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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Last Message from Denis

For all my life, I've been a remarkably fortunate person. I've been blessed with good health until the last few years, and bathed in the love of wonderful people around me. I've had an abundance of good things. I've had periods of sadness, too, and I very much regret having made those I love unhappy – but those times have passed and it serves no purpose to wallow in what can't be changed. In my adult life I never hurt anyone out of malice, though I know I sometimes did out of thoughtlessness and ignorance.

Tracey & Denis
The last fourteen years of my life I have spent with, and been loved by, and married the one who is to me the most beautiful, intelligent and caring woman in the world. It's impossible for me to express the amount of care and time and patience Tracey has given me, with little thought to her own needs. She has always placed mine first. This path we've had to share since 2009 has been more difficult than anyone can understand unless you've travelled a similar one – and cared as much as she has. She hid her tears from me many times, knowing how much they tore me apart; yet to cry alone and out of sight is one of the saddest things in life.

I was able to truly understand the meaning of love through her presence in my life.

Denis with Sylvia (L), Christian & Alice (R)
I also have wonderful, clever, loving daughters who mean the world to me, and a family – parents, my sisters and their husbands and families, who gave structure to my life through their love and concern. I have a loving stepdaughter, and I have a delightful stepson who has grown in Tracey’s and my care from a little child to a fine man. Tracey’s family has been as my own to me and gave me abundant support when it was most needed.

My life has been completed and fulfilled by some very special people. They know who they are and I won't try to name them here. I've had an occupation all my life that I've loved and which made my work my play; and made my occupation my hobby. Not everyone can say that. After retirement from university life, I did things that have given me great pleasure and, I believe, pleasure to many other people. I have no great unfulfilled ambitions, except the trip to Europe that Tracey, Christian and I planned to do in 2010, and which became impossible when my illness came to light.

If I've clung to life to the end it's only because of the joy of sharing life with close family and friends, and my desire to be with them as long as possible. For me, nothing else mattered but those bonds of love and friendship. To allow them to slip away is, by far, the most difficult thing to accept.

So I say with utter sincerity that I've had a fortunate life – far more fortunate than most people on this planet, and I'll always be grateful for this. But that balance – so heavily in favour of good things over bad in my life – is why I'm also grateful that I had the chance to reflect on my life and its meaning through the window of terminal illness. That time for reflection isn't something everyone gets. It's a window through which things become sharper and more vivid than any other.

It came as a shock nevertheless to face the near-certainty of imminent death at an age when I might have expected to live longer than I did. I thought about death a great deal in the past few years. Not everyone does. I became more aware than ever that life is always a fleeting thing, whether you reach one year of age, or ten or a hundred years. Every life is a little spark that flickers briefly, sometimes brightly, and then the spark fades quickly and passes back into an infinity of space and silence.

That's how we're programmed. While we live for this brief time, our bodies are the bearers of who and what we are. They are not us; they're just the vessels in which our true self resides. We stop sometimes, and try to take stock. We move on, and simply live. We occasionally contemplate the great questions or put them aside as an insoluble puzzle.

This is just how it should be. Whatever endures beyond my body will do so, especially in the form of the consequences of my actions in life, and my only wish is that whatever I've taken from the world, I have been able to give something meaningful back.

When my youngest sister Kay died of breast cancer in 2008, she told us always to look for her spirit in the flowers. This is written on her headstone. It's very apt – life and beauty regenerated. She was an earth person, and she lies at the source of her beloved plants and flowers and trees.

I am a sky person, which is why I wanted my mortal remains to be cremated. Anyone who wishes to can imagine my spirit set free to roam where it will. Day or night, in the eternity of space and time, there's something of me that will be around somewhere.

Sunset - Armidale NSW

Only recently have I truly understood the meaning of the Tibetan verse: ‘Don't mourn for me, but for those who stay behind.’ I am now free. If you mourn for me just the right amount, I am honoured - but celebrate, as I always have done, my life and good fortune – and accept, as I always have, the wisest of all sayings from Chinese philosophy, 
'Who knows what's good or bad?'

I am truly free.

Eulogy for Dr Denis Wright (2/5/1947 – 7/12/2013)

Tracey has asked me to review what we might call the public life of Dr Denis Wright.  Denis and I joined UNE’s History Department at the same time in January 1976 and we retired on the same day in July 2007 so we had a lot of shared history.

Everyone present this morning had a connection with Denis in some way or another and held him in high esteem with great affection.  But which Denis do you remember?  Is it Denis the internationally recognised scholar, the inspirational and innovative teacher, the exacting but supportive supervisor, the enthusiastic hockey player and exuberant coach, the creative film-maker or one of several other roles that Denis filled quietly and self-effacingly?  With the assistance of Tracey’s notes, Denis’ blog and information from Howard Brasted I’ll try and cover most of these aspects.

Denis was born in May 1947 in Gladstone, Queensland but spent his childhood on the family dairy farm in Calliope about 20 kilometres away with two older sisters Jan and Lyn and later a younger one, Kay.  Dairying in the 1950s was the most exacting form of farming and from an early age Denis helped with the milking.  His mother would wake him with a cup of tea and a slice of toast about 5.45 and leave for the milking parlour.  Denis followed and helped with the cows until around 7 before returning to the house to get breakfast for himself and Kay and leaving for school.  After school and at weekends he often helped with the second milking. 

Denis started school early, before he was 5, at Calliope State School where 40 or 50 children were taken to grade 8.  Although he was younger than his classmates Denis did well at school but had a clear view that he was not going to be a farmer.  When asked if he was proceeding to Gatton Agricultural College he told the head teacher “Sir … I don’t want to be a farmer. I want to be a teacher”.  Consequently, he went on to High School in Gladstone and finished there with a result in the senior public exam which won him a scholarship to the Teachers’ College at Kelvin Grove in Brisbane.  When he left home to stay with his mother’s sister, Auntie Mavis, he was not yet 17.

Followers of Denis’s blog will find many stories of his childhood and they all reflect the innocence of a very different era though there are amusing tales of his misadventures with Bimbo Brown and the organizational perils, tinged with a frisson of danger, in having a ‘Calliope girl’ and a ‘Town girl’ for the different local dances.

The teachers’ course was 2 years but within two weeks of its commencement Denis had enrolled in a BA at the University of Queensland which could be studied externally with twice-weekly evening classes.  Here serendipity shaped Denis’s future.  There were only three options in the history programme and he didn’t fancy European or American history but Indian history sounded different and interesting.  More importantly he met two people who were to have an enormous influence both professionally and personally –Dr Damodar Singhal and his wife Dr Devahuti.

Denis & Duncan
Denis finished Teachers’ College at the end of 1965 and was appointed first to Gladstone Central school and then to his old school at Calliope where he found himself teaching his younger second cousins in the same rooms where he had been a pupil.  During the two years he was teaching he kept on with external studies for his BA expanding his interest in Asia with courses on China, Japan and the Modern Far East and always with good results including a Distinction that was surprisingly upgraded to a High Distinction and allowed him to apply for and win a much prized and rare Commonwealth Later Year Award that enabled him to go to university as a full-time student. 

Back in Brisbane Denis lodged with his father’s sister Auntie Amy and was soon joined in the city by Kay who was also at the university.  In the long university vacations Denis went home and worked in an assortment of summer jobs, as a postie, a barman, a wine waiter and a labourer on the coal wharves stacking oil drums.

Denis imagined he would return to teaching and, in time, probable promotion to a headmastership, but he was persuaded to do Honours in history with a thesis on the Kashmir Dispute.  His kindly mentors Drs Singhal and Devahuti then asked him to stay on as a Tutor on the History of Asian Civilisations course which he did from 1971 until he moved to UNE.  A Tutor was paid more than a teacher of an equivalent age and Denis saw this as an opportunity to marry Janette and, with regular renewals of his contract offering security, to start a research MA on the relations between India and Pakistan.  He was 23.

In 1973 on the day he submitted his MA Denis enrolled for a PhD on the new state of Bangladesh which was formed in 1971 from what had been East Pakistan.  With the commitment that we have all seen in various settings, Denis threw himself into research with a trip to London and a stint at Chatham House with several months in India and Bangladesh before returning to Brisbane to continue as a Tutor and work on his research topic. 

By the time he accepted the lecturing position at UNE in 1976, Alice had arrived in 1975 to be joined by Sylvie four years later.  Denis suspended his PhD while he constructed new courses, wrote lectures and external teaching materials but a study leave in 1980 allowed him to do the work in the USA, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Oxford that finally enabled him to finish and submit his thesis.

This is not the place to recite a catalogue of Denis’s many publications.  It is sufficient to note that he wrote several books, co–authored others and published many chapters and articles on aspects of Bangladeshi history, politics and culture and that he was a widely recognized expert on the modern history of the sub-continent and, of course, on Bangladesh in particular.  He wrote articles on child labour and the trafficking of women and girls in Asia and the chapters for an Australian government report on child labour in Bangladesh and Nepal that has been used by other governments as a model for combating child labour in developing countries.

Denis spent several study leave periods in Bangladesh, including one when virtual civil war raged around Dhaka and he heard the bullets snapping overhead.  His first two books on Bangladeshi history and politics were published simultaneously in that country and India.  It is typical of Denis that he arranged that the royalties on these books remain in the sub-continent and be distributed to various charities and foundations.  The number sold and the extent of the charitable outcome is unknown but both have enjoyed a constant cycle of reprints and republication by other publishers.  Denis became such a well-known figure in Bangladesh that he was affectionately referred to as the ‘white Bengali’ – speaking and reading both Hindi and Bengali – and an observer who understood the psychology of both Hindus and Muslims.  Indeed, it was for that reason that he was invited in 2001 to give the keynote address at the inaugural meeting of the Bangladeshi Psychological Society at Dhaka University.

At UNE Denis was an inspiring teacher.  Through his long-lasting, full-year unit The Great Traditions of Asia he introduced generations of students to the history, culture, philosophies and religions of India, China and Japan.  It is no exaggeration to say that he opened the minds of many to the possibilities of ‘otherness’ and he displayed manifest satisfaction when students began to switch on to the cultural history of South and East Asia.  He was also a very good supervisor at all levels; exacting in his insistence on accuracy, use of evidence and elegant expression but always supportive and eager to see his students realise the same goals that had been his as a young scholar.  He was the pre-eminent innovator in the Department and later the School in his use of emerging technologies in distance education.  Indeed his foundation unit was one of the first to be offered online long before it became standard practice.  He was also the acknowledged, though unpaid, ‘go to’ man when any of the historians encountered problems with their computers.  You must remember that those were the days when it was decided to issue computers to all staff but there was no money to train colleagues how to use them.

His contribution to the profession was no less significant.  In 1984 he became the Treasurer of the South Asian Studies Association, the professional body representing scholars in that field.  This was when the colleagues in Asian history at UNE took over a virtually moribund journal and turned it around so that it is today regarded as one of the world’s best.  In 2000 SASA awarded Denis Life Membership as an acknowledgment for the twenty years he served the Association.

Denis met Tracey when she was studying philosophy and world religions.  They had much in common, as we came to realise, and with his first marriage over Denis pursued a romance with his customary diligence.  Tracey eventually moved to Armidale in 1999 and her passion for music and the theatre opened up a whole new area of interest for Denis.  He started to make films of Musical Society productions and after his retirement he continued to film, edit and produce DVDs so successfully that he and Tracey set up Tabbycat Productions - a small filming and editing business.  As you can imagine Denis quickly mastered the intricacies of digital editing and production and was getting ever more enthusiastic about the venture when his illness was diagnosed.  Denis was made a Life Member of the Musical Society and an award set up in his name.  It is a fitting acknowledgement of everything Denis stood for that the chief criterion in selecting a recipient for the award is that their commitment to the Musical Society outweighs their desire for self- promotion.

That brings me to the last substantive category of activities that I must mention so that everyone has a proper appreciation of Denis Wright.  He was for many years an active contributor to Brain Mass, an organization that provides professional online academic assistance and advice.  For almost two decades he was one of just three directors of an international aid agency [BODHI] that raises and distributes thousands of dollars to charities, mainly in South and Southeast Asia, bringing health and education to thousands with the key principle being sustainability.  In 2010 BOHDI established four annual scholarships in Denis’s name for girls in Bangladesh.  Denis also assisted ANTaR –Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation – with graphic design and layout for their regular newsletters.  He was a hockey coach for ten years in the 1980s and 90s and is remembered by many of his hockey girls in town.  He also took groups for educational tours across China and was especially fond of travelling the old Silk Road.  Lastly through his blog, ‘My Unwelcome Stranger’, Denis has given many other people who are confronting a brain disease, as either a patient or carer, a source of information and inspiration of such significance that the blog has been selected for preservation by the Australian National Library in its Pandora Archive.

When we spoke with Denis last week, Howard and I told him that if everything we did as academics and in life was boiled down to a couple of questions they would be ‘was it all worthwhile’ and ‘did I make a difference’?  And that for him, the answer was an unequivocal yes!

David Kent

Painting by Den's niece - Jessamy Gee


  1. Thanks so much for posting this Tracey! It is such a privilege to learn more about Denis and his remarkable life.
    And thank you David Kent, for such a beautiful write up (we are touched to see the picture of Denis with our family during one of his visits here. Brought back so many fond memories)!
    Yes, Denis would very much qualify as an honorary Bangladeshi because of the passion he had for this country and his effort to uphold the country to the world.
    Did he make a difference?... you are absolutely right! And what a difference he made with all the lives he touched all over the world! He lived a fulfilling life which can be described with one of Denis's favorite quotes: 'The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough'.

    1. Dear Tahsinah. I made a slideshow for the funeral of many photos from throughout Den's life. Last night I sat here deciding on the handful to include here on the blog. That one was especially for you.
      Tracey xo

    2. Thanks soo much Tracey! <3

  2. What a remarkable man. How fortunate for those who knew & loved him "in real life", as well as we who knew him only virtually. I'm so glad I came to know this person, if only for a short time & only in text.

    I'm (selfishly) saddened I'll never again get to read one of Denis' delightful messages or his thought provoking blogs dealing with his illness or life & the world in general. At the same time, I'm overjoyed he is at last free of pain & these 'Earthly bonds'.

    Thank you Tracey for being so gracious in this time of mourning, & for being so patient in dealing with the legion of strangers who all want to pay respects & farewells to Denis. Much love to you & the family. Life goes on.

    Peggy Larson - aka Pegs

  3. Thanks Tracey. Those two beautiful tributes to Denis will mean a lot to many people and are a fitting closure for this most amazing blog.

  4. Thank you Tracey for posting these. Denis's last message is as balancing and reassuring as ever, and the eulogy fills out the picture for us of a man too modest to reveal so much himself. It is so fitting that this blog is preserved in perpetuity, it will continue to inspire, comfort and strengthen others. It was indeed a wonderful send-off and I hope it helped you a little, too, in your climb our of 'the abyss'. oxo

  5. he certainly did live a full and interesting life and will be remembered by people far and wide , what a nice bloke , thanks for adding these tracey

  6. I have followed Denis for a long time and had a great deal of respect for his honest, thoughtful take on events.

    Thank you to those who posted a link to this site on Twitter and to Tracey for keeping this blog going.

    Extraordinary people deserve extraordinary support in both life and death.

    Vale to a clever, brave man.


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