Subject: Man of many talents had adventurous spirit (Ray Aitken)

The West Australian (Perth)

August 8, 2005 Monday METRO

Man of many talents had adventurous spirit



Born: Cloverdale, November 1915

Died: Perth, July, 2005

To our mate Ray Aitken, Digger, Comrade and Friend.

You go with our love and eternal gratitude.

May you rest in peace.

- Xanana Gusmao, President, and Kirsty Gusmao

That the above, from the President of Timor-Leste, was read out at Ray Aitken's funeral says a lot about the man. At least, it says a lot about one dimension of him, for Ray Aitken was a man of many parts and much loved for all of them.

A teacher, remembered 60 years on by students. A soldier, admired by colleagues. A friend to East Timor (Timor-Leste). An ornithologist. A naturalist. A conservationist. A businessman. Ray Aitken was all of these things.

He was also a man of great generosity and a philanthropist, a fact he never wanted or needed acknowledged.

Daughter Jenny Beahan said that a thoughtful friend had suggested he was like a butterfly flying free. "But a butterfly might be a smidgin too quiet and not quite enough flash and dash for such a spirited and larger than life man," she replied. "Perhaps a voluble wattle bird . . . or a brilliant 28 parrot - a chatterer, a seed cruncher and a group gatherer . . . flashing across a big Australian sky."

He was also a brave man, in the fullest sense of the word. Having served in Timor as a commando with the 2/2nd Independent Company during World War II, Ray spent much of the rest of his life trying - with others - to aid the new country of East Timor gain independence and then flourish.

Last September, three days after surgery and accompanied by Jenny and friend Graham Williams, he insisted on flying once more to East Timor. He was 88 but unstoppable. Little wonder he was asked to stay with the President and his Australian-born wife, who, like their country folk, called him Raymondo.

Ray Aitken's background was Scottish-Irish. His father, Andrew, was one of five brothers who were born in New Zealand to Scottish parents and moved to WA in the mid-1890s. His mother, Lydie Lillian Osborn, was from Irish stock.

The pair had three daughters, Margaret Alice, Jean Frances Lillian and Doreen Pearl, before Ray arrived, on November 7, 1915. Ray's uncle Alex, his father's brother, introduced him to a lifelong love of the bush and its flora and fauna.

Ray attended Perth Boys School where he shared a desk with celebrated WA writer Tom Hungerford and the pair both served, though not together, in New Guinea in 1944-45 after Ray's stint in Timor.

The Binjarab people used to camp on the Cloverdale open spaces near the Aitken home and his parents allowed them to take him to Pinjarra for a few days.

When he was teaching in the Wheatbelt (and later as principal at Coolbinia Primary School), he would take the whole school out to the bush and have contests to find honey, yams, the first possum sighting or animal tracks. The indigenous pupils regularly won these and would return as the heroes of the trip.

One of his pupils, Rodney Chandler, was taught by Ray back in 1937 and said: "My three and a half years being taught by him left a lasting impression on me. His zest for teaching us the things that would have a lasting impact on us was remarkable.

"Ray was a great storyteller. He told us stories of his time with old school mates Harry Butler, Vincent Serventy and several others."

His school won first prize for its display at the Perth Royal Show two years running, the entry being guided by Ray. He served on many committees and boards, using his natural gifts as a botanist, scientist and educator to conserve species and improve standards across a range of fields.

It was in 1935 that he met Muriel Agnes Drake at Claremont Teachers College and the pair married.

Daughter Jenny was followed by son Craig, who, with his wife, Sandra, have won a gold medal for the first vintage of their wine. Ray, who loved a good wine, would have approved. Jenny shared Ray's passion for education and has been innovative in education and the arts.

Ray's friend and fellow educator, Ross Latham, said: "He was a dynamic force in the education world. He was a gifted teacher and an outstanding administrator and education leader. Many of us who have an abiding interest in native plants caught the bug from Ray Aitken."

He was always a most approachable man but never suffered fools gladly as any overt monarchist or opponent of his campaign to have the Australian Government repay what he saw as a war debt to East Timor, found out.

His great friend, writer, scientist and curator of history in the WA Museum, David Hutchison, said: "On the last occasion we were with him . . . he spoke of his disgust with the way the Federal Government was treating the East Timorese over the sharing of the oil beneath the Timor Sea."

But he also remembered: "He was a large man in every sense: large of frame, large and generous of heart and mind."

After the war, Ray returned to civilian life and education. He took on a position as a district superintendent but would not make it permanent because he wished to stay close to practical work with schools. He was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his efforts.

He founded the Wildflower Nursery at Wanneroo with good friend Les Wende and it became the largest of its type, employing more than 100 people at one time. Ray served on many committees in this area and was awarded the first life membership of the Royal Association of Agriculturalists and was a life member of Birds Australia.

The only drawback to his expeditions in the north of WA as he sought new species was that his radio reception would drop out during his beloved cricket broadcasts.

So respected was he as an ornithologist that Ray was chosen to guide the visit of the celebrated Sir Peter Scott when he visited WA.

Birds Australia, the Gould League of Bird Lovers, WA Wildlife Society, WA Naturalists Club and the Australian Conservation Foundation were some of the organisations which benefited from his expertise. He was also an active member of the 2/2nd Association.

He died on July 10, five years after Muriel, leaving Jenny, son Craig, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. All love nature and great-grandson Connor, just six, already is showing signs of studying plants. Grand-daughter Kate Beahan, Jenny's daughter, who is an actress, is in Canada and the US filming The Wicker Man with Nicolas Cage. She remembers how her grandfather introduced her to exotic foods and laughed when she tried curries that were too hot for her palate.

"But he loved anyone who attempted the adventure," she said.

Ray Aitken tried more adventures than most.

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