Monday, February 16, 2009

Vale Fitzy

Imagine having a Rotto villa named after you.

That was one of the achievements of John Fitzhardinge - there were many others.

The Post ran an obit on John, but half of it was - for some mysterious reason - left out.

Here at Rotto Bloggo space isn't an issue, and we're proud to bring you the full article.

John Fitzhardinge 1911-2008

John Fitzhardinge had the rare honour of having a villa on Rottnest named for him.

The Thomson Bay pad was named for John after his pivotal role in developing the Geordie Bay and Longreach settlements while on the Rottnest Island Board.

John's island idylls were just one episode in an action-packed, fun-loving life of achievement and community service.

He served in World War Two, was a distinguished architect, played a crucial role in WA's America's Cup win and was a generous soul.

John Berkeley Fitzhardinge was born in 1911 in Manly, NSW. His family moved to Perth 18 years later, at the height of the Great Depression, when his father became Chief Inspector WA with the Bank of NSW.

John brought his 16-foot skiff with him: the first of his boatbuilding ventures. He was a keen rugby and tennis player, and became captain of the Perth Rugby Union team.

John joined the architectural firm Eales Cohen and qualified as an architect in 1934. He became a partner two years later when it became Eales Cohen and Fitzhardinge. After the war he founded Forbes and Fitzhardinge with his brother-in-law Bill Forbes. The firm was one of the largest architectural firms in WA for 30 years.

In 1939 John enlisted in the 2/3rd Field Regiment, which arrived in England during the Battle of Britain and the evacuation of Dunkirk. John was shipped to North Africa and then to Greece where he was commissioned as Captain and leader of E Troop, 6th Battery.

“Last year Dad and I were watching the 7.30 Report: Kerry O’Brien interviewed a guy about his memoirs, and asked what was the best thing he had done,” John's daughter Jody recalled.
“I posed the same question to Dad: his immediate reply was: 'Surrendering to the Italian submarine”.'

At 1.30am on June 1, 1941, a submarine came up beside the barge that John and his escaping party had fitted out to take them from Galini in Crete to North Africa.

“Dad, worried about his charges being blown out of the water, dived overboard and swiftly swam 60 metres and pretty much surfed up the side of the sub,” Jody said.

“In his schoolboy French, he managed to make a deal with the astonished Italians. The deal was, if he and the other officers gave themselves up, the Italians would let the rest of the men go.

“The Italians accepted his terms, he saved his men from being taken prisoners, or being blown up, and they made it safely to North Africa.”

John was a prisoner of war for four years in Italy and Germany – but was inspirational even during imprisonment.

He painted, played in the orchestra, wrote and acted in plays and cooked a Christmas meal for 1,000 men.

He was later awarded an MBE for effecting his men's escape from Crete.

When John returned from war he set about making a significant mark on Perth.

He was also an urban planner, the National President of the Royal Institute of Planners (now the Planning Institute of Australia), and for many years a member of the Town Planning Board (WA).

He was especially proud of designing the bike paths around the river, the Hay St Pedestrian Mall (at the time, the second in the world), and for UWA's Sunken Gardens.

“When Winthrop Hall was being built, the site next to it was dug for mortar and the architects weren’t sure what to do with the hole,” Jody said.

“Someone suggested getting Fitzy along to have a look ‘as he was artistic’ and he came up with the idea of an amphitheatre.

“Dad was also the earliest exponent in WA of underground power lines – in fact of all utilities being concealed - and effected the change at Rottnest from overhead to underground power.”

Then there was sailing. From 1960 to 1962 John was Commodore of Royal Perth Yacht Club. He built his yacht Theanna on his front lawn, and in 1970 won the inaugural Perth to Albany race in his craft and held the race record for nearly 25 years.

John was a founding member of the Perth Game Fishing Club with Garrick Agnew, Carl Georgheff and others, and they were the first to fish the Rottnest Trench.

By 1978 John was an Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to yachting and urban planning.

Then, in 1982, he resigned from various boards to dedicate his energies to the America’s Cup Team, of which he had been a member since 1974.

John Bertrand said John left an indelible mark on the campaign that saw Australia II wrest the Cup from the New York Yacht Club.

“I will never forget his playing of the bagpipes at our crew house during the A2 campaign in Newport,” Bertrand said.

“Holding an upturned chair as the ‘bagpipes’ and holding his nose with his other hand...his performances were the perfect remedy to add the humour that was vital during the summer of ’83, particularly when we were three-one down against the Americans. Fitzy will be remembered by many people for many things.”

Cup-winning starboard grinder Will Baillieu described John as a “larrikin in a blazer”.

“He was an absolute legend and will be terribly missed by all of us,” he said.

“He was a lovable rogue disguised with perfect style. He had a sharp eye, and a wonderful wit. Our team morale was largely due to his humour.”

Retirement wasn't in the Fitzhardinge vocabulary: during the 1990s he was as busy as ever working as a consultant.

As he saw in the new millennium he still had a very strong grip on life: racing on the Swan River every week, drawing up the occasional house plan, heading off on travels (fishing in Shark Bay and the Abrolhos Islands and trips to Greece and other parts of Europe.

During his last four years John lived with Jody and her husband Peter at their home in North Fremantle.

“For a man who had been so fiercely independent and physically adept at everything he did, so in control of the many aspects of his life, he was enormously gracious and dignified in accepting the help he increasingly needed as his body lost the ability to respond to his ever keen mind,” Jody said.

“We all felt blessed to have been part of his extraordinary life.”

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