Eulogy for Roy McDonald (1998)
Roy McDonald died of cancer just after mid-day on Wednesday 1" of April. He was sixty years of age. He had been alert and relatively active the previous week, visiting the Common Room on two occasions to talk with colleagues. He was making plans with friends to spend some days with them at Easter and had even floated the idea of a trip to England in July to catch up with friends there. It was not to be. On the previous Sunday evening, he suffered severe abdominal pains, which frightened him.
They were different to the habitual pains he had put up with for so long.
Later that night he was admitted to the Caritas Christi Hospice, to which in his latter days he looked for support and respite when bouts of pain became too much for him to manage. The inoperable tumour which he had battled for three years or more had encroached to the point where body functions were shutting down. Last Wednesday ended a long battle with a succession of cancers which began some ten years ago. It was a determined battle, fought with courage and dignity. I don't think any of us could fully comprehend the physical pain he endured or, as a single man, the torture of lonely hours spent coming to terms with a terrible affliction that progressively robbed him of quality of life.
It was appropriate that he could end his life as a staff member of the school that he loved and was so much a part of; and to be in his residence at the top of Roystead, which had been home for the past forty-one years. When he could no longer continue in the classroom this year, it was a great solace to him that he could continue to work in his flat and contribute through his computer expertise. To the very last there were people to visit and assist, for which he was hugely grateful, because it allowed him to cling to some normality and assured him that he was still very much part of the school. Contacts maintained with colleagues in his Latin department, the many computer enquiries, friends dropping in for a chat or perhaps to deliver some shopping or carry out some little task which made life easier for him were all moments that he treasured. To 'die with his boots on' was something he had wanted in these last difficult years. The opportunity in recent months to have nurses and therapists from Caritas Christi make a fuss of him at home had boosted his confidence and had helped settle his mind. They had little practical solutions for making him more comfortable, with the result that he was not quite so frightened of being unable to cope. He continued to weave his magic on the computer and in between times, returned to one of his lifelong passions, music, and listened to the cricket.
Roy arrived at Camberwell Grammar School in Term 2, 1957. He was a fresh-faced nineteen year-old from Brisbane University, employed to teach Latin and English. Camberwell was his first full-time appointment. He had a short stint as a resident tutor in 1956 at Pulteney Grammar, Adelaide, before repairing to Brisbane to commence his University studies. He had not progressed far with those before he was contacted by Tom Timpson, then Headmaster at Camberwell, who had received Roy's name from the Associated Teachers' Agency as a possible candidate to fill a vacant Latin and English post. After some to-ing and fro-ing of correspondence between them, Roy wrote to accept the position, i shall read you some of that letter, because it reveals much about Roy. It is, I think, an unwitting character portrait:
'Dear Sir,...I have given considerable thought to what my answer would be should you offer me the position. I also wrote to a friend teaching in Melbourne seeking some information regarding your school and I must say that his reply was most favourable. Acting on this information, advice from home, and my own personal sentiments, 1 have decided to accept the position now that you have been so kind as to make me an offer. I was taken back a little to learn that the school is a day school. This fact creates the problem of accommodation. I myself know very few people in Melbourne, and accordingly would find it almost impossible to arrange accommodation myself. In the light of this I wonder whether you would be good enough to try and arrange something for me?
I imagine that a man in your position would have plenty of contacts. ...No doubt you will want to know what I will require along these lines. 1 will require full board with a respectable family in a good Christian home, preferably Anglican. In order to do my work satisfactorily 1 feel that I would need a room to myself, particularly as I have a habit of working late into the night. I would prefer that my washing and ironing be done, but if absolutely necessary I could do it myself for since I have been in college sheer necessity has taught me the ins and outs of those two rather irksome tasks.
A family tolerant of serious music would also be most welcome, for it is in that sphere that I find most of my relaxation. I might also mention that accommodation relatively near to the school would be most convenient. For such accommodation I would be prepared to pay 6 pounds a week, but if anything should turn up at cheaper rates it would be much more acceptable. I think that covers all that I would need, so I will leave it to your discretion in choosing something suitable to a person of my interests and upbringing.'
Ah! The letter says it all! There is the meticulous attention to detail, which in turn demanded much of others. Two of the qualities that made him outstanding as a teacher were his fastidiousness and his high expectation of all in his charge. It was the same with his colleagues. He could not abide slackness or indolence of any sort, whether it be in a staff member or a student, and over the years there were plenty of homilies that flowed from his pen, setting down his dislike of anything which smacked of eroded standards or inappropriate conduct. He was particularly vociferous about anything which ate into his teaching time. I suspect the files of successive Headmasters bulge with correspondence from Mac on the loss of good class time through excursions, rehearsals, special sporting fixtures and the like. I wonder what he would have thought about us missing period 8 today in order to attend his funeral.
Not too long after his arrival at the School, the young teacher found his full board with a good family (although not always a respectable one) in a good Anglican home. When Mr Timpson moved from Roystead to a different dwelling further down Mont Albert Road, Roy moved into Roystead and remained thereafter. The School was his home and family for 41 years and he became one of a rare breed, a resident master in a day school. He was quickly to make himself as indispensable as anyone could be, plunging directly into the life of the School.
In early years he taught French and History as well as Latin and English; he coached cricket and hockey; he revitalised the Photographic Society; he took roles in school productions; and he brought his considerable skills as a cellist to numerous musical productions and concerts. He ran holiday camps at Bambara, joined in Art camps at Somers, for some time ran the photographic department at Powerhouse Camps, was very much involved in the annual Hawkesbury or Gippsland Lakes trips, and took small, very privileged groups of boys on tours of Europe. Rome, Athens and other classical sites dotted about the perimeters of the Mediterranean were, naturally, highly favoured destinations.
In his private hours it did become necessary to do the washing and ironing himself, although he brought his sewing round to our house. In the sixties and seventies, when he occupied much of the upper floor of Roystead, shirts, socks, bed linen, much of it frayed, and all manner of other items festooned the upper balcony of Roystead or occupied gloomier corners of the first floor landing.
Then there was the ever-watchful eye on the finances. He was always on the look-out for a bargain. He spent little on himself, as his wardrobe revealed. An old gabardine overcoat travelled with him down the years and became a symbol of his eccentricity of dress. Roy made a distinct fashion from wearing old clothes and had a penchant for the bizarre. Who can forget the fireman's braces from Universal Studios, the ribbon ties and, yes, the socks with thongs? He made the colour purple fashionable, especially in skivvies, and in his more mellow days introduced the brocade waistcoat, courtesy of a Turkish clothing market.
Yet he was lavish in his spending on things that interested him. He conducted a life-long affair with Alfa Romeos. He drove the first one onto the school grounds on a Saturday morning in full view of the School Council, which was on a tour of inspection. He set back the cause of a salary increase by several years. There was a time when he decided to try a Volvo, but it quickly earned the nickname of 'the pudding' and was disposed of after a short time. He went back to Alfa Romeos and stayed with them thereafter.
Roy also loved his wines and in his litter drinking days had an extensive cellar. He especially enjoyed the tokays, muscats and full bodied reds of northern Victoria and was well versed in their qualities. To accompany him on a tour of the wineries was a fascinating experience, if ultimately a mind-numbing one. He enjoyed his wine to the last and it was a source of joy to him in recent months when he began to recover his taste buds, which earlier cancer treatments had destroyed for a time.
Roy McDonald was one of those larger than life figures. Like the wild and irregular Glendower, whom he played in the 1961 production of 'Henry IV Part 1', 'all the courses of his life did show he was not in the roll of common men.' In fact we might be forgiven for thinking that, like Glendower, 'at his birth, The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes.' For fiery Mac could be, and cantankerous and wilful, too.
Perhaps he drew some inspiration from playing the role of Glendower. The boyish classics master had worn a false beard for the part and liked the idea of it so much that he decided to grow his own. It grew into the blackest, thickest and longest of beards. He always opened the bowling in staff versus student cricket matches and was fearsome to behold. Baleful of eye, teeth clenched, beard and long black hair pinned back by the wind, he tore in to bowl with a flailing of legs and arms which gave no hint of where the ball might go. He kept his cricket creams up with a tie around the middle and looked rather like a pirate. It may have been here that the nickname "Black Mac" was born, although as he grew older the beard became heavily streaked with grey.
Most will remember the maniacal laugh, which started with that high-pitched screech. If you were within earshot of the Common Room and heard that laugh, you knew you had missed out on some hilarity or other. He loved a bawdy story. Then there were the colourful turns of phrase. The word 'hoon' was a favourite which generations of schoolboys would be familiar with. 'Which hoon threw that? Stop hooning about'. 'The dreaded lergy' was another. It covered anything from a cold to something growing at the bottom of an unwashed cup on the bench, and there were plenty of those. He loved plays on words and was quick with repartee.
One day he tripped as he entered the Common Room. The Geography master, who happened to be nearby, said: 'Enter McDonald, tripping lightly'. Quick as a flash, Mac retorted, 'Exit Treen, lipping tritely'. He was a stubborn individual. That Roy could be wrong about anything was unthinkable. If he were losing an argument, he would storm out of the room, rather than back down in that instant. He possessed an almost papal sense of his own infallibility, which made things a little bit difficult in his last months, when he knew he was making mistakes in his computer work and that the usual intellectual sharpness was not there.
Beneath it all, he was a softie, the kindest of men who was forever loyal to his friends. When he heard that a close friend's cat had been run over, Roy was on the doorstep the next day to present her with a new kitten. He loved Siamese cats and a succession of seal, chocolate, and lilac points kept him company at the top of Roystead. Roy liked to escape the confines of his flat during holidays and was usually on some Odyssey or other. He was one of the mainstays of the Hawkesbury River and Gippsland Lakes trips and I had the joy of accompanying him on many of these. He was a good cook, even with the limited facilities the cruisers provided, and his boat was always ordered and well catered for. Before departure he always sent home a letter to supplement the official one that went out. He would deliver his habitual instruction:
' You will need a sleeping bag, swimming things, and a minimum amount of gear suitable for a holiday on the water. Fishing rods are a decided nuisance. If you want to fish, use a line. Cards, scrabble, chess and books are useful to pass away the nights.' And then a firm hint to finish: 'The odd home-made fruit cake or butter cake would be regarded most favourably by the undersigned- H. R. McDonald.'
Roy was without doubt one of the great characters of Camberwell Grammar School. He was a man of extremes whose eccentricities will be long remembered. But more importantly, he made a contribution in his time that was of enormous significance. He was possessed of a restless energy, a multi-talented man who, in his passion for knowledge, would settle for nothing less than mastery of anything he undertook.
When he arrived at Camberwell, he had a pass in Latin 1 and Ancient History. He continued to study Latin and Greek part time at Melbourne University and graduated in 1965. By this time he ran the classics department almost single-handed, teaching over thirty periods a week. He ran his classes with an iron grip, which was unnecessary really, because his scholarship and love of the classics were the foundations of his control. Boys who pursued Latin did so because it was challenging and, believe it or not, exciting.
Roy's encyclopaedic knowledge could bring rapt attention, particularly when he got on to the subject of low life in Pompei. In the early 1970's he introduced the revolutionary Cambridge Latin Course into Victoria. He was the first to do so, and others soon followed his lead, revitalising the teaching of Latin in this state. David Dyer, who was Headmaster at that time, recalled being challenged in a Council meeting over his decision to drop Geology from the curriculum. 'Why keep a subject like Latin and not retain Geology?' he was asked. 'Because one is well taught; the other not so,' he replied.
Roy was a fine cellist. In the 1960's, at a time when music was still establishing itself in the school, Roy's contribution with the cello was in its own way remarkable. He drew others around him and his lead in that area was inspirational. He also taught himself the guitar, and on evenings before the open fire at Bambara, he sang folk songs to the boys. 'The Ballad of Matty Groves' was a great favourite. However, the greatest passion was photography. His work was a social kaleidoscope, full of human diversity and interest. He encouraged his photographic society to experiment with the medium as an art form and the boys had much success in schools competitions during the sixties, seventies and eighties. At the same time he had his minions out and about gathering a pictorial chronicle of school life. It was not uncommon to see him umpiring at square leg, camera in hand. He used to claim that it gave him a close up view of any runout, but as often as not he had the camera pointed at the wrong end. Each year he took the school team photographs, and developed and printed them himself. By the time of the School centenary in 1986, Roy had copied the School's archival collection of photographs, cleverly enlarging them for display along with his own collection, which he had fastidiously catalogued and stored over the years. It was a Herculean task, which he accomplished largely unaided.
In more recent times the passion was computers. When the School took on a commercial version of computerised reporting and found it to be cumbersome and inflexible, Roy applied himself to the problem and came up with his own improved programme, which we use today. His self-taught programming skills were astonishing. At the end he had been putting together an ID photographic database, which would allow staff to draw from the intranet photographs of any boy they wished to identify. He had finished organising the Senior School and was just putting the finishing touches to the Middle School in the week before he died. I daresay we are yet to experience just how his presence will be missed in these matters.
He was, in a way, a modern version of the Renaissance man: a humanist, a lover of the arts, and blessed with an inquiring, rational mind. A versatile man, capable of thinking on several different planes. As teachers we form important role models for those we teach and Roy's scholarship, his concern for those he taught and his absolute professionalism set the highest standards in his case. However, it has been pointed out to me that equally important are the role models for young teachers and there are several on our staff who over the years owe much to Roy Mac in that regard. The importance of long serving staff in building ethos and community reputation should not be underestimated.
Roy's name will survive as one of the great servants and builders of Camberwell Grammar, as well as one of its great characters. I have the fancy that his ashes might return to Roystead, perhaps to be scattered in its garden. Roy had no living relatives and 1 see no purpose in them lying anywhere else.
R E Lamborn
April 6 1998
Return to Roy McDoonald photographs
Return to Group M members' page