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Tribute: Blind optimist remembered


Cite as: December 2013 87 (12) LIJ, p.26

Peter Ryan remembers the remarkable blind legal academic, Lawrie McCredie, the subject of a new biography. 

“We cannot afford wantonly to lose sight of great men and memorable lives, and are bound to store up objects for admiration as far as may be . . . ” So said the Victorian historian Lord Acton from his Cambridge chair in June 1895. It applies to no one more aptly than to the late associate law professor Lawrence McCredie CBE, AM.

In this tribute I set down some idea of a man I knew well, one who touched the law, learning and life and left all of them better for his contact.

Lawrie (with his twin Norma) was born in Hobart on 16 December 1928, son of an Australian permanent soldier. It was a surprise to nobody when, in February 1946, he appeared as a staff cadet on the parade ground of the Royal Australian Military College at Duntroon, Canberra. Three years later he passed out with the rank of lieutenant, into the Royal Australian Armoured Corps.

There followed a period of service overseas, with the British Army in the UK and in Germany. Then it was back to Australia for the important duties of training newly recruited National Service troops at Puckapunyal military camp in northern Victoria.

On 14 March, 1952, Lawrie’s company was scheduled for an “attack” on an “enemy” defended position, with all the din and stress of battle realistically simulated. Lawrie had felt an inexplicable sense of foreboding about this exercise. As the company prepared to return to quarters, he found that he had three sticks of gelignite left over: better to destroy them safely here on the spot than return them to stores. Fuse lit, someone moved unwittingly into the space he had intended to throw them. Quickly! Into the rabbit hole with them! The rabbit hole was the last thing he ever saw.

Three seriously wounded men lay on the ground, Lawrie’s case the worst. His injuries included a skull so badly fractured that in several places his brain showed through the cracks; one side of his face was more or less blasted away; both eyes were so badly damaged that sight never returned; his right arm and hand were fit only for amputation. He had suffered massive blood loss.

Many anxious days and nights of devoted minute-by-minute care kept a spark still burning, and stabilised him sufficiently to risk surgery. Even on the trolley, he was still fighting on, planning the future. At the theatre door he was heard to murmur to his father: “I’ll have to look for a new job now. I’ve ballsed this one up”.

Five fraught hours of surgery left a patient still uncertain of survival. Lawrie’s father Tom and brother Mac kept nightly vigil at his bedside. Not until the tenth day was he able to communicate. Deep inside, he was considering his next step – perhaps the greatest and best of his life. He had fallen in love with his nurse, Heather McNuff. She was petite and pretty but he never saw her face, nor the faces of any of his four daughters – Vicki, Pam, Frances and Marie.

Still a serving Australian officer, Lawrie, accompanied by Heather, was sent to England for rehabilitation at the famous St Dunstan’s centre for blinded soldiers. He made good use of his time there, with training in practical skills such as carpentry – a lifelong asset to any home handyman. He learned to move about safely. He was fitted with his new prosthetic right arm and his discreetly leather-gloved hand.

He made it plain that he would not be shunted off into some sheltered billet like switchboard operating or piano tuning. He was headed back to the real world, determined to make a contribution to it.

Lawrie was accepted as a student for the LLB degree at the University of Melbourne. His degree, with excellent results, was conferred in 1960, but few could have realised the appalling difficulties that had been overcome. Recording lectures on the primitive devices of the day was one difficulty; a temperamental Braille typewriter was another. Patient reading aloud to him of cases and materials, for many hours every night was a monument of spousal dedication.

The service of his year as an articled clerk still lay between Lawrie and his admission to practice in the Supreme Court, and he was fortunate to serve this apprenticeship with Arthur Robinson & Co, where he was overseen by John Robinson and John Harper. He was admitted to practice on 3 August 1961.

In all, Lawrie was six years at Arthur Robinson. Yet the alternative call of academe continued, and in late 1966 he accepted the offer of a lectureship in law at Monash University, which had moved to create a new faculty of law.

Lawrie was to teach legal process, executors and trustees and duties of trustees.

Lawrie’s academic career went steadily ahead. He became senior lecturer in 1971, and was appointed sub-dean of the faculty in 1972. In 1973, accompanied by Heather, he went to Oxford University for the customary academic sabbatical year, and began work on his successful and authoritative volume, The Administration of Deceased Estates in Victoria. In 1978 he was made associate professor.

The outstanding constant of all his years at Monash was concern for the students. Let one student of those days, Ron McCallum speak for all of them from his later eminence as Sydney University’s Dean of Law: “Professor Lawrie McCredie . . . is beloved by his students more than any other academic of my acquaintance”.

Lawrie was also a member of the Victorian Council of Legal Education, which met in the Supreme Court.

During the 15 years I was secretary of the Council of Legal Education and Board of Examiners, I also attended the Victorian Council of Legal Education meetings. It was one of my duties to meet Lawrie’s taxi. I vastly enjoyed this little task, which offered opportunity for those unguarded private conversations by which private spirits can exchange views. But so little fuss did Lawrie make of his disabilities that when, occasionally, I would lightly nudge an arm (perhaps to warn him of persons approaching in our path) I had no notion that his right arm was prosthetic: only after his death did I hear of his long-ago amputations. It amazed me also to learn that he had resumed his former talented performance on the floor as a ballroom dancer.

In addition to the heavy stream of ordinary business through the sub-dean’s office, Lawrie held innumerable other appointments, duties and responsibilities mostly related to the needs of the disabled.

He was a member of the University’s Blues Sports Committee. He served on the council of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind, and held high office among the Freemasons. He visited Russia to learn about the services provided for the disabled in the eastern bloc countries; Singapore likewise.

His keen attachment to the Hawthorn Football Club was recreational and fun, for he had been an outstanding young footy player. He was sometimes confident enough to heckle an umpire for a faulty decision which, literally, he had not seen.

When the United Nations declared 1981 the International Year for Disabled persons Lawrie was appointed to head the Australian organising committee, all the while keeping the sub-dean’s office steaming ahead. He received a CBE for his Year of the Disabled work and in 2007 an Order of Australia (AO) for services to Legal Education and the Disabled.

Lawrie’s responsibilities continued to grow. As late as 1990 he accepted a seat on the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board.

Lawrie’s unique standing in the law gained professional and public acknowledgement in 1983, when the Young Lawyers Section of the LIV voted him Legal Personality of the Year. Further tributes followed. Monash has a Lawrence McCredie Prize for Wills.

The Monash Alumni Association Lawrence McCredie assistance fund was launched at a brilliant and numerously attended dinner in the huge Palladium Room at Melbourne’s Crown Casino. Fittingly, Lawrie’s whole family was there except for two tiny grandchildren. This close-knit family had been contributors, first to Lawrie’s reclamation from his wounds and later to his accomplishments in the law.

This great and amicable man died on 28 November 2012. Mourners packed Melbourne’s Scots Church on 7 December for his funeral. Lawrie McCredie was indeed a great man of memorable life, whose character and worth should be preserved for the understanding of common generations of Australians.

Inquiries for Lawrie McCredie’s new biography, Blind Optimist by Di Webstale-Morrissey (Australian Scholarly Publishing), should be made at the LIV bookshop.

PETER RYAN is the former director of Melbourne University Press and a former secretary of the Council of Legal Education and Board of Examiners.


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