A Tribute to Derek Cameron - Part 1
This edition will consider the career of the longest serving member of staff in the history of the College, Derek Cameron. Derek began teaching at the College in far off 1974, and is currently in Term 4 2015 on long service leave. Counting inclusively that is 41 years of teaching in a school which has been in existence for 75 years, so Derek has seen much of our history, and has indeed contributed to it mightily. It is not just the quantity of Derek’s service that is significant, but also the quality of it – in so many ways he has been the embodiment of Viriliter Age, giving of himself to others in the classroom, on the sporting field and in the swimming pool, as a Union representative, and as a colleague.
I have little hesitation in nominating Derek as Ashgrove’s “legend nonpareil”, simply because of his astounding work ethic and his exceptional moral courage, which compels him to speak out against anything which he regards as inimical to the values and standards of the College: such a stance has not always made him popular, but that has been the least of his worries. He states his concerns without fear or favour, something most of us are unable or unwilling to do. In a wonderful staff, which has “stars” everywhere, for me he shines the brightest.
(Yes, I know you’re thinking I admire him because he’s my twin brother, and you’re right, but only to a certain extent. I was born 30 minutes after him, and I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to catch up those 30 minutes, with no apparent success. I have always been “Cameron the Lesser” but that has one overwhelming advantage as far as I’m concerned: as I tell the Year 8s, “I get mistaken for a famous man every day!” As a twin, too, I am as well aware of his faults – which we aren’t going to discuss – as of his virtues. He isn’t any plaster saint, and can be totally infuriating, never more so than when I asked his permission to write about him in this column some years ago. “YOU WILL BLOODY WELL NOT BLOODY WRITE ABOUT BLOODY ME !!!!” sums it up neatly. Well bad luck, mate, I am.)
Derek and I were the sons of Alf and Joyce Cameron (nee Liddle), so our Scottish credentials were impeccable. We were educated at Mitchelton State School, and then to our chagrin said goodbye to our mates as we proceeded to Brisbane Grammar School for our secondary schooling. After that University studies led to teaching for me, in the South Burnett town of Murgon in 1973. Derek tossed up the idea of several careers, including the Australian Diplomatic Corps, but hadn’t really settled on anything. Happily, if somewhat blearily, ensconced in Murgon, I was surprised to get a visit in 1974 from Derek, with a gorgeous girl in tow – not only had he settled on a career in teaching, at the “posh” Marist College Ashgrove, he had met his lovely Jan, and was obviously smitten. He has remained faithful to both ever since.
When Derek arrived at the College in 1974, the staff members were predominantly Brothers, though the lay staff had luminaries such as Mick Gubbins, Barry Honan, Jack Eales, Graham Lawson, Peter Murdoch, and Brian Lindsay among them. I find the staff photo in the 1974 magazine hilarious, because amongst the “short back and sides” of the Brothers and the majority of the lay staff, the hirsute Derek Cameron and Graham Lawson look like cavemen, or extras escaped from the set of a Viking adventure movie. The Headmaster of the time was the redoubtable Brother Alexis Turton, and Derek found much to admire in his quiet, powerful leadership, and indeed in the values espoused by the Marist Order at the College. He quickly decided that this was his “tribe”, and set about learning its customs.
The first of these was hard work: no problem there, for Derek thrived on it; ditto with total commitment to the students and their welfare; a willingness to go “the extra yard” when it was needed was a given; and there must also be a total lack of self - aggrandisement in all that was done and achieved. It was understood, too, that the commitment to the boys wasn’t only in formal education: it extended to all of their activities, including spiritual and social development, and on the sporting fields. Anything which involved the boys involved the staff. So began a career which saw Derek indulging in innumerable activities outside the classroom – Inaugural and Champagnat Day Masses, retreats and camps, parent-teacher evenings, Parents and Friends meetings, Walkathons and September Fairs, dances, and wall-to-wall weekend sporting commitments – you name it, he was there. He soon gained a name for himself as a willing worker, worthy of a place in the “tribe”. This edition will concentrate on Derek’s contribution to the College in the field of sport.
It was indeed fortunate that Derek loved sport, in all of its forms, because he was involved in so much of it. In research for this article I perused the annual magazines for the first decade of his career at the College, 1974 to 1984, and what I found is instructive. It was “understood” in those days before formal contracts were a prerequisite for employment, that lay staff members were to take two sports (coaching or managing) a year, (or some other co-curricular activity in lieu.) Derek quite regularly took FOUR, in that decade coaching Athletics, Cricket, Cross Country, Rugby, and Swimming, and in 1978 was responsible for 6 teams (Athletics, Under 13A and 14A Cricket, Cross Country, Under 14B and 14A Rugby.) Anyone who has ever coached Ashgrove sport will tell you that it isn’t simply a matter of turning up on Saturday to look after the team; there’s at least two weekday afternoon or morning training sessions as well, and also often the complication of very long travel to the other side of town on Saturdays just to get to the game. In those early days, too, all of this was “honorary and voluntary”, something regarded by all as part of employment conditions, so there was no remuneration involved, (though the College was very generous in its provision of end-of-season dinners for coaches and spouses to acknowledge the extra-curricular efforts of its staff.) Derek loved it all and wouldn’t have missed a minute of it.
If Derek had preferences in sport, it was for those which involved great physical endeavour, continual hard training, and the development of determination, “stickability”, and endurance in the individual character to meet the exacting demands of the particular sport. So his favourites became Rugby, Swimming, Cross Country, and Athletics: he liked to say that those who competed in them were the real “Guts Men”, the heart and soul of the College.
Typically, Derek didn’t coach from a theoretical basis: he trained for and ran two Gold Coast Marathons, and though he had never been a swimmer, he learned the basics and clocked up kilometre after kilometre in the College pool. The basis of his coaching was to learn the skills of the particular sport thoroughly, to devise drills for the boys which would encompass practising those skills, and then to quietly and enthusiastically encourage everyone to master them. There was little appeal to raw emotion but a great deal said in calm and rational fashion about what had been done well, what could do with improvement, and how. Clinical and reasoned would sum up Derek’s approach.
To Derek, winning wasn’t the be all and end all – if one of his teams had given everything and come up short in the success stakes, it wasn’t a tragedy, but a celebration; as long as they had given everything, he would praise them for their efforts and determination, and let them know just how proud he and the entire College was of them. Numerous write-ups in the Blue & Golds over the years are testimony to that, particularly reports on Swimming and Cross Country, both very dear to Derek’s heart. Equally, anyone who gave less than his best could expect little sympathy – Derek drove himself hard and set high standards; he expected his teams to meet those standards, and had no time for those who were not totally committed. (Well do I remember an occasion when he was giving a Rugby team a tongue-lashing for an unacceptably poor attendance at training; I said quietly in his ear, “What are you abusing these blokes for? They’re here.” That stopped him immediately, one of the few times in my life I have ever had the last word.)
It went without saying, too, that any team Derek coached must meet the highest standards of dress, behaviour and sportsmanship – anything less was unacceptable, for the good name of the College was at stake.If his Rugby team was playing traditional rivals St Laurence’s, and things were becoming too heated on the field, the referee could rely on Derek to calm the Ashgrove players down by actually going on to the field to do so – the thought of an all-in fracas a la Rugby League developing was too much for my brother. Another matter of deep concern to Derek was injury: anyone who went down could expect the swift materialisation of his coach to his side in almost no time at all.It certainly wasn’t put on, but genuine worry for his players. He could also be relied upon, particularly at Swimming and Athletics carnivals, as the latest and best source of how the battle was going at any particular point: he gathered and recorded results voraciously, much more quickly than any vaunted electronic scoreboard. The other thing which could be universally relied upon was his gloomy forecast before an impending interschool contest – probably a consequence of his dour Scottish forbears. “Nah, we ain’t got the cattle” and “Laurie’s will kick our butt” are typical examples of his prognostications, fortunately often wildly wrong.
A couple of Rugby stories at this stage would seem appropriate. On the first occasion I coached a College Rugby team against St Laurence’s at their ground at Runcorn, I was unfamiliar with the destination and got lost. I eventually arrived just before kick-off, and was hurriedly exiting the car when I heard a voice say, “Gidday Derek, how are ya?” I looked up to see a St Laurence’s teacher eyeing me expectantly, but having no time to explain I wasn’t Derek, I replied with an offhand, “Good mate, how’s yourself?” and bolted for the field where my game was to be played.
The St Laurence’s teacher later complained to another Ashgrove colleague that he’d known Derek Cameron for over a decade, and Derek had given him the brush-off that morning. Laughing, our Ashgrove friend pointed to the other side of the BBQ area where Derek and I were having a steak-burger: “Struth,” said the Laurie’s teacher, “there’s two Dereks!” (Similarly, on one of Derek’s visits to Murgon, when we were having a few beers in the Royal Hotel, one of the local denizens looked our way, totally nonplussed, holding four fingers in front of his face, and obviously thinking he was worse at that time of day than he should have been.)
Derek and I sometimes shared the coaching of teams, and at other times we were rivals. Such an occasion frequently occurred when I coached the Fourths Rugby and he coached the Thirds, the Fourths having to take part in the Thirds competition because some schools couldn’t provide the necessary depth to compete at Fourths level. Usually, this resulted in hard fought but friendly games in which Derek’s team (as they should have) prevailed. On one notable occasion in 2003, however, God for once did not march on the side of the Big Battalion. The reason, regrettably, was the referee: he shall remain nameless, for he is still on staff, and a well - liked and respected colleague. Perhaps he had just that one off day with the whistle between his lips, for it became obvious very soon after kick-off that he had little notion of the off-side rule, something my Fourths were quick to exploit. We were leading, just, at halftime, and I could see an agitated Derek on the other side of the field earnestly lecturing his troops. In contrast, I gave the shortest coaching advice of my career in just two words: “Keep cheating!” They did, and we won. I studiously avoided Derek for about a week, eventually pointing out to him that Cameron team had played Cameron team on Cameron Oval, so it was appropriate that Cameron had won. I cannot tell you what was said in reply. (Similar Battles Royal have occurred in recent years at 4ths/5ths level, naturally on Cameron Oval, and they have been hard fought but friendly affairs, revealing all that is best about schoolboy sport.)
Cameron Oval, of course, is named for Derek, a plaque being placed there in 1998 renaming the former Number 2 Oval as “The Derek Cameron Oval.” This occurred at the instigation of then Sports Master David Robertson, who suggested that a coaching career without parallel in the history of the College deserved appropriate recognition. For 25 years to that point, Derek had devoted himself to his student charges with scarcely a break, not counting the cost, because as he said in his speech on the day, he thought “it was the thing to do.” He was terribly embarrassed by the proceedings, and didn’t seek the recognition he was so rightly given. Thousands of students had benefitted from his wisdom, his encouragement, his vision, and his persistence, and it was a fitting reward for a great servant of the College and its ideals. (Cameron the Lesser, of course, had his day made when he overheard a conversation between a Primary School student and his mother, present for the naming ceremony at the oval. Pointing to the ornamental garden beneath “The Derek Cameron Oval” sign, the young boy asked: “Is that where he’s buried, mum?”) Derek would coach on for 16 more years, of course, his last team in 2015 being his beloved swimmers. Will there be more? Who knows?
At that point it might be time to stop, for there is plenty more to say about Derek and his contribution to College life. Coaching was only one part of a significant influence by this man at Ashgrove, and there is much still to consider about Derek Francis Cameron as a teacher, a Year Master, a head of KLA, a Union representative, and a colleague. Watch this space.
A Tribute to Derek Cameron - Part 2
This is a second article on the longest serving member of staff in the history of the College, Derek Cameron. Last time we considered Derek’s enormous contribution over 41 years of continuous service to the development of sport at Ashgrove. “The Derek Cameron Oval” is named after him in recognition of his wonderful efforts with many thousands of boys in sports such as Cricket, Cross Country, Rugby, Swimming, and Track & Field. As a sporting coach, co-ordinator, and mentor, he thoroughly earned his “legendary” status. It was not just in the coaching area that his influence on MCA students extended, however – he was a gifted and talented classroom teacher who inspired countless students to heights they had never dreamed they could reach.
I was surprised to find that Brother Alexis Turton, in his 35th Annual Report in the Blue & Gold of 1974 mentioned that “Mr Derek Cameron joined the Economics Department.” Derek was a graduate of the University of Queensland, having obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree with honours, but his speciality had not been in Economics, rather in History. Derek was adaptable, however, as teachers had to be in those days – class sizes were far larger than they are now, audio-visual supports to lessons were in their infancy, textbooks were the mainstay of a subject, and “chalk and talk” with copious note-taking by students was the general order of the day.
Derek well remembers the advice proffered by a sage Brother before he took his first Year 8 class: “Young feller, walk into the classroom holding up the textbook so they can all see it, then write on the board ‘Page 1 Exercise 1 DO’. If anyone talks or does anything else after that, hit him!” Corporal punishment by means of the cane was accepted, even encouraged, and if a boy was told “JUMP!” the only permissable question from the child was, “How high and how many times, Sir?” Assessment at Senior level was through a system of “moderation” whereby schools in a particular area would meet at a central point, and teachers of individual subjects would compare the work of children from those schools, arriving at a consensus about the standard. (If this sounds a little complicated, it was. Yet the real tragedy was the fact that teachers were just beginning to make this system work when the system was altered again.)
So it was against this background – which beginning teachers today would label primitive – that a young Derek began his teaching employment at the College in 1974, no doubt apprehensive about his choice of career and worried about the strangeness of it all. He needn’t have been concerned – he was a “natural” in front of a class, thoroughly prepared (even in Economics!), knowledgeable, approachable, able to explain difficult concepts with clarity and precision, and always encouraging. (Like many another gifted educator, however, he found himself unable to suffer fools gladly, and the odd student wishing to play up in Mr Cameron’s class soon found himself wishing he hadn’t.) In the true sense of the word, Derek viewed teaching as a vocation, and loved to see “battlers” in the classroom achieve results they had never believed they could reach. (Most memorably, Derek recalls such a struggling student coming to thank him after gaining an “A” on his final report card, and being so overcome that all he could do was weep.)
His talents were soon recognised by the powers-that-be, first with promotion to Year Master of Grade 11 (a position analogous to Head of House in the present-day College), and then to Subject Master in History. This eventually broadened into Subject Master in Legal Studies as well, a subject Derek virtually introduced to the College, and which gained tremendous popularity, (as much because of the way Derek taught it, I suspect, as for any intrinsic liking for the legal area on the part of students. I can recall his Legal Studies class helpless with mirth in the library as Derek described the plight of a cat put in the microwave oven by its American owner to dry off after being caught in a sudden downpour. The fatal consequences for the feline prompted its owner to sue the microwave company because no suitable written warning against the practice had been promulgated – and yes, you’ve guessed it – the owner won.
As Derek solemnly assured the laughing boys, “It could only happen in America.”) And being Derek, he found that the available Legal Studies textbooks were too legalistic in language or too dull for the average student. His solution, with the expertise and co-authorship of fellow staff member Mrs Susan Currie – who had been a member of the legal profession in a former life – was to produce their own textbook, “Your Law”. It was very successful and went through several editions, though how he found the time to write it in the midst of his already over-busy life remains a mystery.
Just as his classroom teaching was thorough and organised, so too was Derek’s supervision and mentoring of the teachers of his subject(s). No stone was left unturned in making sure that everyone was aware of “the big picture”, as well as the minutia of the day-to-day operation of the subject(s). There was, however, one dark shadow looming over Derek: the incorporation of computing into education. In common with many of his generation, Derek harboured a deep and abiding mistrust of these fabulous machines which, we were promised, would revolutionize education (and everything else), leading to a future of “broad sunlit uplands”. After a few unfortunate early incidents in his association with the new technology, my brother termed computers “misbegotten offspring of malfunctioning typewriters.” The unfortunate incidents continued, probably as some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy – disrespected technology tends not to perform. On one afternoon shortly before an end of year history exam, I read out to Derek the marks each student had gained in each exam during the year, while he entered them into the computer; after marking the final test, we would then enter those results, and so establish a total for the year.
The computer expert guiding us told Derek to give a name to the History file so the marks could be recovered by the machine. Come the great day for the entry of the latest exam results, and Derek typed in the required name to recall the files: the computer responded with “No results”. Repeated attempts produced the same response, until Derek’s temper ignited; the staffroom echoed with abuse of “stupid ***** technology that NEVER ****** works!!!” My enquiry about the name produced the outraged response, “10 HIS, of course!” “Why don’t you add T to it?” I suggested, and at the prompt of 10 HIST the computer happily produced the required file. Derek’s only concession regarding his error was that the computer “should have known” what he was after.
Derek’s quarrel with the infernal machines was not just practical, however – it also extended to the philosophical area. He returned absolutely outraged from a (compulsory) in-service conference on computing in education, growling that the world had been overtaken by barbarians and Philistines. Apparently one lecturer had informed his audience that knowledge did not exist until it was put on computer, thereby (in Derek’s opinion) ignoring the great literature and achievements of Greece, Rome, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, and thus relegating the many centuries of Western European development to the scrapheap. (“Where do these fools think the facts they type in come from?” etc, etc.) So firm did Derek’s opposition to the technology become that he and fellow staff member Michael Callanan formed Ashgrove’s own LUDDITE Society (League for the Unearthing Detection and Destruction of Inappropriate Technological Encumbrances.) Sad to record, despite several letters to the editor of the Courier Mail, the modern day duo were as unable to prevent the march of the computer as the original Luddites had been to stop the Industrial Revolution.
Derek’s habit of plain speaking did not always endear him to the powers-that-be, and he many times found himself in conflict with “what was wanted” because he felt unable to pursue such a path. A notable example was a Year 9 History conference where the keynote speaker urged the teaching of the Reformation era from a view so anti-Protestant that it was ludicrous: Derek took as much as he could, and then asked the question, “Is that what you want us to teach the kids, or what actually happened?” This did not, understandably, make him flavour-of-the-month, but that was a typical example of Derek’s moral courage – he would never accept or adopt a course of action he felt was wrong or misguided. And if the consequences of his stance were liable to result in some form of censure for himself, that altered things not one iota – like the kangaroo and the emu on Australia’s coat-of-arms, he is not capable of taking a backward step. (We will speak more of this when we consider Derek’s relationships as a colleague, mentor, advisor, and Union representative: the steel that lies beneath a courteous and gentlemanly demeanour has surprised many an opponent. It is not wise to cross swords with Derek with the light of righteous wrath in his eyes.)
So, in 41 years of continuous service to the College, Derek has been one of its most constant and gifted teachers. He has inspired thousands of students, bringing out talents and determination they didn’t realise they possessed; he has mentored and advised young teachers and colleagues with patience, humour, and sympathy; he has argued (usually fruitlessly) against excessive curriculum alteration, and then done the “hard yards” as a Subject Master to ensure the impact of those alterations on his students and on the College as a whole is as minimal as possible; he is a font of wisdom and experience so invaluable as to be priceless. And he has done all this with (usually, unless computers are involved) calm courtesy, sweet reason, and dignity.
It is probably best to finish with an article which featured Derek in “The Catholic Leader” as an acknowledged master of his craft. When asked the secrets of successful teaching, he responded that knowledge of one’s subject was vital, as was proper preparation of lessons; getting to know individual students and to gain their respect was very important, as was a capacity for hard work; essential, however, was the need for classroom discipline, because “if they’re not listening, you’re not teaching.”
Nuggets of wisdom indeed, and on that note we will leave our further consideration of Derek Cameron until next year: he is a complex character, and other facets of that character are still to be revealed.
Until next time,