Frank Fisher

28 November 1943 — 21 August 2012

By Narelle Hanratty

“See, here is a man”

“Have you had an experience of transformation?” I asked.

“Many, so many”, the man said promptly.

And he told of being a young man studying in Switzerland when he suffered an episode of the illness he would have for the rest of his life. After surgery, they diagnosed it as cancer. Then one day he collapsed in agony. They operated again and the diagnosis already given in Australia was belatedly confirmed: Crohn’s Disease. He spent many months in a sanatorium. Outside the hospital, he was living in spare accommodation, and the father of one of his fellow students, hearing of his circumstances, invited the young man into his home to recuperate with his family.

As he tells of this time, the man is deeply moved. Almost 50 years on, he cries as he remembers the father’s compassion to his frightened younger self, ill and far from home.

I first met Professor Frank Fisher through Radio National, and it was through Radio National that I heard of his death. We met when I heard a nameless man speaking on a program about his childhood growing up in a town in country Victoria, and of the ruthless suppression of all that was soft and tender in that place and time.

The man’s description electrified me. I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney at a later time, and had felt the same prohibitions on softness and vulnerability, the same savagery in men and boys and in the air. And here at last someone was speaking of this strangeness in Australian life as if it were remarkable.

While I didn’t catch the speaker’s name his position as an academic at Monash stayed with me. It was my own university, and it was memorable that an academic should speak of his vulnerability and fear.

Years went by, and every so often I recalled the man speaking on the radio and wondered about him. Then one day in 2011 when browsing the internet on an unrelated matter, I came across mention of a man, previously Associate Professor of Environmental Science at Monash University, and for reasons I cannot fully explain, I knew wholly and completely that this was the man I had heard on the radio years before. He was revealed to be Professor Frank Fisher, now of Swinburne University, a towering figure in academic and community life in Melbourne, and renowned for his wisdom and leadership on environmental and social justice issues.

At the time I had begun researching a book on leadership, and still without fully understanding what a peach was about to fall into my lap on that score, I wrote to him requesting an interview. So it was that I had breakfast with Frank one morning in October 2011, more than 10 years after I heard the nameless man on the radio.

He arrived on pushbike; it was his main means of transport I learnt later. He ate a breakfast of egg and toast and a pile of pills. It was 10 in the morning, high latte time, and the place was packed with the usual parliamentary crowd and tourists. I’d picked it for the location rather than the service which could tend to the haughty, but on this morning even the waiters seemed to understand that here was someone special and they were kind and attentive to the frail, nuggety, white-haired man, older than his 67 years.

He was the ideal interview subject, relaxed, ready to talk about anything, not bothered by time. We talked about his teaching and current concerns, and I learnt he had been named inaugural Australian Environmental Educator of the Year. He recommended a few authors I should read, and told me about the launch of The Understandascope (now known as The Rescope Project). In 2005, he was made redundant from Monash University where he had taught in the Graduate School of Environmental Science for 25 years. Abashed by the size of the payout, he did something most people wouldn’t. Instead of salting away the proceeds, a man in his 60s, he donated the money back to the university by founding a research institute. He wrote to Swinburne alumnus Michael Leunig for permission to use the name from one of his cartoons, and the Understandascope was born.

I was most interested in how he’d gotten to be the way he was. It was the question driving my research, and now I was in his presence, it interested me very much. It was then he told me about the time in Switzerland.

And in telling me, at 10am, in a crowded cafe, he went out to meet his experience of tenderness, his experience of vulnerability, and I understood how far he had travelled from the country town of his childhood and his birth under the sign “no sissiness here”. Here in this cafe, he repudiated it, and through his being, announced to the world and the emotionally strangulated land, “See, here is a man.”

Two months after our meeting, Frank was diagnosed with a brain tumour. After suffering from Crohn’s Disease for most of his life and enduring scores of operations, Frank died in August 2012 of complications related to the tumour. He was 68.

Since learning of his death I’ve thought about our chat and I see now what Frank stood for and what was his genius. It was to make his life and its meaning explicable to the world, so that any passing person, including someone such as myself, could say who he was and what he made possible in the world. Frank Fisher was the possibility of compassion and vulnerability in the world. Even more, he was the possibility of compassion and vulnerability in the world being seen to be the possibility of compassion and vulnerability in the world.

It’s all in those two experiences, the tender boy growing up in a place where softness was feared and reviled, and the young man, ill and alone in Switzerland being taken in by the student’s father. What economy he achieved! What elegance! Two anecdotes, and his life and its immense meaning is explicable.

Frank’s son, Tim Fisher, wrote the obituary for Frank that was published in The Age. Tim says his father rode his bicycle everywhere, even when he was undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy for the tumour. Frank, he says, called the bicycle, “the most efficient form of transport ever invented” and delighted in “the human connections it fostered among other travellers, as well as the vulnerabilities it exposed.” And Tim tells of an incident from Frank’s time at Swinburne University, where he was Professor of Sustainability for seven years:

Colleagues at the Swinburne faculty of design remember Frank’s response to a bold message that appeared in the staff kitchen with instructions to “clean up your own mess and do your own dishes”. A graffiti-style note quickly appeared, reading: “We are all vulnerable at different times in our lives and need people to look after us, so what’s wrong with cleaning up for others sometimes?”

I never did confirm Frank was the mystery speaker on the radio that day. I asked him about it, of course, and though he confirmed he grew up in a country town in Victoria and spoke on the radio often, he couldn’t recall the exact program. But it never really mattered anyway.

What matters is the impact he made on me that day, the nameless man, in speaking of the country of his childhood, and what he did with the experience. He grew to meet the strictures of that world and rewrite them; to be the possibility of compassion in the world, for the world.

Following is a selection of comments made by Frank’s friends and former students upon his death.

Like history’s great teachers, there was no division between Frank’s teaching and his life. He lived what he taught. He donated large portions of his earnings to charities; he famously produced less than a one litre milk carton of “waste” per week, and did not own a car. Far from being austere or spartan, Frank lived a rich and generous life. All elements of his thinking and living were open to his students for interrogation. One of the great satisfactions of studying with Frank was hearing him say incredulously “My god I have never thought of that. You’re right!"

Charlie Davie

His is a great loss to us all. His contributions to what we might call deep social learning, where environmental issues are solved not by learning about environmental loss, but by learning about the social constructions that led to that loss, are invaluable. He also taught and understood the wisest lessons about behaviour and habit. If a person wants change, they have to live it.

Roger Jones

From my friend, Frank Fisher, I have learned love. I’ve tried to take some care in expressing this: it’s not learning about love, or about how to love that I’m pointing to here, though along the way I expect I’ve learned something of that too. I’m not trying to say something like, “prior to our friendship, I didn’t know love.” And I don’t know that Frank actually set out to teach love. It’s more along these lines:

Walking awhile with Frank,
Love is embodied.
And ordinary,
Nothing to remark about.

Josh Floyd

One of the last things Frank said to me ... was: “If only there was something I could say or do that demonstrated how much fun it is to participate in life in this way.”

Anthony James

By Narelle Hanratty, 1 February 2013. Updated by Narelle with Frank’s family and colleagues May 2016