Australian Biography

Ray Whitrod - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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When you were at school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Well we had very limited understanding of the world, my ... my mother and father. I never got any directions from them, any sort of suggestions where I might go. Obviously they thought I might join my father and become a lolly-maker or something round the corner, but I gradually thought I would like to be a teacher. I thought I ... I thought I could be a good teacher and I suppose in a way that was one of the things that attracted me to Mavis. She was what I wanted to be. She was an established teacher, and there was I in my matriculation year, hoping to go to the teachers' college but that year, was during the Depression, the teachers' college didn't take in any new students. For a couple of years they didn't take in any new students, and so that was shut off from me, and yet that was the area that I would have liked to have got in to I think: either primary school or secondary school. I thought I would have been a good shorthand teacher. I could write shorthand pretty, pretty, pretty quickly - 140, 150 words per minute - which was reasonably good shorthand. In those days we didn't have recorders of course and shorthand was important and I thought I could teach ... teach shorthand and ... and be a sportsmaster and ... and I got on well with lads and, younger lads, and so I wanted to be a teacher. It seemed to me that was a nice, steady job with an income and ... and you could wear nice clothes, steady [?] clothes. You'd have your first suit to wear and so I wanted to be ... It was a big disappointment when about, oh I suppose two thirds of the year, one third of the year, we were going into my matriculation year, my teacher said, 'There are some in this class who were carried over from last year who are already accepted as student teachers but for you younger and you new boys in the class there are no vacancies this year at the teachers' college at all'.

Was that because of the Depression?

Yes, yes. All the ... all the government departments were shutting down on employment. It was a bad year, it would have been 19 ..., what, 1931, Robin, and that was a bad year for South Australia financially and so I didn't know what to do. I'd ... I had a commercial education and I wanted to be a teacher and ... and there I was with no ... I had no real goal in life at that time except in my last year as I told I got attracted to Mavis and I thought she was just an ideal sort of person. She was a good sport. She was good fun to be with and I could talk to her and she could talk to me and didn't seem to notice that I was in old ragged clothes. And that's where I wanted to go, but ... and then when I couldn't get a job, I was really in deep despair. I ... I ... her in-laws [sic] were at that time unaware that I had these ambitions to marry her so, they ... they were very friendly towards me but I knew I had no ... no assets. My people had no money and I had nothing and how was I going to marry a girl who was a teacher, and I had no job and no trade, and I went to ... I remember I went carrying my swag and hoping to just get a menial job picking apricots and picking grapes. I couldn't get a job doing that and I was on the dole. The only money I had was sixpence I left home with some months earlier.

In that year did you fear that you'd never amount to anything?

Oh completely so. I ... I really touched rock bottom that year after matriculation. Looking back, matriculating for university at sixteen is quite a ... a good, good effort, but I hadn't regarded it as such, because there were some other lads in my class who were sixteen and I really hadn't studied very hard, so it hadn't come all that difficult to me. So I never saw it as a sort of useful asset and I couldn't see where I was going, where I could get a possible job, and I was going to be on the rations for the rest of my life, and where would I live, and Mavis would marry another school teacher, other than me, and it was very lonely. Very lonely.

How did you get through it?

I don't really know. I think when you're young ... I was sixteen, seventeen, you ... somehow you have a youthful resilience that you don't have when you're my age of eighty-five and so you're always thinking that somewhere there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You're always thinking that one day, one day things will change and ...

And it came in the form of the police force?

Yes, yes, well it was Mavis' family that sent me a telegram saying, 'Ray, they are advertising for young cadets with a good education. Come home'. So I came home and joined the police force and very largely, very largely found what I wanted. I could be of use to the community and I've stayed with that all my life I think.

Are you glad? Are you glad you became a policeman?

Robin, I was thinking the other night about where else I could have gone, and thinking back I think probably this was my best road, the one that actually came along. I probably thought, as a teacher, I probably would have been a bit radical and might not have accepted all the sort of discipline that a stern headmaster might make on his staff. I might be a bit outspoken. I wouldn't have had the opportunities to innovate: for instance, create a national police force. Thinking back, Robin, I think the way I came was probably my best, best course.

Not many people think of the police force as a place that gives opportunity for creativity.

For what?

For creativity, but you found it that way really, didn't you?

Only because I made it. Policemen, because they enforce the law, are great admirers of the law and of lawyers and they admire the law. The law sets out what is and what has been, and so you tend to be very conservative, stuck in the mud. You don't think about what changes you could make to the law to improve society. You really enforce what's there already, so you tend to reinforce the status quo. So policemen, on the whole, are not innovators because of their trade.

Why were you different?

I don't know, I don't really know, Robin. I don't know why. I ... these days when we're learning a lot more about the effect of genes and how genes can predispose you towards certain activities, I think I must have got some from my mother because she ... she was a ... a ... a bold spirit for a little girl from Birdsville.

When you became a policeman, you were still quite young. You were out dealing with the sorts of crimes that detectives go out and deal with. Was this a bit hard for a boy from Murrays Lane? How did you, how did you deal with some of the sights and the situations you had to handle?

Well, it was. I found them interesting. I found going to the morgue and watching autopsies would make me sick and I wasn't very good at that. And on a very personal note, I found going to investigate women, who died from abortions, was upsetting to me personally in the sense that I wondered whether all love life ended up in this way. You know, you would have a foetus half out of the vagina and blood and I really got turned off physical sex for a long time because of that particular episode. I hadn't learnt to store things away in part of the brain and forget about them and ... and I ... I was very ignorant about female biology. I didn't have a sister. It was all strange territory to me and ... and ... and this sort of knowledge came with a bit of a rush and a bit horrifying and ... and a bit disturbing. That ... that was probably more so than the straight out murders or where ... where the rats had attacked the bodies and eaten faces away. It was more this, striking home to me that ... that sex had nasty aspects to it that I ... I hadn't thought about.

At a later stage of your life, after you'd retired, you had a fairly major health scare, didn't you? Would you like to tell me about that?

Yes. I ... I ... I developed a ... a ... a urine stoppage [laughs] and you got no idea why I developed it. I'd taken the grandchildren down to Victor Harbour and we were walking around Granite Island and I found I wanted to urinate and couldn't. The pain was unbearable and it was a Friday afternoon, about two o'clock, three o'clock, and I ... I was starting to perspire and feel very desperate and didn't know what was wrong so we ... we bundled the kids into our old Holden and drove back desperately to Adelaide. Got back to Adelaide at five o'clock on a Friday afternoon. I went around to my local GP, an old airforce mate, and said, 'Look, I'm in big trouble'. And he said, 'Ray, you couldn't come at a worse time on Friday - there'll be no surgeons available. You'll need a surgeon'. So he rang around all the hospitals and eventually found somebody at the Memorial Hospital and I went there, and they ... and they did some fairly painful work on me and got rid of that particular obstruction. And then about ten, oh, ten years later, the obstruction occurred again in the prostrate. It grew again and was encircling your urine passage. But this time I ... I was aware of not to let it go too late. So I went back to the same urologist and ... and told him my problems and he said, 'Yes, you'll need another resection done, Ray'. So I went into the same Memorial Hospital and I knew by then that there maybe, or he'd warned me, that maybe the growth might be malignant. He said, 'There's no way of knowing until I do an extraction of some of the material and have a biopsy and I will let you know as soon as possible'. So I went into the Memorial, into a little ward there and there were four of us in there. We were all waiting for treatment for the same thing and I got to know very much the bloke next to me, a man of about fifty, fifty-five, a very nice chap, and he was worried too that he might have a malignant growth, and we talked to each other and tried to give each other a bit of false support and we went in and had the operation and came back. And then you bleed a fair bit after the operation and then I think it was almost the second day almost before the urologist came in, very briskly into our ward, and walked straight over to me and said, 'Oh Mr. Whitrod, your biopsy is negative', and I thought, God, I've got cancer, cancer in the prostrate. And I was thinking about this: what will I do? I still want to live a few years longer and I had plans to go fishing that I hadn't done before, and while I was being very selfish about myself I heard him talking to the man next to me, my new mate, and he was saying, 'Oh I'm so very, very sorry, Mr. ... I'll say Mr. X'. He said, 'But your result was positive'. And from the tone of his voice I picked up immediately what he meant by positive was that there were traces of cancerous cells and the man had cancer, and the urologist was, oh, very humane I thought, the way he treated and talked to this man. He had been very brusque with me and I was bit upset about this. I thought, I'm having cancer and he just brushed me off. The man next to me, he spent a lot of time comforting. The man cried and his wife come in, and they cried, and then the doctor left and I sort of lent over and ... and tried to comfort him. And it was very difficult when you've escaped the threat to talk to somebody who's got it.

What do you say? You can't say, 'Sorry, chum', you know, and I ... I'd done psychology. I knew how to cope, I knew the ... the academic responses to stress and so forth. I knew them all, and I found that I was not being very helpful to my mate, so I determined that next day when I was allowed to leave the ward, I went straight around to the Barr-Smith Library at the university and looked up prostate cancer to see what the sort of comforting advice I could give. And what I found was a whole shelf on breast cancer. There were two books, two volumes on prostrate cancer, and I think they were both published pre-World War One or something. There was nothing new about it, nothing at all, but there was a whole shelf on breast cancer. So I went to my ... I'd been doing some study at the university, and I went to my supervisor, Professor Tony Winefield, and said, 'Tony, I want to switch my studies. I want to look at the impact of ... of cancer, prostate cancer, and how people respond to it', and he said, 'Look, it's new territory, Ray. It's worthwhile'. He said, 'There are very few research funds available, but I'll get approval for you to do that'. So ... so for the next four, five years, Tony and his wife, who's also a professor of psychology, Helen, they supervised my research into the impact of surgical cancer. I had two groups of subjects that used to come down to our house at Fulham and Mavis would make them a nice afternoon tea and we would lean on each other's shoulders. They accepted me as one of them although I didn't have prostate cancer, but I'd been close to it. I'd had two ... two ... two near misses, so we talked about what it was, who they were facing up. And I learnt a lot, Helen [sic], about how men face up to prostate cancer and we eventually formed a little support group where prostate cancer sufferers could talk to themselves and their wife. It's now an Australia-wide organisation and there's recently been some very rich research money being offered and ... and most of the cancer foundations have now got special sections dealing with prostate cancer.

And this is your retirement? In your retirement you set up a nation-wide organisation for cancer victims. In your retirement you were successful in getting through the UN a victims' rights bill. You've been pretty busy, haven't you, and what I wanted to ask you was that you've had an enormously active public life. All your life you've had a very strong public life. You've talked about the importance to you of your family life. Which has come first for you, when the two are in conflict?

I'm a bit ashamed of this, Robin, at times. At times my sort of public activities have taken precedence over ... over family affairs. For instance, when I retired Mavis and I agreed that once a year we'd go for a trip abroad somewhere, so we put some money aside. Each year I used that money to go to a victims' conference and she never went for a holiday, except once, and we went to Tokyo where there was a conference on victims in Tokyo, and I went up there because I was on the executive and needed to go, and she came with me, and we spent a week at Kyoto, and the family funds have gone that way rather than she being rewarded for some sort of holiday that she was richly entitled to. At other times, more recently I think, family matters have come to the fore and particularly since Mavis has become ill, I've had to give up my research on prostate cancer and spend the whole time looking after her.

Do you think that men of your generation generally expected, and everybody expected, that their private lives would take second place to their public duties?

Men? Yes. I ... looking back, I think they did. I think ... I think their work priorities assumed a greater importance than their ... than their family. It's only assumptions because I don't know of any research in this area but just, you know, shop talk amongst other professionals, it seems to me that they ... they've set professional goals to attain, not family goals.

Do you feel that you achieved what you wanted to achieve with your family life, after you settled in after the war?

No, I think I've neglected them, Robin. We ... we are a strong family group but it's because of Mavis, I think, rather than me. She's been a great family binder: writing letters, ringing them up, sending birthday cards and birthday presents, and offering a shoulder to weep upon. She's been the sort of core, I think, of the Whitrod existence, and we've all leaned on her until now and now of course the role is reversed, and I find it hard. Hard.

Thank you very much.

[end of interview]