“Where did she come from?”, I ask a friend. It is 1968 and my 21 year old male gaze is fixed on this spunky 19 year old girl, just the right shape, tight brown leather mini-skirt, brown stockings, flowing brown hair, green-brown sparkling eyes - stepping across the Monash University Union small caf. It is Sue Rowley – a second year sociology student, already taking up social activism around the Walk Against Want for Biafra.
Sue is invited down to the Pub by a friend. I invite myself down with them – causing my friend to blink. I get Sue’s phone number from a former boyfriend of hers. Soon after I return from a trip to Vietnam I ring her. On 22 February 1969 I take her out to what might barely pass as a dinner at Mama Mia Piza in Tooronga. Then off to War and Peace Part I at the Camberwell Cinema. That night, though we don’t know it, the Norns – the three spinners of fate that the ancient Vikings believe sit at the foot of the tree of life - twist two threads together. Our 47 years as life partners has begun.
From that day Sue and I grow together. Sue is warm, clever, funny, inciteful and not infrequently uncomfortably honest, and assertively direct.
She is a terrible tease. Later she will treble her capacity to tease me by adding our two teasy children Anna and Michael who she absolutely adores. As they will testify, Sue proves to be a wonderful mum – caring, warm and keen to give advice, which whilst not always wanted, is always very good.
Sue and I are too Monash 60s, too cool and too radical to marry. But over 47 years of committed non-marriage we accumulate a family home, two cars, two kids, two dogs, one grandchild and till death do us part!
Of course, the character of the young Sue had derived in good measure from the qualities of her loving parents. Despite limited financial resources they had done everything they could to ensure that she and her sister Lesley had a good education.
Sue’s mum was in accounts at Monash and her Dad - Frank - was a builder with wonderful practical skills, but with a less practical business mind in a treacherous economy. Frank helped us rebuild a ruined house we bought at Heathcote. He was both proud and appalled that it was Sue who sat highest on the roof as we nailed it down. Sue was so practical and she just went for it.
As I soon discovered. Sue had her own artisanal skills. In particular she was a very skilful and creative dress maker. Most of her clothes, including that cute little leather mini skirt, had been made by her.
Our entwined lives developed together. Sue took a job in 1973 as a school teacher, and then Richmond Tech, then Parahan CAE. In 1980, we set of for Wollongong with Anna - our two week old daughter - where I was to take up a lectureship. Sue managed to wangle tutoring in Women’s Studies. How from that little acorn (and her dress making) an oak tree grew!
We came to Wollongong for 3 years, and stayed for 20. When we set of on my first Study Leave. In England Sue decided that I was likely to be moving around between universities in my career. She reckoned that artists can move around. So, since she could work cloth beautifully she thought - maybe she could become a fibre artist.
She bought a little cloth printing stencil kit, and later a quilting hoop that we had to carry back on the plane, with rather too many critical comments from me. Later Frank Rowley would build her first a spinning wheel and then a weaving loom.
Back in Wollongong it occurred to Sue that maybe she should learn something about art. And so she did a Bachelor of Creative Arts at the University. It was a new degree based around fusion of the arts, and it suited Sue’s mixture of social theory and artisanal skill. So she began to tutor in art history and theory, and later in 1988 with the support of Peter Shepherd (who will speak later) she got her first lectureship. Prof Barry Conyngham took over as the new Dean of the Faculty. A notable composer, Barry this week composed the cello music for Sue, which you have already heard. As Barry Conyngham has written he has ‘not so jokingly’ often referred to Sue as ‘my greatest academic achievement’.
Back at Wollongong Barry proved to be an enormously skilful and supportive leader and mentor. As he said to Sue “Do anything you like Sue. You’re my success story and everything you do brings credit to me.”
That, entwined with Sue’s decisiveness, clarity of strategic thought, and empathy were to become the foundation of her growing skills as a manager. As Sue told Anna ‘That was my mantra provided I've encouraged and supported you and don’t undermine you”’.
One of the things about intertwined lives is that you grow together. Sue and I would pass things we wrote to each other. Usually we would just edit in track changes. Then as our joke went, we would pass it back where the recipient would press “Accept All”.
As a practical maker, and increasingly sophisticated art theoretician, Sue was unhappy with the way Craft was always assigned a very peripheral role in relation to Art. In 1992 Sue used the threads of her developing interests to begin an exploration of that habit. By the time she was through she had elevated the understanding of craft to a richer and more coherent level.
Sue completed a PhD on 'bush' mythology in the history of Australian art in 1993. That provided to her the springboard to a quick promotion to senior lecturer in Creative Arts.
Most people will face a career crisis somewhere along the line. Barry Conyngham departed to become Vice-Chancellor of Southern Cross University and Sue found herself confronted with an unsupportive new Dean and the prospect of “go” or be constantly undermined. Determined to jump out, she overshot as she bounded up the career staircase and headed for the stars!
At UNSW, the Department of Art History and Theory at the College of Fine Arts was looking for a Head who would bring a divided department together.
The job was advertised as a Foundation Professor in Australian Art History. When Sue became the preferred candidate, some on the committee proved reluctant to appoint someone recently appointed to Senior Lecturer to such a stella appointment. The Committee agonised and eventually let the VC make up his mind. He consulted Barry Conyngham who advised – she is going to be a Professor soon. If you move now you get her!
The VC decided to interview Sue. She did not tell him she had run into the cat on the way to the interview. He decided to take the plunge. With her mixture of social and management skills, and sharp intellect, Sue proved to be a great success.
That more prominent position provided a base for her positioning on the ARC committees, and a growing national and international profile.
In 2009 I accepted a job as DVC at Victoria University in Melbourne , and we together on weekends. A little later Sue accepted a position as Executive Director for the Humanities and Creative Arts at the Australian Research Council. There Sue found herself in a most exciting intellectually rigorous leadership team with wide ranging responsibilities, serious public exposure, and determined, demanding, brilliant leadership by the ARC CEO – Vicki Sara. And there Sue grew further and flourished.
“Everyone including the most difficult and grumpy… loved and respected Sue and how she, in her special and wonderful way, would convince all of us that what she wanted was the only way!! …she made a very significant contribution to research ..it was Sue who got creative arts recognised as a legitimate area...”
Sue’s professional career reached its apex in the next five years which she spent as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at UTS. There all her qualities and experience – intellect, mother-mentor, research experience, research leadership, empathy, collaborativeness, fearelessness, standing and strategic insight, intertwined. Sue proved to be a highly talented academic leader.
Sue made such a huge impact at UTS. She is remembered for her clear-sightedness, warmth and humour. She transformed our research strategy and did an outstanding job at raising the University’s profile. She was brilliant at developing and mentoring our researchers.
When Sue returned to Melbourne full-time she was hunted by universities to assist in reviews, research mentoring, and much more.
Sue and I thought we would be looking forward to perhaps 25 years more of rich and interesting life together. But 16 months ago, in April 2015, a nagging pain in Sue’s pelvis revealed itself to be a secondary tumour resulting from a symptomless tumour in her lung.
So began the final collaboration between us as we sought to wrest as much living as we could from a dire prognosis that might on average have her dead before the end of the year.
I do not need to say much about that time except to say that oddly, despite all the awful treatments and their debilitating side effects, we had, as Sue put it, “overall a surprisingly happy time”. Never out of love, we fell more deeply and simply in love all over again as we struggled to deal with each challenge.
Sue could no longer do many of the things she felt natural to her, like cooking or shopping. Yet we planned holidays and went – most notably on a cruise to Noumea with our dear friends Peter Shepherd and Lindsay Duncan
But in the last two months the challenges became greater as the cancer spread through her body.
Last Friday I rescued Sue from a two day stint in hospital and took her home where Anna brought Sue’s granddaughter “Jessie” to play with her “Nanny”.
Later I took Sue up to our bush property. As she pushed her walking frame across the carport she pointed to the wall of camellia bushes she had planted years ago. They were in full flower along one side. “Look” she said. “It is beautiful isn’t it darling”, I replied
Later that night we went to bed as normal, with our usual “I love you” exchanged and went to sleep. The decline began later that night, and at 4.50 am, now in hospital, she died as I held her hand.
Yesterday son Michael, his partner Tay and I went up to the bush property. The camellias which the children and their partners placed on the coffin earlier were picked from those that delighted Sue that night.
There is not much more to say. Sue’s life and achievements make their own story woven into what is now a more completed tapestry. But for this wonderful talented dressmaker, though sadly gone, her story is not complete.
Yes the loss of Sue leaves an un-fillable void. Like the pattern cut from a dress maker’s template, there is an outside to that void – the things that Sue did that have shaped the growth or changed the lives of so many people for the better.
She did it for me. The many emails I have received this week, and the breadth of people who have come here today – from the ACT and all states of Australia, and across Victoria – testify that she did it for many others. So the threads that came together – from her loving parents, and her many experiences, collaborations and friendships, and her considerable personal strengths – form a picture of what she achieved. It is a beautiful one – which in summary is to have led a life which widely improved the lot of family, friends, colleagues, and many others.
I thank you all for being here to join me as once more I bid this wonderful partner whose life I have been privileged to share, a grateful and loving goodbye.
Jim Falk 9 September 2016