diesel engines were made locally, also the control panel. “We would coordinate these products. One year after we started this business, we built our own products in our own factory from 1988.”

Over the years, the company named BKB Pumps and Tanks was responsible for fitting out 101 Collins Street with fire pumps, also the Rialto Tower, the Melbourne Casino and more. They also designed flat packs of metal sheeting, enabling the construction of water tanks. A crew would then assemble it on site. The company started out with “3 of us. 5 years later 15, then about 30 workers’’. The company was sold a few years ago (2013) to a Danish Company.

Bala acknowledges that he feels, “very proud, it was a lot of hard work. When I left Ajax the only funds that I had were $8,000 in superannuation. So, I cashed it in, my partner equalled that and that’s how we started, not taking wages for about 6 months. We struggled so much in that first year, I am thinking, this is madness, initially not realising that having cash flow was a big issue, but somehow, we managed.”

Currently, Bala is of the view that building regulations are more lax, “I would not buy an apartment in Melbourne.” Buildings are, “cheaper and cheaper. The pumping systems are not the best … it’s really very sad, it has become self-certification, in a sense. Councils walk away, rubber stamps.” Bala provided further information in respect to current issues within the building industry, which the government and industry are trying to rectify, noting also that products are now made overseas. Southern Cross in Toowoomba closed their factory and now imports their products.

Bala will assist via FPAA to rewrite the standards, the last being written in 2013, despite this being required every four years, staff shortages being one reason for this.

Bala met his wife at a Monash University party, she was a nurse, but is currently working at St Vincent’s Hospital in administration doing coding relating to identification numbers of respective surgeries/procedures for insurance or funding purposes. They have 2 daughters and 3 grandchildren, one daughter has moved to Queensland. “We go and help them out with babysitting, when we can.”

Bala’s youngest daughter is a biomedical statistician, currently in Canada (Calgary), as part of a research team from St Vincent’s Hospital. They are continuing to analyse data on knee surgery, the conclusion seeming to be so far, that “if you can get rid of your problem by doing exercises and maintain your knee rather than surgery, this is preferable.”

Bala’s other interests include golf and darts. He enjoys playing scrabble at U3APP and he and tutor Sunny Acreman have achieved an admirable score of 300. “It is also strategic, because you are looking at where you can slide in and double up and maximise your points. You get their points and yours!” Bala “loves movies” and attended Friday Films prior to Covid. He enjoyed sitting in the big hall, (back then) watching a “very good choice” of movies. He hopes to return when his Friday commitments ease.

Bala has a continuing interest in politics, “I love my politics,” He listens to the radio, ABC/SBS TV, reads the Guardian newspaper, subscribes to Crikey. He refers to himself as being a “swinging voter”, preferring not to have long terms of any particular party, as this encourages corruption.

Subsequent to the violent disputes between the Singhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka in 2013, Bala decided to visit Sri Lanka, “just to see for myself how people lived and how they were treated.” What he found was “so sad.” He hired a driver who took him from the south where Singhalese is the main language, to the north, where the majority population speak Tamil. When the driver spoke to the Tamils, “it was very belittling, aggressive, very, you know, upsetting.” Leaving his driver to wait alone for his return, Bala toured the area together with some local, very friendly and helpful Tamils, who took him to interesting places where tourists generally do not visit.

Bala repeats, “it is so sad that people cannot get along. Both Hinduism and Buddhism preach tolerance.” Tamils are Hindus, Singhalese are Buddhists. Whilst in Sri Lanka, “ I found out that it is the religious monks who are very militant, they make a lot of money!” Bala comments with cynical humour.

Bala and his wife are travelling to Canada, to meet up with their daughter. They will also go on a train trip in Alaska. They plan to visit some of Bala’s siblings, who live in America, (Phoenix, Arizona) and will be away for a couple of months.

Bala provided interesting details on current building issues, fire risks and much more than can be recorded in this interview. His wider knowledge, expertise, and aptitude for making concepts into reality is impressive. Bala is appreciative of the opportunities to “keep his mind ticking”, not just in Scrabble! But, by ensuring that past discrimination, religious and political, has not prevented him from attaining and then contributing to these achievements, here in Australia.

Felicity May interviewed Bala Thuraisingam

Helen Vorrath

Music and Me
(Picture: Then and Now – Helen playing 50 years apart)

I am the ultimate dilettante.  I failed Art at school and I’m not going back there, but I’ll give almost anything else a go, from software to Shakespeare.  And underpinning it all is a love of music.

There is music in the family.  I still have my great-grandmother’s music books, with the dreadfully sentimental Victorian popular songs that she played for weddings and parties.  And her volumes of Mozart and Chopin.  Sadly she didn’t pass down her skills to my grandmother or mother, but my great-aunt’s house was fitted with the piano that all upwardly mobile homes aspired to.  When she died her two children were in places distant from Melbourne (South Africa and Tasmania) so my mother purchased the piano from her estate.  I was the youngest and therefore got the most out of this acquisition as I started learning at about 8 years old.  By modern standards that’s still a bit late.

I progressed fairly steadily to Grade 5, but then decided to copy my brother who’d decided to play the clarinet.  I thought then, and still do, that it is the instrument with the most beautiful sound.  It’s also versatile as I’m now proving in my later years.

I went to a school where music was much more important than sport, which was great for me as I was a bit of a dud at anything that involved interacting with a moving object.  Swimming and gym were OK, anything else, not.  But I was happily singing in the choir, playing in the orchestra, continuing with lessons on piano as well as clarinet, and learning theory as well.  By the time I left school I’d completed grade 5 in all three subjects.

This is where the story takes a turn for the worse.  By the time I left school I was over it, dying to move on to University.  I dropped everything that was related to school.  Copying my brother again, I bought a guitar, learnt the basic 3 chords and joined the folk singing society (embarrassing, but true).  I acquired a boyfriend who scorned folk singing and introduced me to modern jazz, and I began the gradual slide from player to listener.  By the time I started work I wasn’t doing much of either.

After one year working in Australia I left for England, where I fell in love with a French horn player.  This was a plus and a minus.  He was a very talented musician, would have been a professional if working as a computer person hadn’t been more lucrative.  With him I rediscovered classical music as we went to hear all the great orchestras in London, see opera at Glyndebourne.  He was into early music, so I learned about that too.  He played in semi-professional orchestras and chamber groups, and I dutifully went along to all the concerts, even a music camp where they played Wagner opera.  So what was the problem?  He was such a good player that anything I did seemed very second rate.  Even after returning to Australia and reclaiming the family piano, I still didn’t play.  My school clarinet gathered dust until I discovered, much later in life, that the significant other of the time had pawned it.

I continued to be an active concert goer.  I subscribed to the ABC concerts in Geelong, where I lived when I first returned to Australia.  I subscribed to Musica Viva concerts and have done so continuously for over 40 years.  After my marriage to the horn player broke up, I returned to Melbourne.  There I went to the opera with my parents, and various relatives and friends joined me as MSO subscribers from time to time, including the man who’s now my husband.

He encouraged me in a dream that I had: when I retired I would take up the clarinet again.  He promised that he would buy one for me.  It remained a promise until I started getting more actively involved in the chamber music scene in Melbourne.  First I got a gig as the Jury Manager for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition (aka MICMC).  This meant I spent a week shut up with some of the world’s best musicians, and with them listened to dozens of brilliant young ensembles as they competed.  MICMC was a four-yearly event, but in between there was an Asia Pacific competition.  I managed to do a good enough job to retain my position as Jury Manager through several competitions, and after one of these I decided I just had to start playing again.  A week or so later, I shared this decision with a childhood friend I met at a concert, and then thought, “Right, I have to do it now.”  On the way home from the concert I stopped off at the Music Place in Clarendon Street to try out instruments, which ended with my phoning my husband to ask him to bring his credit card.

Have clarinet, need teacher.  Ask Google.  Here I was extraordinarily lucky.  From the web I selected a clarinettist who lived in St Kilda and was studying at ANAM in South Melbourne.  I figured it wouldn’t be difficult for him to stop by and give me lessons on his way to and from ANAM.  It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  He is a great teacher, now the Associate Principal clarinet with Orchestra Victoria, and through him I’ve become a supporter of his Melbourne Chamber Players group.  And then a year or so ago I got a phone call out of the blue from a friend of my sister-in-law who was drumming up support for her daughter’s ensemble, Genesis Baroque.  Long story short, I’m now the secretary of Genesis Baroque Inc and the keeper of their website.  Somewhere along the line in the last decade I’ve also been recruited on to the Musica Viva Victorian Committee.

Much more exciting and important than any of that is the story that began in the days when I wrote the e-bulletin (in the era BK (before Kate) when it was just a boring fact sheet).  José Simsa contacted me to ask if I would advertise for players to join the Allsorts.  I put my own hand up instantly, and rediscovered the joy of playing with others.  Fortunately they had had a clarinettist in the group before, so there were already parts for me hand-written by Zoe Hogg, but in those early days I also did a lot of sight-transposing (that’s sight-reading and transposing at the same time), very good for the ageing brain.  And then I bravely, or foolishly, decided that it would be fun to try playing more jazz, and so the U3APP jazz group was formed.  I had always thought of myself as someone who could only play with the notes in front of them, as I’ve never been able to play from memory, but to my surprise and pleasure, I am learning to improvise.  One day, if (no WHEN) we get out of lockdown, you’ll be able to hear the results.

Lockdown has been a desperate period for us musicians, as you really can’t play together on Zoom.  So I needed another music-related project.  In last year’s lockdown I organised an on-line trivia quiz as a fund-raiser for Musica Viva, which some of you participated in.  This year I started something much more ambitious: I founded a new organisation to support chamber music in Victoria, called Continuo Community.  Unsurprisingly, given the current circumstances and my predilections, it’s main activity at the moment is a website.  If you’re curious and want to see more, go to https://continuo.org.au.  I’d love to have some more members.

Helen Vorrath

Dear younger self

So you’ve decided to become an IT professional when you grow up? Good choice! You’ve already discovered the satisfaction of getting a program to work – that will continue to excite you for the rest of your life. You’ll also find that debugging the things that don’t work is equally rewarding.

What you don’t yet know is how much more exciting it is when a whole new system goes live, and all the parts function together as planned. Even better and more important is when the users of the system tell you how great it is. By the way, if that’s not happening, you need to try harder. The first priority for a system is that it is fit for purpose, does the job, but the second is that it is easy to learn and use. If it isn’t, it will suffer from misuse or disuse. When you’re designing or building systems, step into the users’ shoes, understand how they work now and why. If you can see that IT can make their job easier and more effective if the existing processes change, be prepared to sell your ideas for improvement, because everyone is resistant to change, some more than others. Design flexibly: anticipate the way that needs may change in the future.

Helen (on right) at Alcoa on International Women’s Day mid 1970s

I know you’ve thought about other professions from time to time. One of the great things about IT is that it is a service industry. It has now invaded every other industry and profession, from health to hospitality, from finance to film production, from manufacturing to the law. This means you can combine an interest in IT with any other industry or profession, or you can work in a lot of other industries and occupations, constantly learning about the way they operate. For me that has ranged from making aluminium products through to managing mobile phone billing, from selling wine and beer to controlling water and sewage, from selling shoes to superannuation.

Whatever route you take, you’ll be learning constantly anyway. The world of IT is like the world Alice found behind the looking-glass: you have to run very fast every now and then just to stay in the same place. The things I’m doing daily as an ageing IT person you would find almost unimaginable. In 50 plus years I’ve used dozens of computers, learnt dozens of languages, systems, methodologies… Just as the building industry has changed from hand-crafting doors and windows to assembling pre-built modules, so my time these days is spent linking apps, plugins, extensions together to build the systems I need, providing immense functionality quickly and cheaply. And it all happens in this amazing thing called “the cloud”, which means I can work on my projects from anywhere in the world, including on a yacht in Tasmania.

Hey look, now we have PCs – in the 1980s

As IT invades our world, the social impact is increasing, opening up new areas to work in, and giving you the opportunity to really make a difference. IT can give greater access to information, or to misinformation. Big data can be used to make life better or worse. The industry needs people who are passionate about using IT to make life better, while protecting human rights.

IT is breaking down barriers of distance, of access to services. But if IT is going to support communities in need, there is work to be done in building digital literacy. I know you have a hankering to teach, and you’ll find plenty of opportunity in explaining, training, mentoring. Helping older people to come to grips with technology is an on-going source of satisfaction for me.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned:

  • Be agile – keep learning
  • Small is beautiful – the bigger the project, the bigger the team, the greater the chance of failure
  • Build and implement systems incrementally if you can so that change is gradual
  • Women make really good team leaders and project managers
  • “Imagination is greater than Knowledge” (Albert Einstein)

Good luck!
Your older self

Postscript: This piece was written for Ada Lovelace Day in 2020, to inspire young women to go into IT.

How to Enrol

On-line: after bookings have opened

On-line enrolments are preferred as this significantly reduces the amount of back-office work for our volunteers.

  • Login to the U3APP.org.au website.
  • Go to the Courses & Enrolling page.
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The start date for acceptance of paper Enrolment Forms for first semester is published on the U3APP website and in the e-Bulletin. Enrolment Forms received before this date are treated as though they had been received on the start date (ie there is no advantage to be gained by submitting early). On the start date and thereafter, paper Enrolment Forms are numbered in order of receipt.  Paper Enrolment forms are processed by U3APP volunteers on the same day as on-line bookings.

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If your enrolment is unsuccessful,  you will receive an email telling you that you have been waitlisted.

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