A mother to all ANU students: remembering Di Riddell

18 June 2019

The University is today celebrating the life and incredible contribution of one of the most cherished members of the ANU campus community, Di Riddell - who passed away peacefully on 9 June 2019.

Born Diana Gould in Chelsea, the United Kingdom in 1929, Di moved to Canberra with her economist husband, John Riddell [d. 2008], and two sons in 1963. 

Two years later Di took up the role of Administrative Secretary in the ANU Students' Association - a role she would keep until 1990. She was then manager of the ANU Arts Centre until 1995, when she retired.

During her three decades on campus, Di was a central figure in the ANU community and the lives of thousands of our students.

Her tireless work and activism did much to improve accommodation, health, welfare and financial services for ANU students, as well as their social lives beyond the lecture theatre.

As ANUSA Administrative Secretary Di was instrumental in giving ANU students a voice in how the University was run - helping to secure a place for them on the University's Council in 1966. To this day, ANU is one of the only universities in Australia that has student representation on its council.

Di also became important friends with the three men steering the ANU ship at that time: Vice-Chancellor Sir John Crawford, Academic Registrar Colin Plowman and Registrar George Dicker. And through Di's work, all three men became key allies for the ANU student body.

Di's early work on the ANU campus was set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the radical and rapid social change this brought about. It was a time of free love, drugs, mass student protest, the opening up of university education to thousands of more Australians, and important pushes for women's and Indigenous rights. Di and her colleagues in the ANU Students' Association became a central organising force for activism in these areas.

Di's working relationship with the ACT police, courts and judges meant large sums of bail money for mass-arrested students no longer needed to be moved from the ANU Students' Association offices to the courts - or even sighted by authorities. So trusted was she, Di's regonisance, or bond, was enough for the authorities.     

The work of Di and her colleagues at this time also delivered better student housing, a food coop and health services geared toward the needs of young university students, including birth control and drug harm minimisation.  Di also established advisory, welfare and financial services, including student loans - essential for students, and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, facing high living costs and tuition fees in those years.      

Shortly after Gough Whitlam's election victory in 1972, Di and her colleagues provided key support to a wave of Aboriginal activists like Marcia Langton in the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of the then Parliament House. The Tent Embassy remains in front of Old Parliament House to this day, a daily reminder that the journey toward reconciliation started some 40 years ago still has many miles to run.

After her retirement from ANU in 1995, Di continued to be incredibly active in the local Canberra community. She was a board member of the Canberra Labor Club and the ACT Drug and Alcohol Agency, a Justice for the Peace in the ACT Magistrates' Court and the membership secretary for the ANU Emeritus Faculty. She was also a full-time carer for her husband John in the final years of his life.

While many ANU students today may never have had the privilege of meeting Di, they have all benefitted from her unwavering commitment and work.

As former ANU academic registrar Colin Plowman once told a cohort of students, Di was "a mother to you all... and you owe her a great deal". 

Di's legacy lives large on the ANU campus and will live large for decades to come.

In early 2019, ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt opened the University's new Kambri precinct.

In the heart of it stands the Di Riddell Student Centre - aptly named in honour of the incredible contribution that Di made to ANU and its many students, as well as the community beyond.

Di is survived by her son Chris Riddell, her daughter-in-law Donna and grandchildren Matthew and Hannah. Her funeral will take place at 3pm today at Norwood Park Crematorium.

Those wanting to pay tribute to Di are encouraged to make a donation to the Royal Flying Doctor Service