My father, ANU, and ‘writing for his life’

Jennifer Cockburn (BA '76, LLB (Hons) '77)
04 Aug 2022

I completed my studies at the Australian National University (ANU) in the 70s, but I wasn't the last in my family to call the campus home. My father, newspaper journalist and author Stewart Cockburn, came to ANU in 1980 as a Visiting Fellow, conducting research for a biography of Sir Mark Oliphant, founder of the ANU Research School of Physical Sciences.

My father had wanted to write biographies for many years, and thought Oliphant would be a perfect subject, having got to know Oliphant while he was Governor of South Australia. So, my father went to live at ANU University House and researched Oliphant's papers in connection with the University, and interviewed such legends as former ANU Chancellor 'Nugget' Coombs.

In 1981, my father and his co-author, David Ellyard, published Oliphant, the biography of Sir Mark Oliphant. In 2022, I published a biography of my own; while Oliphant has a role to play in it, mine is about an instinctive and fearless journalist, who I knew as my father, Stewart Cockburn.

Writing the biography, WRITING FOR HIS LIFE: Stewart Cockburn, Crusading Journalist, has shed new light on my father. I'm sure he enjoyed conducting his research at ANU; living at University House and being a Visiting Fellow would have been a very special experience for him because he never went to university. He would have loved being on campus, surrounded by nature and cycling down University Avenue to go bury his nose in papers.

I loved the University surroundings too; it was part of the reason I chose to study here. That, and I was very attracted to ANU because of its special status as the national university. When I studied at ANU, I lived at Bruce Hall. There was a very nice atmosphere, and I loved the community - particularly being in a group of, I guess, long-haired lefty types! When I come back to the campus now, I still very much relate to it.

While touring the biography recently, I did a 'meet the author' Q&A session at the National Library in Canberra, where I was greeted by old ANU friends, some of whom I hadn't seen since the 70s. When you've known people so intimately while you were young, you can somehow just pick up where you left off and I felt that instantly.

ANU is that common thread, tying generations of people together. It held a special place in my father's heart, as it does mine, and the hearts of many others.

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