It is my privilege, first of all, to give you a brief outline
of Bill's life. This is to provide a context, as it were, for
the other three speakers, John, Ron and Helen, who will expound
with knowledge and authority on Bill's achievements as a person,
as an achieving engineer and businessman, and as a family member.
It is also my privilege to describe Bill as father, grandfather
and human being on behalf of his daughter Hilary, and her husband,
Bill was born in Ballarat in 1917. His grandparents were Irish
and Scottish. His father trained as a mining engineer. He later
became a civil engineer who specialised in bridge building. Bill
was one of five children in his family. He went to Ballarat College
where he was a successful student and sportsman, and later on
to Melbourne University to study engineering. But it is for his
brother John, in a few moments, to tell us more fully about these
Bill was only 22 when, in 1939, the Second World War consumed
the world. Bill, because of his background, was clearly destined
for the Army engineers. He joined up and soon achieved the rank
of Lieutenant. He was involved in the construction of the road
up the centre of Australia from Alice Springs to Darwin and afterwards
saw service overseas in New Guinea and Borneo.
When he was at University, Bill was in a boarding house with
a number of other students. In the same boarding house was a
fellow student, Constance Hartley Berry. They started to keep
company, shared good times together, and soon developed a close
relationship. They married in 1943 during the war years; their
marriage photo shows Bill in uniform. It was the beginning of
a long, stable and happy relationship. They both understood and
accepted each other's role in life. They had a lot of fun together.
Con died in 1993. It was a severe blow to Bill.
Bill and Con had two children, Hilary, - and Stephen, who pre-deceased
Bill by three years. This was a death which had an overwhelming
effect on the rest of Bill's life.
But back to earlier times. Bill worked hard in the early years
of his marriage. In 1953 he began his own practice, Irwin, Johnston
and Partners, which was very successful. He was the engineer
in the construction of the Myer Music Bowl and the Swimming Centre
for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. But I will say no more about
this because Ron Thyer is here to tell you about Bill's marvellous
achievements in this area.
He worked in his practice until his retirement ca 1985. In his
retirement he pursued a number of other business interests and
gained a reputation as a careful and successful investor. He
also enjoyed sailing and did some voluntary work for the community.
After Con's death and during his retirement Bill faced a certain
emptiness. Jenny Cheney, a long standing friend through her husband,
Bill, and the South Yarra Club, one day invited Bill to join
a tennis group in which she was involved. The tennis did Bill
the world of good, but the friendship with Jenny even more so!
Bill and Jenny, over time, developed a close and rewarding relationship.
Though they lived separately, they had many good times together,
including some wonderful holidays.
In recent years too, freed from the constraints of business
responsibility, Bill became an actively close and loving grandfather
to Emily, Hugh and Liam, the children of his son Stephen and
his wife Sue. This role became especially important after the
death of his son, Stephen, on May 31, 1997.
I had the privilege of officiating at Jim and Hilary's wedding
a few years ago. I met Bill there. Jim came into the Irwin family
and what gratifies him is the way Bill decided he was OK and
accepted him completely. The two men had a relationship of mutual
trust and respect and enjoyed each other's company.
The friendship was strong despite the fact that Bill barracked
for Melbourne and Jim is a Collingwood supporter!
Hilary has lost a father who loved her deeply and who was similarly
loved in return. Though Bill's work consumed a great deal of
his time when she was growing up they formed a bond through sailing.
On Saturdays, Hilary and Stephen as youngsters, used to sail
on Albert Park Lake to the great delight of their father. It
was wonderful common ground.
Relationship between parents and children can have their ups
and downs but Bill was a man who accepted his children's life
choices and the paths they chose, and supported them. He was
always there and very proud of both Hilary and Stephen. In these
last difficult months, Hilary and Bill developed a new level
of closeness, wherein Bill felt he could share with his daughter
more about himself, his feelings and his emotions. She remembers
her father who liked and was always interested in people. Power
or social position meant nothing. Bill judged and accepted people
on their personal worth. She admired her father as an innovative
engineer. And someone who was a shrewd but ethical business person.
Last August he was diagnosed as having cancer. It was a form
of the disease which progressed more rapidly than usual. Despite
surgery and radiotherapy Bill's condition deteriorated. Bill
faced his condition with patience and courage. Two weeks ago,
at his request, he left the Alfred Hospital to come home to die
in the care of his daughter. Hilary and Jim cared for him with
the help of the District Nursing Service.
He died peacefully last Thursday night, December 7, 2000.
3. Eulogy (John Irwin - Bill's younger brother)
I would now invite Mr John Irwin, Bill's youngest brother and
close friend, to speak.
Hil has asked me to say something about Bill as a sibling
and a friend, and I want to do that.
Bill was not only my brother, more importantly he was my closest
friend and confidante over about 70 years.
In the 25 years or so since we came to Melbourne, Jan also has
been close to Bill. She astonished me recently when she told
me that Bill said he remembered, with regret, that he had been
a tough and tormenting brother. I was flabergasted by this.
My recollection , always a bright memory, was that Bill was just
about the ideal older brother.
When I was a small boy he seemed not only omnipotent, but also
patient and affectionate, knew everything and was a dependable
Also he was a daring and imaginative risk taker I'm talking
about him at 14 and me at 6.
For instance, he could juggle four tennis balls. I remember our
parents arriving home from Melbourne with a wonderful and precious
dinner set. Great excitement as Nell, with us helping, began
the reverent unpacking. Beautiful yellow china, with jazz age
decoration at the edges. Nell dashed to the other end of the
house for a duster or something, Bill picked up three side plates
and juggled all three in the air at once. My heart was in my
mouth. When Nell returned unconscious of the drama, my pulse
returned to normal, my admiration knew no bounds.
Then he taught me things, all the time. When I was six he patiently
taught me to swim, at the boring shallow end, when he could well
have been bombing in among the girls at the deep end. When I
could dog paddle a width he bought me an ice cream out of his
threepence a week.
As well as the dog paddle, he taught me other life enhancing
skills. Like how to make a shanghai to ping the insulators on
the electricity poles - a thrillingly illicit pastime. Also,
he taught me how to ride a bike when I was five. It was a full
size bike and I was taught the "under the bar" technique.
Few of you under 70 will know about the under the bar technique,
but I assure you it's tricky, and needs a patient instructor
who will run endlessly alongside.
At a scandalously early age I was taught to start the car. It
was a huge Packard, with vertical nickel plated louvres over
the radiator which magically opened when the engine warmed. I
could gain enormous kudos by demonstrating this attribute of
the car to an astounded group of neighbouring eight year olds.
I was also taught to catch and cook yabbies, how to put topspin
on a forehand drive, how to walk on stilts - all the necessary
tribal knowledge of Ballarat North.
As Bill was eight years older than I, our paths diverged as he
moved into adolescence and young adulthood. I longed for his
return to Lydiard St, and it was a festival when he and Jean
came home. I never felt excluded by either of them. When Bill
was 18 he took me camping to the Grampians - surely a pretty
irritating constraint on an 18 year old.
In fact Bill's capacity to empathise with the young never diminished.
As I advanced to crust old bufferism he continued to find the
young amusing, sympathetic and fun! When he was about 65 he did
a long walk and climb in the Himalayas - nine weeks out from
base camp. The rest of the group averaged one third of his age.
Usually he would arrive into the evening camp an hour behind
the main group, they would roll out his sleeping bag, pitch his
tent, prepare the dinner while they waited for him. Many of them
sent him Xmas cards and greetings for years afterwards.
At 70 Bill joined me in a ride around Sri Lanka, and he loved
it. At about 72 he and Steve rode bikes from Greece to the Baltic,
which tested his endurance, but he loved that also. After Steve's
death it was a precious memory.
Not that Bill was especially physically strong. My father used
to say, very fondly, "He's got legs like a spider and feet
like a duck." But at 14 he was playing championship tennis
against 18 year olds. He was agile, fast, impossible to intimidate,
and deadly accurate. So he won. He was also a good hurdler, a
good footballer, especially in the dry, and played district cricket
into his late thirties.
Bill was always very connected to the natural world and became
a knowledgable ornithologist. The book in his pack throughout
the war was Caley's "What Bird is That?", and I've
never seen a more dog eared and pencil annotated copy! He loved
sailing - especially the tactical and competitive aspects, and
he was good at it. Bill was born at what was always known in
the family as "The Terrace" that was before our parents
acquired our family home about 1925. The "Terrace"
was a large ornate Victorian terrace house occupied by our mother's
family, the Lyles.
Our father was away from Ballarat a lot and Nell lived at the
Terrace with her parents, Bill and Jean and her five brothers,
two of them recently back from the war in France. I think it
was a sunny time for Bill with young men coming and going, he
had an early childhood of piggy backing, shoulder rides and swinging
games. He told me that until he was about four he never really
sorted out which of these wonderful creatures was his father.
It was a good early start, but fairly soon in Bill's life period
disasters began to sweep over the family. I think there was a
death about every 2 years from 1922 to 1935.
The most shattering was the death of our five year old sister,
Alison. Bill was about 11. The consequences of that death were
profound and permanent, I believe. As an 11 year old he had to
cope and find his own way forward to the next part of his life,
with me training at his heels.
Earlier I mentioned that Bill was an arbitrary risk taker, the
dinner plates, car joyriding, the occasional brush with the constabulary
about whipping in the backs of trams, insulator pinging and so
That all changed. He became a calculated risk taker. I think
it was at school that he fell in love with numbers, which he
thereafter applied to risks. He never claimed to be a mathematician,
but he loved the precision of numbers.
I think in the black economic depression, the succession of family
deaths and misfortunes, the manipulation of numbers was a controlling
and comforting skill, independent of the storms without.
He had a good mind, a formidable capacity to focus on a problem
and a love of precise calculation. Engineering was a natural
avenue for him.
His success in developing I.J.P. depended on more than that.
It also had to do with the fact the Bill was a hell of a good
bloke. Never pretentious, usually humorous, always open to everyone.
All these qualities combined to make him a focus about which
a people dependent enterprise could grow and prosper. You see,
it was practically impossible not to like Bill.
For myself, I'm finding it hard to imagine life without him.
4. Eulogy (Ron Thyer.)
I would now like to ask Ron Thyer, former member of Irwin, Johnston
and Partners to pay his tribute to Bill on behalf of the profession.
I am honoured that Hilary has asked me to speak today. Perhaps
it's because I was, after Don Breedon, Bill's second full-time
employee. We both joined him in l953, and I was still, again,
at IJP when Bill retired in 1983.
Let me talk first about the firm he founded and has left behind.
Bill completed his engineering degree at the University of Melbourne
after war service. He worked first with Consulting Engineers
J.L. & E M. Daly. While there, he joined forces with architects
Peter McIntyre, John and Phyllis Murphy, and the late Kevin Borland
to develop their entry for the design competition for the Swimming
Stadium for the 1956 Olympic Games.
Their winning entry was a radical design which met with resistance
from some public authorities. With Bill's patience and persistence,
and quiet presentation, strongly supported by Professor Arthur
Francis, of Melbourne University, their proposal was eventually
Bill opened his own practice, W L Irwin & Associates,
in l952 in an office in St Kilda Road, which he shared with the
architects. What a charming old place that was, a once gracious
mansion, in a decaying garden, now long gone. But what a stimulating
and fun environment inside!
The project was completed successfully, and saw many different
uses in the years after the Games. In the late '70s it was converted
to the State Indoor Sports and Entertainment Centre, and recently
it survived the effects of the City Link tunnels deep beneath
it, which threatened to sink it!
The office grew and went on to handle a succession of notable
projects with some of Melbourne's leading architects - among
Sidney Myer Music Bowl
Academy of Science Dome, Canberra
State Government Offices Complex
BHP Research Laboratories in Clayton
University Buildings at
Melbourne, Monash, La Trobe, ANU and others
3 High rise Office Buildings:
BHP former headquarters
State Bank Centre
530 Collins Street - Stock Exchange
New Parliament House, Canberra
The firm title changed over the years to
Irwin, Johnston & Breedon, with Roy Johnston and Don.
Irwin, Johnston & Partners
and Scott, Wilson, Irwin, Johnston since the earl y 90's
After moving to East Melbourne, then South Melbourne, the firm
is now in a new home in Kingsway.
Bill couldn't be closely involved personally in all the projects
I've mentioned. However, it was he who established and built
on the framework which made them possible for the office. The
client base, the wide contacts, and his ability to empathise
with clients and understand their needs were vital. The culture
and atmosphere of the office, his encouragement and support for
his colleagues, and his ready availability for guidance and advice
were a source of strength for us all. He in turn drew strength
and support from his late wife, Con. She was the same warm kind
of person as Bill, showing the same genuine interest in and concern
for his colleagues.
Above all there were his courage, his ability to delegate,
and his solid integrity which gave colleagues the freedom and
space to accept responsibility and carry projects through, put
their own stamp on them, make their own mistakes and learn from
them with his support.
So he was the last one to claim all the credit, and was always
ready to acknowledge the efforts of those at the coalface.
We all admired and respected Bill, a lovely guy, gentle and
a gentleman, kind, compassionate, and extremely tolerant, with
a fine sense of humour. He had a great influence on our lives,
probably more than we realise even now. We are all grateful to
have been his colleagues.
I hope I'll be excused for concluding with two examples of
There was for many years a Hungarian lady, Mimi, in the drawing
office. She was a meticulous and diligent draftswoman, and incidentally,
a superb cook! In the early 80s she contracted cancer and died
in 1984. Many who knew her were in Canberra then, and she had
lost her husband years before. But Bill spent many hours with
her in hospital, near the end, held her hand, talked and listened
in his gentle style.
On a less sombre note - Bill had a couch in his office on
which he sensibly rested when he was close to his elastic limit.
Years ago there was another draftsman, again a good worker, in
spite of a very active night life. One evening Bill decided to
return to the office to clear up some work in peace and quiet.
On opening his door he was aware of intense athletic activity,
of some kind on the couch. He quietly closed the door, he told
us - " the poor things probably had nowhere else to go!"
That would not have done at all for Isambard K. Brunel's office!
So, Bill, perhaps you'll be up there beside Stephenson, Brunel,
Eiffel. Nervi, and Arup, at the feet of the Supreme Civil Engineer
of them all. And perhaps He'll explain to you how the Myer Bowl
cables really work!
Farewell, friend and colleague.
5. Eulogy (Helen Townsend - Bill's niece)
Bill Irwin was my uncle. I've known him all my life and I'll
really miss him.
In childhood, uncles are larger than life. In adulthood, they
become more like other people, but still retain that childhood
Bill really loved to laugh, and he loved a good time. From my
childhood, I associated Bill with his laugh, which was loud,
distinctive, and just full of pleasure. As I've got older, I
began to see the things that made him laugh were life's ironies
and idiosycrancies. He laughed over foibles and idiocies
in himself as much as in other people.
He loved a good story. He loved the Simpsons and he remembered
the good lines. He liked Seinfeld. He liked stories about people.
And you could always get him to laugh with a good story about
a dog. All that meant he was a great person to be around.
Both my parents, Jean, who was his older sister, and my father
Alan were very proud of what Bill achieved. When we were kids
we knew how he'd engineered the Olympic pool for the '56 games.
We never went to Canberra without driving round the Science Bowl
a couple of times. Later, I pointed his buildings dotted round
Melbourne to my children.
But the interesting thing about Bill's achievements was he had
a sort of diffidence about them. I'm sure he was proud of what
he did. His work was an enormous part of his life, totally engaging
and vitally important to him. But when you asked him about his
latest project, he'd tell you a bit about it, then say something
like, "Well, I got a kid in the office to check the maths
on it. You know, I don't want it falling down." And I remember
his pleasure when he told the story of getting a builder to look
at a crumbling wall of his house in O'Shaunessy Street, and the
builder said, "You ought to get an engineer to look at that."
I think he also never knew how much people liked him and cared
about him. He was often a bit surprised that you rang or wanted
to visit him. It wasn't modesty because it was less conscious
than that. He just didn't realise the warmth and affection other
people felt for him.
Bill was a complicated man. He struggled with a lot of anxieties
about the sort of person he was and the sort of person he thought
he should be. To me, that struggle was an indication, not of
some sort of airy fairy ideal of perfection, but a confirmation
he was a person of great depth, character and integrity.
In his last years, he had a lot to contend with. First, there's
was Con's death after their very long marriage, then the tragedy
of Stephen's death. Life's never the same after something like
that, but he faced life again despite his grief. He desperately
wanted a good life for his grandchildren, Emily, Hugh and Liam,
who he loved so much.
Bill was in Sydney with Jenny in July. All his nieces and nephews
there had a great sense of excitement about him coming. We all
loved seeing him and spending time with him. He was interested
in everything, curious about things. He liked knowing how things
worked, the history of them, ideas about them. He liked to get
a handle on things. I guess those were some of the qualities
that made him so inventive in his work, as well as making him
such an interesting person to be with.
He didn't know back in July that he had cancer, but he did talk
about death and there were two things he said that struck me.
One was that he said he had felt haunted by death all his life.
The other, which is almost contradictory, was that he didn't
think the death of anyone over sixty-five was a great tragedy.
I suppose that illustrates two major aspects of his personality
his wide view of life and his own internal struggles, which
co-existed with his deep practicality and pragmatism.
We talked about death, but we also talked also about how much
he was enjoying life right then. He talked about Hilary and Jim,
about his Emily and Hugh and Liam, about John and Jan, and Jenny.
These were some of the people who were intertwined with his life
on an everyday basis.
That was only four months ago. I last saw him a few weeks
ago in hospital. He was very much engaged by the present and
interested in everyone's lives. I had come to Melbourne with
my sister Alison, and he was slightly shocked by us wasting money
to come and see him. That's the way he saw it anyway. He gave
us directions back to the airport so we could avoid paying the
toll. He still liked to laugh and I don't think he felt haunted
by death any more. He absolutely trusted those closest to him,
Hilary in particular, that he would die at home, in peace and
with dignity, that it would be alright. And it was.
He talked about his life, not with a rosy romantic glow, but
with a sense of peace and fulfillment. It was all the mark of
the person he was.
Bill will be greatly missed and greatly mourned, by his immediate
family, his extended family, his tennis group, his other friends,
his professional colleagues. He'll be remembered with great love
by all of us here.
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