OBITUARY: Gratton Wilson AO 1929-2014

Gratton Wilson with Marion Wilson.

Gratton Wilson with Marion Wilson.

"A couple of weeks back one of my sons dropped by for a few days and introduced me to Twitter," wrote Gratton Wilson in his debut article for No Fibs. "Turned out it was like taking on a new job," he observed.

In the three years since, this scientist and activist, who died on June 7, 2014, garnered a devoted following for his clear arguments and common sense on climate change, compassion for asylum seekers and progressive politics. Along the way he put many noses out of joint.

Job well done, it could be said.

My father was born Leonard Gratton Wilson on March 1, 1929, at King Edward Hospital in the city of Subiaco, Western Australia.

He was always known as Gratton because his father (also Leonard Gratton Wilson) was already known as Len.

His father was originally from Manly, NSW, and became a policeman in the Western Australia Police.

His mother Dunbar Wilson was from the Isle of Man.

At the time Dad was born the Great Depression was underway and the Wilsons lived at Jubilee Street, South Perth.

In the early 1940s the family moved to Albany in the Great Southern region of Western Australia. Dad and his brother Dunbar attended Albany High School, where sixty years later my company filmed the television series Lockie Leonard (based on the books by Tim Winton).

For a time the family lived in the police house at number one Collie Street behind the police station.

Wartime stories of American submarine bases, flotillas of refugees from Singapore and sailors on leave, and troubles at dance halls filled Dad's head, and he formed lifelong friendships with his many of his mates from that time.

These included Ray Pelham-Thorman, a boarder with the Wilsons, and the Day brothers, Ross and Warren. Dad and Ray went on to university together and later reconnected after Ray moved to Canberra.

On being accepted to study science, Dad attended the University of Western Australia's St George's College, where he was a Guild Councillor and Guild President and a contemporary of a young Robert Hawke (later Australia's Prime Minister).

In 1953 Dad started work at the Western Australian State Government Chemical Laboratories as a physicist.

1953 was a milestone in Dad's early life, because in that year he also married Jocelyn Grant. They had four children - Christopher Gratton, Bennett Grant, Alexander Duff and Rosemary Jane Dunbar.

After graduating with a Master of Science degree in physics in 1956, he joined the Commonwealth Science Industry and Research Organisation (CSIRO) as a Scientific Administrator. Over the next 24 years Dad worked his way up to the position of Executive Secretary.

In 1967 he married Marion Thomas and they lived first in East Melbourne and Kew in Victoria, and when Dad was promoted to the CSIRO head office in Canberra they moved to Cook in the ACT. Finally they settled at the rural hideaway of Numeralla in the Monaro high country of NSW.

In 1985 he retired from the CSIRO after 30 years of service.

He represented Australia at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) which was founded in 1946 on the premise:

"That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed."

UNESCO's goal then and now, is: "To contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations."

The impression this global consciousness had on Dad never left him.

He served from 1978 to 1980 as Chairman of the Australian National Commission, an advisory committee for UNESCO.

In June 1979 Dad became an Officer in The General Division of the Order of Australia in recognition of his services to Science and UNESCO.

Dad and Marion's long stint in the Monaro high country started in the 1970s when, with friends Gordon and Kate McLennan, they purchased a small holding in the village of Numeralla on the Numeralla River, a half-hour drive from Cooma, NSW.

The block was quite treeless and had a very old and dilapidated mud hut which they repaired over many weekend and holiday projects.

Eventually Dad and Marion purchased the McLennans' share, planted a fruit orchard and many native trees and built the home they shared for the next 30 years. There, in Dad's words, they "took up breeding unusual high fecundity Merinos and glorious Border Collies."

Dad was always interested in using his hands, and was a proficient carpenter, electrician and welder. He and Marion studied silversmithing and spent many hours tumbling, cutting and polishing gemstones.

He loved to fossick for gold and thunder eggs and spent many, many weekends roaming the countryside, where he was an avid fly fisher for a time.

Despite all these interests and hobbies he always found time to participate in clubs and organisations.

He was a Councillor and then Mayor of Cooma-Monaro Council, and sat on, chaired and co-chaired committees and boards for Southern Area Health Service NSW, Australian Capital Region Reconciliation Committee and, most importantly to him, Greening Australia (ACT South East NSW) and Numeralla Land Care Upper Murrumbidgee Catchment Committee.

Dad was a member of the local high school council and the NSW Farmers Association and was involved in a number of business and training centres and transport study groups.

My favourite amongst his many enthusiastic commitments started in 1994 when Dad became convenor of the Serrated Tussock Taskforce.

On my visits to Numeralla I was often co-opted into walking the paddocks to hack away at the apparently endless noxious weeds - Paterson's Curse, St Johns Wort, Thistle and Serrated Tussock.

To a city-bred kid the colour of these flowering plants added to the raw beauty of the Monaro, however, Dad explained how the weeds threatened the pastoral ecosystems and if left uncontrolled would ruin the land.

The taskforce and groups such as Landcare placed the problem and the solution in the hands of the community, an end point Dad often arrived at.

With his background in science and his experience with UNESCO, Dad was passionate about education, health and the environment, and in his seventies he undertook a TAFE computer course in order to keep up with the development of online communication.

When he learned how to use the social network via Twitter in 2011, Dad took to that medium like a duck to water, tweeting and retweeting to a loyal group of like-minded followers around the world. Twitter allowed him to research and share his balanced and factual views, always with the good of society in mind.

When Dad's only sibling, my Uncle Dunbar, died last year, Dad asked me to travel to Perth to speak on his behalf at the funeral service. It was a very humbling experience, seeing some relatives who I had not seen for 40 years.

There we were, bonded by the loss of one of our seniors, one who had led the way. Now Dad has joined his brother and we are left to stand and lead.

One of the memories that resonates with me is walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on Reconciliation Day in May 2000, with Dad and my son - three generations marching for change.

Dad and I had a never-ending conversation about politics and what the right thing to do would be, like an endless news cycle. That's why tweeting was so good for him - constantly searching for materials and conversations kept him engaged.

Dad is survived by his wife Marion and his children Christopher, Bennett, Alexander and Rosemary, and many nieces, nephews and grandchildren, all of who will miss him greatly.

We have lost a great thinker and a valued citizen, and one of our treasured activist elders.

Originally published http://nofibs.com.au/2014/07/01/a-sons-endless-political-conversation-with-activist-elder-grattonwilson-ao-msc-1929-2014-bengrant58/

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