At Christmas I heard of the death of one of the leaders I interviewed for my book. Professor Frank Fisher died in August 2012 of complications from a brain tumour. I interviewed Frank in October 2011. Just a month or two later the tumour was diagnosed. I’ve written a piece of 1500 words about Frank and what I take to be the meaning of his life, and I’m approaching various publications with a view to publishing it. One has agreed to online publication; I also want print publication. I want it not for my sake. I want it for Frank’s sake and the sake of our society.
Following are some excerpts from the piece. Stay for the credits. There is gold there.
“Have you had an experience of transformation?” I asked.
“Many, so many”, the man said promptly.
And he told of being 19 and studying in Switzerland when he suffered the first episode of the illness he would have for the rest of his life. They diagnosed it as cancer and he spent many months in a sanatorium. Then one day he collapsed in agony. They operated and discovered it was Crohn’s Disease. Outside the hospital he was living in spare accommodation, and the father of one of his fellow students, hearing of his circumstances, invited the young man into his home to recuperate with his family.
As he tells of this time, the man is deeply moved. Almost fifty years on, he cries as he remembers the father’s compassion to his frightened younger self, ill and far from home.
I first met Professor Frank Fisher through Radio National, and it was through Radio National that I heard of his death. We met when I heard a nameless man speaking on a program about his childhood growing up in a town in country Victoria, and of the ruthless suppression of all that was soft and tender in that place and time.
The man’s description electrified me. I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney at a later time, and had felt the same prohibitions on softness and vulnerability, the same savagery in men and boys and in the air. And here at last someone was speaking of this strangeness in Australian life as if it were remarkable.
Years went by, and every so often I recalled the man speaking on the radio and wondered about him. Then one day in 2011 … and for reasons I cannot fully explain, I knew that this was the man I had heard on the radio years before. He was revealed to be Professor Frank Fisher, now of Swinburne University, a towering figure in academic and community life in Melbourne, and renowned for his wisdom and leadership on environmental and social justice issues.
He arrived on pushbike … I’d picked the cafe for the location rather than the service which could tend to the haughty, but on this morning even the waiters seemed to understand that here was someone special and they were kind and attentive to the frail, nuggety, white-haired man, older than his 67 years.
… he told me about the launch of The Understandascope. In 2005, he was made redundant from Monash University where he had taught in the school of geography and environmental science for 25 years … Instead of salting away the proceeds, a man in his 60s, he donated the money back to the university by founding a research institute …
… at 10am, in a crowded cafe, he went out to meet his experience of vulnerability, and I understood how far he had travelled from the country town of his childhood and his birth under the sign “no sissiness here”. Here in this cafe, he repudiated it again, and announced to the world and the emotionally strangulated land, “See, here is a man.”
… I see now what Frank stood for and what was his genius. It was to make his life and its meaning explicable to the world, so that any passing person, including someone such as myself, could say with absolute confidence who he was and what he made possible in the world. Frank Fisher was the possibility of compassion and vulnerability in the world. Even more, he was the possibility of compassion and vulnerability in the world being seen to be the possibility of compassion and vulnerability in the world.
It’s all in those two experiences, the tender boy growing up in a place where softness is feared and reviled, and the young man, ill and alone in Switzerland being taken in by the student’s father. What economy he achieved! What elegance! Two anecdotes, and his life and its immense meaning is explicable.
Frank’s son, Tim Fisher, wrote the obituary for Frank that was published in The Age … Tim tells of an incident from Frank’s time at Swinburne University, where he was Professor of Sustainability for 7 years:
Colleagues at the Swinburne faculty of design remember Frank’s response to a bold message that appeared in the staff kitchen with instructions to “clean up your own mess and do your own dishes”. A graffiti-style note quickly appeared, reading: “We are all vulnerable at different times in our lives and need people to look after us, so what’s wrong with cleaning up for others sometimes?”
Following is a selection of comments made by Frank’s friends and former students upon his death:
Like history’s great teachers, there was no division between Frank’s teaching and his life. He lived what he taught. He donated large portions of his earnings to charities; he famously produced less than a one litre milk carton of “waste” per week, and did not own a car. Far from being austere or spartan, Frank lived a rich and generous life. All elements of his thinking and living were open to his students for interrogation. One of the great satisfactions of studying with Frank was hearing him say incredulously “My god I have never thought of that. You’re right!” ~ Environment Victoria
His is a great loss to us all. His contributions to what we might call deep social learning, where environmental issues are solved not by learning about environmental loss, but by learning about the social constructions that led to that loss, are invaluable. He also taught and understood the wisest lessons about behaviour and habit. If a person wants change, they have to live it. ~ Roger Jones
From my friend, Frank Fisher, I have learned love. I’ve tried to take some care in expressing this: it’s not learning about love, or about how to love that I’m pointing to here, though along the way I expect I’ve learned something of that too. I’m not trying to say something like, “prior to our friendship, I didn’t know love.” And I don’t know that Frank actually set out to teach love. It’s more along these lines:
Walking awhile with Frank,
Love is embodied.
Nothing to remark about.
One of the last things Frank said to me … “If only there was something I could say or do that demonstrated how much fun it is to participate in life in this way.” ~ Anthony James
Image: The Understandascope, Michael Leunig, 1984 (it was from this cartoon that Frank took the name, with Leunig’s permission, for his research institute)