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King’s Old Scholar Richard Willing talks about a Lifetime of Exploration

11 June 2021

I was lucky enough to recently meet old scholar Richard Willing (1938-1947). Richard rang me late last year after seeing a photo of the 1938 King’s boarders in the Spring 2020 issue of Pembroke News and was wondering if we would like the names of all the young men in the photo for our archives. Of course I was very grateful for the offer and Richard promptly emailed the details through. We got chatting and I was immediately struck by his charm and warm memories of his School days.

We talked and talked and an hour later I put down the phone a little overwhelmed. I realised I had been speaking with someone who has lived a long and sometimes difficult life leaving absolutely nothing to chance, creating and embracing incredible opportunities for adventure, relationships and altruism. His vision for life was crisp.

I rang Richard back that day and asked if he would be interested in sharing some of his story with our readers and he kindly obliged.

Tim O’Loughlin
Head of Publications

Richard, you have a very interesting story about how you came to be a boarder at King’s back in the late 1930s; can you tell us about that?

My parents’ marriage was over when I was very young and their only child. The split up was followed by several years of short stays in many different places in South Australia and Victoria, going to creches and primary schools for short periods before moving on. Just before third Term 1938 I was told that I would be going to a new school, King’s College, as a boarder and would have a new name, my mother having changed back to her maiden name. A still unknown benefactor had arranged a boarding scholarship for me. I checked this out years later, confirmed by the former old scholar archivist Mr Dick Fricker, who noted a Board minute that ‘Richard Willing was awarded a scholarship with free tuition and boarding at one pound per week’. Unfortunately there was no discussion recorded in the Board Minutes, so the benefactor is still anonymous, although I suspect a generous uncle was involved. Very wet behind the ears and coming to grips with a new name, I arrived and spent the third term sharing a room with Rayner Smith, the headmaster’s son, rather than being put straight into the Junior Dormitory.

What was your new school like and how did you settle in?

My move to King’s gave me stability. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by people of my age. My life flourished. As a boarder in a small school I knew most people in the School and made lifelong friendships. As I have said in old scholars’ meetings, ‘Give a kid a break and you never know what will happen’. Like so many other old scholars, Mr Don Harris has claim to being the person who most influenced their lives. He introduced me to Scouts; I earned my King’s Scout Award at School, became his ASM in 1948 after leaving school, and later a State HQ Commissioner with Venturers. He encouraged me in so many ways to unlock my potential and remained a friend for life. King’s was always a friendly place and there was a strong ethic of self-sufficiency, so we dug our own trenches during WW2 and grew our own vegetables where buildings now stand. The camaraderie in the School was strong—all this in spite of the boarders having a cold shower in the mornings with one warm bath per week. Perhaps it made us more robust!

Soon after you completed your time at the University of Adelaide, your life became something of an odyssey; can you tell us about Antarctica?

I graduated in Medicine, worked in hospital for a year and then joined a general practice in Prospect for a couple of years. For a while I was the School doctor during this time. I have had a lifelong fascination with the heroic explorations of Antarctica, strengthened by being presented with a copy of Seaver’s book Edward Wilson of the Antarctic while at school. When I came across an advertisement for a Medical Officer to Mawson base I immediately applied and was accepted. This was a high point of my life. The amount of medical work was minimal, so I spent a lot of the winter out in the field miles from base studying emperor penguins. Some of this monitoring is still going more than 60 years later. In the summer my previous tractor-driving experience was put to use in being part of a 3-month trek 600 km south of Mawson to the southern Prince Charles Mountains as part of a seismic survey to see what was beneath the polar ice cap. Mt Willing, in the centre of these ranges, is named after me. My advice to young people is—when an opportunity arrives seize it with both hands. It may never occur again.

Fol­low your inter­est, read about it, join an inter­est group, vol­un­teer to help, become an expert in your inter­est and make your­self indis­pens­able.
Richard Will­ing (19381947)

And then there was your time in Woomera?

I needed to earn enough money to be able to take my family and me overseas for postgraduate study. The job at Woomera sounded interesting and paid well so I served there as Senior Medical Officer for about 3 years. Again, it was an opportunity grasped and it was a most interesting time as it was a fully operational weapons testing range in those days. My interest was in the Blue Streak rocket, which I watched being built from when I was first there. A King’s old scholar was an engineer working on it. Its use was changed from being a missile to a proposed first stage of a European satellite launcher. For its first test firing I was in a helicopter and had a splendid view. It was an interesting place to work but was a means to an end, and in 1965 I went to the UK with my family to further my studies.

After returning to Australia from your studies in Oxford, your adventures continued?

My exploration of Australia has continued since the 1950s. Family trips with two children plus a friend sitting four across the back seat in an early model Holden (no seatbelts in those days) were a lot of fun including Lake Eyre in flood (1974), Coopers Creek, Birdsville Track, Mootwingee, ski trips to Victorian Alps, Wilson’s Promontory and Kangaroo Island. Later trips with friends included Kakadu, Tanami Track in early days, Kimberley, Canning Stock Route, parts of Queensland and Western Australia, Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Simpson Desert.

And you have been very involved in conservation projects too?

Farming has been part of my life since early childhood when I spent school holidays on a farm in the Mid North of South Australia. About 50 years ago I bought a small farm at Delamere and later moved to Hindmarsh Tiers, near Myponga. This was about the time that Flinders University Medical School opened in 1976, where I had been appointed and worked for 25 years along with a private practice. ‘Minnawarra’ is our family property where we raise Angus cattle with a self-replacing herd of about 100 breeders, plus a small mob of sheep, while practising sustainable grazing as well as we can. We have retained a large amount of native vegetation that has been made over to a Heritage Agreement (HA). King’s and Pembroke old scholars have been part of the workforce over the years, namely me, son Stephen Willing (who lives in Hobart but comes over and helps out occasionally), daughter Janet Furler (who is now the farm manager) and grandsons Alex and Sam Furler. In this HA scrub we are conducting a long-term monitoring study named the Minnawarra Biodiversity Project that has been running now for more than 20 years. The aim is to see what happens to the small animals living in the scrub after it is fenced off to exclude domestic grazing animals such as sheep and cattle. Eight sites have been set up in the Flinders and Gammon Ranges, Nullarbor Plain, West Coast, Gawler Ranges, Simpson Desert, Coongie Lakes and Innamincka, and 5-day surveys take place each spring and autumn. Trapped mammals are identified, weighed and microchipped before being released. Skinks, frogs and birds are also counted. We are learning a lot about seasonal variation of different species as well as refuge areas during drought. While I do not go on complete expeditions these days I try to visit each one for a few days, so you could say my days of exploration have not really finished yet.

Since being the youngest King’s boarder in 1938, three generations of your family have now attended King’s, Girton and Pembroke. How do you reflect on that?

King’s gave so much to me when my life was unsettled. I am so grateful that the School gave me such a solid grounding that allowed me to find my place in the world. On returning to Adelaide after 3 years in the UK, my son Stephen liked the idea of going to dad’s old School and won a part scholarship. The year after he joined King’s the amalgamation to form Pembroke occurred, so he is an old scholar of both. Being now co-ed, the decision was already made when it was time for my daughter Janet to start secondary school, so she also attended Pembroke. They both formed long-lasting friendships, and Janet’s boys Alex and Sam (Furler) attended Pembroke. It has given me much pleasure to see this happen although Pembroke is a vastly different proposition to the small King’s College that I first encountered. Stephen lives in Hobart and his children go to the Friends School, where former King’s headmaster Bill Oats went to lead when he left King’s.

Do you have any advice for our current students about how they might ‘explore’ in their lives?

Yes, for me I guess my spirit of exploration goes back to joining the King’s Scout group at age 11, and embracing the brilliant program run by Mr Don Harris that took me camping and hiking to many places including Myponga (before the dam), Kenton Valley (near Gumeracha), Flinders Ranges, Kangaroo Island and Tasmania. Everyone can be an explorer. Remember that song From Little Things Big Things Grow? Follow your interest, read about it, join an interest group, volunteer to help, become an expert in your interest and make yourself indispensable. You will be creating your own opportunities, and that could lead to many interesting places.