Dick McGowan: A few remarkable ‘back stories’

Barry Golding, 5 November 2015

The role the late Dick McGowan played in starting up the first Men’s Shed opened by that name in the world in Tongala, Victoria, Australia in July 1998 is covered in considerable detail in my recently published Men’s Shed Movement: The Company of Men book (14 pages, between 114 & 127). Indeed the ‘Company of Men’ idea comes directly from McGowan’s genius.

On page 123 of my book I say ‘One day someone will write more about the many other facets of Dick McGowan’. This brief account, created in advance of the Victorian launch on my book in Tongala on 16 November 2015 goes some small way towards doing this. It is based mainly on interviews and documents collected in 2015 after my Men’s Shed Movement book manuscript was finalised, including from conversations in mid 2015 with his remarkable and generous widow, Ruth McGowan. My particular thanks for much of this new information to former Gordon Dowell (who worked with Dick in Tongala, now living in Newstead, Victoria), Lynne Cooper (now in Bendigo), Alan Dureau from Tongala (who was Principal in Tongala when Dick McGowan began work there) and Rob and Olya Willis from Forbes, NSW.

Dick McGowan was a widely travelled and highly regarded concert and dance band pianist and entertainer, sometimes teaming up with Graeme Watt, a bush poet, as the Coolstore Concert Company. Dick was born in Maroubra in Sydney in 1940. He was taught piano by a nun at the school he attended in Castlemaine, Victoria and played in his first dance band at age 13. At band gigs, at dances and in venues such as the Leagues Club foyer in Moama he would persuasively talk and network with patrons to get them to support and donate to any of his many community projects.

One of the most powerful new documents to elaborate on Dick’s philosophy about the Men’s Shed, opened in his honour as the Dick McGowan Men’s Shed in July 1998 surfaced via Ruth McGowan after the text of the book had been finalised. In words typed by Dick dated 27 May 1999 and signed off as ‘The Company of Men’, McGowan used capitalisation for emphasis when he noted that the list of things that might take place in the Shed

… is endless. WE SHOULD NOT THINK OF THE SHED AS ONLY A WORK-SHOP. It is an activity centre, a meeting place, a place for discussion and argument, a place for companionship – in short a part of HOME.

WE SHOULD TRY AND ENCOURAGE THE CULTURE THAT MEN ARE ‘GOING TO WORK’ WHEN THEY GO TO THE SHEDS. THIS IS ONLY A CONTINUATION OF WHAT THEY HAVE NONE FOR MOST OF THEIR LIVES. THE WHOLE SECRET OF THE PERCEIVED SUCCESS, OR NOT, OF THE SHED CONCEPT, WILL LIE IN OUR ABILITY TO FIND THE KEY/REASON THAT MAKES EACH INDIVIDUAL WANT TO GO THERE. (page 2, ‘The Men’s Shed at Tongala Aged Care Complex’, Dick McGowan)

Dick was two-year trained as a primary school teacher at Bendigo Teachers College in 1958-9. He was posted to schools at Tarnagulla, Kananook (Frankston) then Dingley before the family moved to Tongala as a ‘temporary move’: they had intended to move on to Wangaratta but they never made it. Dick and Ruth in married January 1963 and had nine children including two sets of twins. Their third son, Peter died at 8 and a half months while they were in Frankston. Ruth became ‘the essential rock’ at home for much of Dick’s working life. Their other children are today all grown up and spread very widely.

Dick was a highly regarded primary school teacher. An unsourced and undated newspaper cutting headed ‘Dick’s near the top of class’ noted that Mr Richard McGowan (then at Tongala Consolidated School, age 41) was being considered in the final selection of the Victorian Teacher of the Year award. The evidence cited in the article went back almost three decades before his creation of the first ever Men’s Shed. The cited evidence is reproduced verbatim below:

  • ‘His sustained innovatory approach to education over many years. That approach won him the G.S Browne Prize for outstanding educational practice and successful use of teaching methods on teaching by a classroom teacher in 1970. [then age 30]
  • His actions in seeking out and developing programs to cater for the individual needs of individual children.
  • His sustained and successful efforts to utilise resources from departmental, Commonwealth programs and community resources to further the educational and cultural opportunities for children and the community generally.
  • His efforts to develop teachers and programs within and beyond his own school.’

Dick’s first early experiment with community education for adults in Tongala was The Cottage. Created in tandem with Murray Ross, a local graphic artist, it was for many years a local activity centre opposite the Tongala Swimming Pool. Like the Men’s Shed, McGowan regarded it as a place to go and do things.

Dick was a major contributor to the creation and regional success of the Country Education Project (CEP) model in Victoria, which was still operating in 2015. McGowan wrote in 1981 that he regarded CEP as ‘a grass roots, self help scheme. According to Gordon McDowell (21 May 2015 email)

Don Edgar and Dick developed the innovative CEP [Country Education project model. If not, he certainly had the task along with Don of selling the concept around the state [of Victoria]’.

The CEP North Central Area Information Booklet from 1979 provides a brief history of CEP, which Dick McGowan was closely associated with from its inception in 1977. At one stage Dick

… was the Director of CEP under the Chairmanship of Dr Don Edgar. Within this role he advocated for and supported a wide range of education initiatives within rural and remote communities if Victoria that we often take for granted today’ (‘A rural educators contribution to the Men’s Shed Movement’, CEP Newsletter, 2015).

For eight years from 1985 Dick spearheaded the creation of a radical Conductive Education School in Tongala for children with neurological disorders. The Conductive Education model was first pioneered in Hungary and focused on young children with cerebral palsy. Whilst operating, the Tongala-based program that Lynne Cooper became an important part of ‘worked with around 150 families from all states of Australia, from New Zealand and Papua New Guinea’. In a huge advertisement thanking donors and supporters as the School was forced to close in early 1992, Dick listed over 100 individual sponsors and 150 community organisations, including 23 CWA Branches, 13 Catholic Women’s Leagues, and nine Lions Clubs that had provided support.

Dick took a 54 year 11 month ‘early departure package’ from his position as Primary School Vice Principal, as part of the aggressive Jeff Kennett-era school restructure and closure program. Kennett, to 2015 Chair of beyondblue, a national depression initiative, was the Victorian Liberal Premier from 1992 until his electoral defeat by Steve Bracks in September 1999. In the first three years of Kennett’s Premiership, 350 government schools were closed and 7,000 teaching jobs were eliminated. The campaign of privatisation and cutbacks that led to people losing their jobs was popularly known as ‘being Jeffed’. In several ways, ‘being Jeffed’ on what he described as a ‘Kennett Scholarship’ arguably spurred Dick to find ways of helping other men debilitated and not in work for a wide range of other reasons: and to the invention of his Men’s Shed in a community setting

Dick was an unwell man for much of the last decade of his life before his early death at age 59 in 1999, only one year after his remarkable Men’s Shed, effectively the first in the world, was formally opened by Sharman Stone, MHR. Dick had his first, then undiagnosed heart attack in 1981 and his second major attack in October 1997 in the period where he was working tirelessly to get his Men’s Shed funded and built. Dick also suffered from poorly managed diabetes, leading in his final year to several lower limb amputations and restriction to a wheelchair.

A ‘testimonial celebration’ including a concert and dinner was held for Dick and Ruth in their honour in April-May 1999. In thanking the Tongala community for their thoughtfulness and generosity on 15 May 1999, Dick noted that the move to Tongala had been ‘the move of a lifetime’, and selflessly said, “Friends, without you there would be no past; without you there would be no future.” Ruth McGowan remarked in a 2015 interview with Rob and Olya Willis for the National Sound Archives in Canberra that a lot of what Dick wanted to do with and for the Men’s Shed in Tongala did not happen because of his heart attack. If only Dick knew what he had started.

As a final postscript, a small group of older Tongala men that dubbed themselves ‘The Bike Brigade’ regularly rode their bicycles to the Men’s Shed with Hec Macleod as their leader. Gordon, Cox who died at age 102, rode his bike to the Men’s Shed until he was 95. Bert Andrews, a returned serviceman from the Second World War was the only member of the Men’s Shed Bike Brigade surviving to May 2015.

Reference:

Golding, B. (Ed.) (2015) The Men’s Shed Movement, The Company of Men. Champaign: Common Ground Publishing.

if you have any information that can help enhance (or correct) any of this brief and partial account of Dick McGowan’s life and community contributions, please contact Barry Golding.

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