September 27, 2008
The Canberra Times

Generosity of spirit endures long after duration is reached

It’s often the unexpected kindness of strangers that lingers most in our memories. And the television industry isn’t known for its kindness: strangeness, maybe, but not kindness.

So it was with surprise and even a little awkwardness that I stood up from my desk in the ABC’s makeshift newsroom, this week seven years ago, to shake the hand of Peter Leonard.

It was September 24, 2001, and our novice news team was preparing to go to air that night for the very first time. I had just arrived in Canberra from Sydney, an escapee from top- rating commercial television current affairs. In that world, rivalry between stations is legendary, and presenters are assumed to be arch competitors.

With that background not far from my mind, I was more than a little shocked to look up from my computer that day to see the beaming face of our chief rival from WIN News, Peter Leonard, grinning down at me. What’s he doing here? Is he spying? What does he want?

It wasn’t half obvious that I’d recently hailed from the competitive cat-pit of commercial TV. I didn’t get it. But I very quickly learned that Peter Leonard was from a different class altogether. Full of warm enthusiasm, Peter introduced himself and shook my hand, wishing both me and our new ABC local news team all the very best on our opening night.

He was all smiles and full of sincere good wishes. He looked around our rather ramshackle portable room, smiling and waving at people he recognised, and made all the noises of someone who was genuinely thrilled to bits about our new venture.

It all happened in a matter of minutes. But the memory of that particular moment, on that very crazy day, has always stayed with me. Peter’s gesture in coming over to the ABC’s Dickson studios to welcome us and wish us well was the sort of unprecedented gesture that is rare in television. However, I have since learned that such acts of kindness were quite typical of this wonderful doyen of the Canberra media.

Last July, days after Peter resigned from the presenter’s role at WIN News to begin what he no doubt hoped would be a long and joyful retirement, he wrote me a letter. He wanted to thank the ABC for wishing him well and he was full of praise for our work.

Again, I was a little stumped by this extraordinary generosity of spirit. The grace and goodwill that Peter extended to us was certainly the mark of an exceptional man, in an industry that’s perhaps best-known for its distinct lack of goodwill. No wonder he was so cherished by Canberra viewers, the broader community and his many colleagues. Peter Leonard will be deeply missed. They just don’t make them like that any more.

At a time when the sadness of loss is lingering in the air, it’s sobering to consider the value of life: both its preciousness and its inherent precariousness. It can slip away so very easily.

A dear friend of mine, with a wicked wit and a charming Scottish lilt, has spent many years contemplating the nature of dying. The Reverend Sandy Murray recently turned 90 years old. And yes, there were balloons and the wine flowed as we partied on at the Hellenic Club one afternoon.

Some Canberrans might recall Sandy’s byline from this newspaper, when he wrote book reviews, mostly on theological or philosophical texts. During the ’90s Sandy was the chaplain at Mirinjani Retirement Village at Weston. It was there he published a small booklet titled Caring about Living and Dying. This week I found myself poring over its pages, taking solace from the text’s simple good sense. ”Many people find it difficult to appreciate that dying is essentially part of living,” he writes. And always quick with the perfect quotation, Sandy adds lines from the Book of Ecclesiastes: ”For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.”

And if you can feel a bit of the Seekers coming on, well, go for it. I’m sure Sandy can take us through the chorus.

But it’s Sandy’s closing words that perhaps speak loudest to me. ”The value of life cannot be assessed merely by its duration, but rather by its donation; its contribution of enthusiasm, love and neighbourliness.”

So often we lament the death of a young person, or someone who is in their prime, as being somehow ”unfair”. Death has come too early, we say. I railed against the inexplicable ”unfairness” of the death of my nephew at just seven years old. And of course many have gasped at what appeared to be the speed of the disease that killed Peter Leonard, at just 66, when he was on the threshold of a well-earned retirement.

But as Sandy so gently points out, life’s duration is secondary to our donation to humankind and our contribution to our community and those we love. That should be our measure.

As you read this, Sandy, whose body is failing him, is packing his bags to move into St Andrew’s Retirement Village on Tuesday. ”There’s a sense of finality,” he tells me, ”because my next move will be into a box.”

But not so fast, Sandy. Your ”chassis” might be breaking down, but you’ve still got a taste for whisky and a nose for a good wine. And we’ve got a date. Get ya dancing shoes out. The Hellenic Club won’t know what’s hit it.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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