All in the family

Monash University is in the DNA of the Spottiswoods, with the connection spanning three generations. By MURIEL REDDY

the Spottiswood
the Spottiswoods (from left), Mal, Aran, Pamela and Sarah

When Myrtle Agnes Spottiswood returned to Monash University last year to attend the graduation of her grandson, it completed a circle of life that began 57 years earlier.

Mrs Spottiswood, now 97 and living in an aged-care facility, believes she was only the third member of staff to join the newly established University, just behind Vice-Chancellor Sir Louis Matheson and librarian Ernest Clark.

She had no way of knowing as she sat in the warehouse of the Volkswagen factory in Clayton, where the University was gathering its first book collection, that her association would bind her family to Monash across three generations. It might never have happened at all had her eldest son, Mal, not been drafted  during the Vietnam War.

He was training to be a teacher, and by the time he arrived at Puckapunyal, the army’s training facility, he discovered that 95 per cent of the intake were university-degree holders. He was not really interested in teaching and decided that after the war, he would enrol in university.

“I thought, ‘If these dropkicks can get university degrees, then surely I can too’,” he recalls.

A bout of flu that required hospitalisation meant he never made it to Vietnam, but his time in the army meant he was eligible to apply for a university place under the National Service Rehabilitation Scheme. He enrolled at Monash.

In at least some respects, it was a sort of homecoming. As a boy, he used to play with model boats in a dam on the grounds of the abandoned Talbot Colony for Epileptics before it was demolished to make way for Monash. He was 14 when he accompanied his mother to the opening ceremony of the University  in March, 1961.

She was 15 years into her 25‑year career as secretary to the librarian when Mal graduated with a BEc degree in 1974. As he recalls, it was very helpful having his mother in the library during his years of study.

He began working as a public servant in Canberra but enrolled at the Australia National University to study law part-time.
A childhood friend, Alan Walker, had advised him years earlier to study accountancy and law. His mission was only half complete when he arrived in Canberra. And again fortune smiled upon him. Instead of having to study for four years, he was given credit for having studied company law and tax during  his years at Monash, and was able to complete his LLB in a shorter time frame.

If Monash had been seeping into Mal’s DNA, it was already part of the lifeblood of Pamela Dry, the woman he fell in love with while they were both studying at ANU. She had graduated from Monash with a BSc and DipEd; her sister, Diane, had graduated with a BA and DipEd; and their mother, Evelyn, had  completed a BEc, MEc and DipEd as part of the adult-education program offered by Monash. Mal’s marriage to Pamela in 1984 sealed the association with the University across two generations and four graduates.

By the time their daughter, Sarah Evelyn Dry Spottiswood, finished school with an ATAR of 99.3 per cent, she was fielding offers from universities including ANU, Adelaide University and Monash. Unsurprisingly, she opted to study arts/law at Monash. “I guess before I went to Monash, I had always  heard of the positive experiences that other members of my family had there,” she explains.

the Spottiswood
Myrtle in the Monash library in 1970.

“I suppose it now seems like a family tradition, but there was never any pressure to go there.”

She believes her Monash experience has been both fortunate and fruitful. “It certainly opened my mind,” she says. “It broadened my world view …
I was always interested in international relations and international law, and the University allowed me to tailor my course to my areas of interest.”

She studied politics and peace and conflict studies at the University of California in Berkeley for a semester – an experience funded, she points out, by many long hours working at Safeway – and in 2011 earned a Prime Minister’s Australia/Asia Endeavour Award that allowed her to study law  in Hong Kong for six months, followed by a four-month working stint both there and in Malaysia.

When she graduated from Monash three years ago, she won the Sir John Monash Medal for Outstanding Achievement. She’s just started working towards her Master of Law degree at Cambridge University in England.

Three generations of the family gathered at Monash in 2015 to celebrate the graduation in commerce of Aran Francis Dry Spottiswood. At 23, he is the youngest of Mal’s children. His eldest son, Linden Malcolm, 30, is a computer engineer. It was a joyous occasion on so many levels for Mal. “When I  matriculated all those years ago, I became the most educated Spottiswood ever at that time,” he explains. “And look how we have blossomed as a family since.”

For Mrs Spottiswood, his mother, it was an especially poignant and precious moment. Here she was back in the once-familiar and hallowed grounds of the University. And yet how it had changed. When she first started work there, there were fewer than 400 students on campus; today more than 60,000 are enrolled. The  pace of time and change was marked on her 97-year-old face and on those of her family who have been proud to call Monash their home of learning for three generations