Dame Elisabeth led by quiet example


Dame Elisabeth Murdoch said to her daughter earlier this year: ''Old age is hard work but I do love life.'' She was 103. As we mourn her loss we recognise the shape of a generous life spanning our history from a post-federated Australia to multimedia communication platforms.

A couple of years ago around her crackling open fire, I was sharing my thoughts with Dame Elisabeth on a book about Enid Lyons, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and appointed to cabinet. She was also the wife of prime minister Joe Lyons in the early 1930s and achieved all this with 12 children!

Dame Elisabeth shifted in her comfy armchair and said quietly, ''Yes, I knew Enid.''

A young Queen Elizabeth in 1963 made her a Dame Commander of the British Empire for outstanding service to the community, particularly to the Royal Children's Hospital. She became known as Dame Elisabeth as though it was one word.

I met her as arts minister when she came into my office to discuss support for several small arts organisations. She was clear, warm and effective. I soon discovered that the funding she advocated from the state was much less than what she was giving every year to such innovative groups as Somebody's Daughter, a nascent theatre company for women prisoners.

Dame Elisabeth pioneered active social philanthropy in Australia and over 13 years opened my eyes to the power of the partnership between government, private philanthropy and business. Dame Elisabeth led by quiet example.

I thought she needed to be acknowledged, while she was alive and in perpetuity. Building the Melbourne Recital Centre in Southbank, premier Steve Bracks enthusiastically agreed to me approaching Dame Elisabeth to have her name on the hall and invite a member of the family onto the board.

Dame Elisabeth, well into training the next generations in involved philanthropy, nominated her granddaughter. Through Julie I came to know a beloved ''Granny''.

The Elisabeth Murdoch Hall opened as planned on her 100th birthday. Each year since, Dame Elisabeth has been the centre of celebrations and donations, her silver hair swept into an elegant bun, little diamond droplets winking at her ears, wide smile and warm laugh. Last year her grandchildren guided her wheelchair through the cameras.

When I left politics I received an unexpected call, Dame Elisabeth inviting me to join her on one of her myriad arts boards. Around the board table this 97-year-old demonstrated a sharp understanding of the finances and clear view of the mission. At 99 she was still out four nights a week. Her mantra: ''I can't bear to waste a minute.''

The style she demonstrated over decades was to be committed to the cause, involved in the work. She hosted young musicians and artistic directors, knew their ambitions. As chairman of Orchestra Victoria I valued Dame Elisabeth's generous annual cheque but even more her deep belief in the civilising embrace of music, particularly for schoolchildren.

When old age started to limit her mobility I would occasionally join her granddaughters after the board meeting and together de-brief Dame Elisabeth over sandwiches at Cruden Farm. In her study/sitting room with the open fire glowing, telephone one side of the armchair, diary the other, writing board before her, Dame Elisabeth would daily conduct business.

She fielded calls and invitations, wrote cheques and letters. These letters are a talisman of another time, always in a firm hand on Cruden Farm letterhead and signed simply, Elisabeth.

From that homely place she gave guidance to so many who visited. She gave me invaluable insight as I established a small philanthropic residential writers' retreat. There was kind understanding when my husband died. When she spoke of ''her Keith'' her eyes lit up like a teenager's. At her 100th birthday lunch international tenor Jose Carreras serenaded her with a significant song from her marriage as her son stroked her back. Later he said: ''Mum … you are a symbol of all that is good and big-hearted and beautiful about our country.''

Her famed garden was her joy. Over 80 years Dame Elisabeth built it and shared it. Every weekend for decades it was open to raise funds for her charities. There were no ''Private'' signs up.

Families frolic in February at the McClelland Sculpture Jazz while the huge lunch under a marquee in the rose garden bolsters the local hospice. Until recently Dame Elisabeth would attend, enjoying a glass of wine and listening to the speeches. People and ideas energised her.

Her long and influential life arcs like a rainbow over a grateful nation and her rose blooms today in my garden.

Mary Delahunty is the founder of Rosebank Residential Writers' Retreat, director of McClelland Sculpture Ltd and Victorian Arts Minister 1999-2006.

Sir Keith and Dame Elisabeth in 1952.

Sir Keith and Dame Elisabeth in 1952.


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