David Collins 1933-2008

Principal: 1977-1986
English and History teacher: 1960-1962

Tribute by Mary (Ellis) Hill CHS 1957-1960; Vice-President CHESS; Chess Moves March 2008

Within two days of David Collins arriving at Camberwell High School in 1960, every girl in the school knew about him. He was so “divine” and we hung around the portables at lunch or recess, watching him move over to the main building. He was, in today’s language, so “cool” because he wore modern clothes and desert boots (as the weather cooled that year he also wore a duffle coat with wooden toggles – the ultimate in fashion for the 16-25 age group. He was 27, but certainly knew how to dress to impress 12-17 years olds and still maintain his professional image. Later that week, I had the supreme honour of going to Portable A and notifying Mr Collins that my younger brother, of who he was Form Master, would be away for a week after being rushed off to Box Hill Hospital the night beforehand and operated on for peritonitis. Mr Collins smiled that “divine” smile that reached his “divine” eyes and asked me how my brother’s nickname came about. He smiled even more, thanked me and I left Portable A in seventh heaven. I knew I was the envy of every girl in my class. What’s he like? What did he say? Oh, he’s so divine!!! Very quickly the word spread that he was not only “divine,” but that the boys thought he was a good bloke with a great sense of humour (guaranteed success with boys) and a really good teacher. Reluctant readers wanted to read and everyone wanted to be in his English and History classes.

In his book, Camberwell High School 1941-1991, A Jubilee Retrospective, Robert Ewins wrote of David’s decisive move from primary into secondary teaching, strongly supported by Bob Ewins. They had met at Melbourne University in the early 1950s via their mutual love of drama and wit. David was the Student Review Producer. ”His first appointment being a Class 3 position at Camberwell High School where he taught History (as did Bob Ewins) and English. He was not trained for the latter but Principal Roy Andrews did not hesitate: ‘of course you can teach English. You are a trained Primary Teacher’.”

Andrea (Savige) Ramirez remembers his “friendly, open disposition and his lovely open smile. He certainly set the girls hearts a-flutter! He was so approachable and could relate to teenagers: he really understood where kids were coming from. O, and his ‘brothel creepers’ –those thick rubber-soles suede boots that he wore. Yes, he was patient, friendly and approachable.” In late February, we had the induction of Prefects and House Captains at Canterbury and I was selected to respond to Councillor Fordham, Mayor of Camberwell, on behalf of the House Captains. The following day, Mr Collins stopped me in the corridor and complimented me on my speech, noting my “excellent vocal projection”, (probably resulting from Miss Cameron’s tuition in choir and madrigal groups). Seventh heaven again! Little did I know that he’d done so much drama or that I would spend most of my teaching years using drama – my final seven years as a specialist performing arts teacher.

By April 1960, an aura of intrigue surrounded Mr Collins. “He was in Pentridge before he came here.” What had he done, we wondered. What was his crime? It took about a week for us to discover that Mr Collins had been teaching literacy at Pentridge Special School. Only in 1991 did I discover that he’d taught at Hillside Reform School for Boys-ironically on the site on which my present school stands in Wheeler’s Hill. In the late 70s and 80s, I taught many boys who “ended up at Hillside” and used the David Collins technique- establish my standards in the first week of the year, crack a few jokes to make them want to come back the next day or next week, tease them, love them, teach them and build self-esteem at every opportunity. Since 1970, I have taught so many children from sad backgrounds. My philosophy being that whilst I cannot live in their homes, I can make their time at school as enjoyable, productive and positive as possible).

As 1960’s winter descended, we noticed David Collins and Bob Ewins frequently strolling around the school together. Bob’s academic gown flapping in the wind. David in his duffel coat, scarf flapping. Obviously they were friends! (They were probably doing yard duty, but we didn’t know such a phrase) On mentioning it at home, my father laughingly informed me that not only were they friends, they were also in the group of “regulars” from Carey and Camberwell High School who met with him on Friday evenings at the Tower Hotel. Those were still the days of 6 o’clock closing. My mother was President of the Women’s Auxiliary and got to know David well, so it was not long before my parents and he socialised outside school hours. By the time we came to rehearsal for our final Speech Night, David played a joke on me. It was terribly funny and we all laughed like mad. I moved on to Burwood Teachers College and within a few weeks, my singing was noticed by the late, great Frank Higgins. “Who trained you?” he asked. “You have a trained voice. Who trained you?” Since I’d never been “trained”, I explained that I’d done some singing in the choir and madrigal groups at school with Miss Cameron. “Miss Cameron? He responded. “Wonderful woman. You must have been at Camberwell High. You are a very fortunate young lady”. Yes, I was. I was one of the many who went through Camberwell High in what David later described as its “halcyon days”. Most of our teachers were excellent, interesting and entertaining, but the three who had the most effect on my career were, chronologically, Miss Cameron, Robert Ewins and David Collins. David was promoted to University High School at the end of 1962 and I did not see him again for many years. However, John Waters, Head Prefect in 1962 with Helen Menzies, and later President of Camberwell High Old Students Association (CHOSA) wrote: “I consider myself fortunate to have known him and been involved with him in a series of visits to Pentridge Prison to witness debates between teams from both outside and inside the prison. These evenings were always interesting and informative and ended with a visit to a coffee lounge for supper afterwards-a special treat for young school boys. I always found David to be a man who cared about others, especially his students and their school. He had a good sense of humour, he was approachable and helpful at all times and, as with the visits to Pentridge, he went out of his way to develop and interact with his students.”

Robert Ewins recently told me that his memories of David at Camberwell High School (1960-1962) were that: ”he was never frightened of children. He never failed to establish his rules, thus he gained respect. He was so articulate and had such common sense, especially in his attitude towards educational contact and students conduct. He never lost that in his many years in education.” As I went on with my life, my mother, still living in Camberwell, fed me snippets from ‘the grapevine’- David had gone overseas; David had married a woman he called “his soulmate”; David was back at Camberwell High School as Principal. In 1983, my son was desperate to get out of the local high school, so I went to David to see if we had any chance of getting him into Camberwell High School. We had a lovely chat about our lives since we’d seen each other last, then he gave me an absolutely honest response to my question and made a few suggestions as to where I could look. By mid-1984 we found the right school for my son and I thanked David for his advice.

In 1991, Barry Garnham formed the Camberwell High School Ex-Students Society or CHESS as we know it today, and the wonderful night at the Hyatt, followed by an Open Day at the school and party made for a truly great weekend celebrating the school’s Golden Jubilee. Robert Ewin’s book was released and he delivered the A.V.G. James lecture the following year, with his brilliant wit to the fore. David came up to my mother and me as he arrived, greeting us by name and a cuddle each. I joined CHESS and in 1995 helped Jeff Bates organise a reunion of those who attended Camberwell High School in 1960-1962. It was a great night, highlighted by the attendance of Athol Jones, Robert Ewins and David Collins – still the same marvellous men we’d respected and loved back in the halcyon days. When CHESS decided to record our school song School of our Youth in 2005, we were delighted to find David and Miss Cameron attending on that July day. She was an even tinier little bird than when she taught us and he was still divine and impeccably attired as always. (The photograph does not show the British gentleman’s motoring cap and sunglasses that he was wearing upon arrival). How we talked and talked, laughed and sang. At the conclusion of the day, my elder brother and I rushed to tell Mum all about it, including the fact that Miss Cameron and David Collins were there. She was delighted and referred to David as “such a lovely, lovely man”. Later that year, I asked David to be our guest speaker at the 40’s and 50’s reunion at the Tower Hotel. “Ah, the old watering hole-I’ll do it with the greatest of pleasure,” he laughed. At the reunion, he spoke brilliantly of the school and its history from 1941-2005. That was the David Collins I knew. Like everyone else, I was shocked and saddened by the passing of David on January 6 2008. Following his wishes he had a private funeral, but later the school felt that he should have a memorial service which was held on February 20.

Memorial Service for David Collins: February 20 2008

David’s niece, Bronwyn acted at MC and introduced Elida Brereton to welcome all those present ….so many, many people. She introduced Jan, David’s wife, who thanked everyone for the warm condolences she’d received and for the particular support of a very dear friend. Jan explained that David had grown up in Berwick where his father was Chaplain of the Anglican Church and how David had gone to Geelong College, where his love of music was encouraged by the great George Logie-Smith while he learned to play the tuba and perform in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. When the family moved to South Australia, David went to Ballarat Teachers College. Bronwyn, David’s niece, told us of her childhood memories with David and Jan, of how she went to Melbourne State College to study Drama where her lecturers were colleagues of David and Jan and the word came back to her parents that she had not handed in THAT assignment!

Graeme Bartle, who first met David at Ballarat Teachers College, then asked us all to sing David’s favourite hymn: To be a pilgrim from John Bunyan’s stirring poem. It’s one of my favourites too, but I never discussed religious music with David. We sang it as David believed it should always be sung…with great gusto!

Brian McFarlane, a fellow student of David’s at Melbourne University told us of David’s excellent performance as Victor Prin in Noel Coward’s Private Lives and of his “sartorial splendour”; of how David had started in country primary schools then moved on to Melbourne to gain his Bachelor of Commerce, where he showed his talents in performance and later as Director/Producer of the Melbourne University Drama Company. However, Brian confessed that in the mid 50s his favourite girlfriend lost interest in him in favour of David. David wrote to him, “I hope this doesn’t lead to a rift in our loot.” Brian thought the phrasing so sophisticated and they maintained their friendship for another fifty years.

In Paul Wilhelm’s reminiscences as a student of David’s at University High in 1962, he spoke of David being “the acme of fashion,” and how Paul spent all his pocket money to emulate David’s broad-necked fishnet singlet which could be seen under a shirt. “He captured our imagination with his white MG Magnette and his endless talks of sun and surf. He always referred to us as ‘young lads’ and was unwavering in his warmth and friendships, his sincere, active and abiding interest in our lives, both at school and beyond.”

Anne Scott Pendlebury spoke of the fun growing up next door to David and Jan who shared her parent’s concern with the council re the behavior of cats and the problems of on-street parking. As she went on to become such a well-known actor, David and Jan supported her every performance from Union Theatre days to Melbourne Theatre Company. They were always committed to drama. She went on to explain how the Performing Arts always work around seasons then she read to us, with her brilliant actor’s enunciation, the words of Ecclesiastes: “to everything there is a season.”

Doug Sherman shared his memories of David from 1972, Paisley High School and later years. He spoke of David’s love of British cars and the white Jaguar at Paisley. David was the foundation Principal and “built the school on the unpromising site of an old SEC briquette depot”. (Robert Ewins) Doug told of how he became David’s “right hand man” and learned so much about education and organisation, and of the staff doing their best to cope with portable classrooms, dust, mud and the fire. “Many arguments with the Public Works Department and the Education Department reversed, each time, David’s regular ‘open door’ policy. David won the respect of the students and support of his staff“.

Nan Derby remembers that: “we always had to wear gumboots in winter because the mud was so bad. That was my first teaching position, he was my first Principal. He and Jan took me out to dinner in London, when I went overseas. He was an excellent Principal who was fond of his staff and always supported his staff. When I followed him to Camberwell High he was just the same….an excellent Principal to work with.” Doug Sherman also told of how David instilled in his students a duty of care (citizenship) and soon had students helping out at Senior Citizens Clubs and local kindergartens. He introduced Pet Day, Dickens Day and Paisley Day, 14th March. Doug concluded: “when my son was born on 14th March, we gave him the middle name of David for obvious reasons.“

The final speaker was Graeme Bartle, who gave “The 49ers Tribute”. He told of sharing twelve months with David at Ballarat Teacher College and together organising many ex-reunions ever since, their motto being “Forever ‘49ers”. When it came to the girls, David was like a magnet to iron fillings. “He looked so debonair in his belted raincoat – I couldn’t afford one and never could have looked like David anyway. He set up our newsletter Extra Muros to help us stay in touch with each other. We performed Iolanthe, Princess Ida and Ruddigore together. He was a man of charming speech and warmth of character – he was a friend.” Graeme then read the Irish blessing which begins, “May the winds are gentle upon your face” and the service concluded with David’s favourite piece of Mozart. As we moved to afternoon tea we examined the creation and circulation of Extra Muros and the board of David’s photographs, divided into his seven ages, as in Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man from As you like it which begins:
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.“

David Jenkin Collins

Camberwell High School Staff 1961