A Tribute to My Father, William Loutit Morison

Alethea Morison, April 2000

As the one offspring to be Father's student, I've been elected to give a family perspective on his career and later life.

In 1937, at only 16,Father embarked on his Arts/Law degree at Sydney University. His interests were ever broader than the law and he carried on to three rather than the usual two years of Arts, winning university medals in both Philosophy and History.

From 1941, he was articled to Sir Norman Cowper at Allen, Allen and Hemsley while studying law. He first met my mother Mary in the University Quadrangle in 1942. When I asked if the magnificent jacaranda was in bloom, she pointed out that it was then only a tiny sapling which as often as not lay with its roots in the air, the victim of student pranksters. Nevertheless, both the jacaranda and my parents' love were destined to put down firm roots, thrive and flower. One of her favourite memories is of him walking towards her along the railway lines into Camden where she was then teaching, because he wasn't about to let disruptions to train services prevent him seeing her.

Father graduated with first class honours in 1944 and was admitted to the bar, though he never practised. Instead he enlisted in the RAAF. The main legacy to us children was that he learnt navigation by the stars and many years later would show us constellations and eclipses with the aid of a small telescope set up in the corner of the dining room or on the driveway.

Father was discharged to train for the Diplomatic Corps but, in 1946, decided to accept an appointment as a law lecturer at Sydney University. Thus began a teaching career there which spanned 39 years. This was punctuated by a number of overseas research projects as Father carved out an international reputation in torts and jurisprudence.

In 1949 he won a Scholarship to study for his doctorate at Oxford. I've always loved my parents' stories from this epoque of bicycle touring in England and Wales. Other cyclists they met at hostels were condescending about the 50 miles a day my parents were covering through the Cotswolds - until they saw the bikes involved. My father's steed, affectionately called the old gate, demanded nightly repair and my father had to help push my mother up the hills. Later, her support would help him scale great heights of achievement and I like to think they have always been there for each other.

In the 1950s, Sydney Law School Dean Kenneth Shatwell, established close ties with Yale University. This resulted in the family making three trips to the US - in 57, 59 and 65 - for Father to teach and further his research. I was timed around the middle one: seeing the 59 trip on the horizon father informed mother No 3 child would have to be fitted in beforehand and I was duly produced 3 months before we flew abroad.

Two figures stand out in father's professional associations in that period - Eugene Rostow, Dean of Yale Law School and Myres S McDougal, several times President of the American International Law Association. "Mac", as he was to us, maintained a fond interest in our family and kept up a correspondence till his death in 1998 at 90. He constantly encouraged my father, exhorting him to publish more of his essays on jurisprudence. When father retired Mac wrote, "you will never retire insofar as intellectual work is concerned. You have made a great contribution, the recognition of which will grow."

I think one of the things that Mac and Gene Rostow most appreciated about my father was his ability in his writings on them to illuminate their work for others - to penetrate their messages, locate them in the body of knowledge on a subject and renew their relevance to contemporary society. This is also true of Father's book on legal philosopher, John Austin, published in 1982.

My father's final sabbatical, in 1976, took him only to ANU Canberra. With the family in Sydney, it still seemed a long way and each weekend Father would travel home or Mother to Canberra. They, and sometimes I too, would go on birdspotting walks in the Canberra Botanic Gardens or the bush. My mother relates how on one birding excursion a little honeyeater alighted on father and started plucking bits of soft wool from his jumper. I've always thought it showed great discernment on the part of the little bird that it recognised my father as the ideal source of fibres to weave a high quality home.

I became Father's student officially in 1977 though his erudition had permeated our lives long before. I was known to complain that parents in our house couldn't give a straight answer to a question. You were always told, "Look it up", in one of the reference books which Father picked up as bargains and brought home literally by the armful.

Many of fathers' students proceeded to the most distinguished legal posts in the country. I wasn't to complete the law side of my Arts/Law degree but father if anything encouraged that decision. It was his way to accept and actively support us whatever our choices might be.

In the two years he taught me, it was interesting to witness the crafting of lectures I would later hear delivered. He would race around the house thinking them out in his head, sniggering at the jokes, before writing them out longhand. They seemed to spring forth perfectly formed, like Athena in full armour from the head of Zeuss. I recall one lecture delivered almost entirley in comic verse in parody of Gilbert and Sullivan which brought students to their feet laughing and applauding. Father also brought a unique style of delivery to social occasions. I'm not sure how many times I've sat white-knuckled at a wedding, including my own, as Father, his face alight with mischief, teetered on the brink of saying something embarrassing before veering away at the last moment to say something quite unexpected but completely appropriate.

In the latter half of his career, a source of considerable satisfaction was his involvement in the reform of privacy laws. It was on the basis of his 1973 report that the Privacy Committee Act was implemented in 1975.

In his "retirement" from 1986 onwards, he collaborated with Carolyn Sappideen, on the eighth and ninth editions of Cases on Torts, a series of text books he began in 1955. He wrote them at home, my mother typing them up on an electric typewriter. The last was produced in 1993, after which he continued to write many articles and talks, mostly philosophic musings for Heraclitus, the newsletter of the Sydney Realists.

After a career throughout which he'd been fairly driven, retirement was a chance for us all to become closer and for Father to take greater interest in his multiplying grandchildren. These last three years he formed a close relationship with my son Alexander. They "resonated" as a stranger once remarked when she saw Father pushing Alexander in his pram. A great sadness to me, one of myriad on this occasion, is that Alexander is unlikely to remember Panga Bill though he must surely benefit from the loving start Panga helped give him.

The manner of my father's death was cruel and I don't wish to dwell on it when there is so much good to remember. However, I would like others to know that both he and my mother have been immensely brave and selfless throughout, she caring for him and staying by his side night and day and my father saying, "I just have to see it through; look after your mother." He died a hero in my eyes.

In the last days, when the pain and drug effects were most intense, he told me he was restraining himself from speaking because he knew he could no longer clearly distinguish between fantasy and reality and didn't want people to think, "Oh what a pity that he's come to this". I tried to tell him that all anyone could think was how tragic it was that the body was deserting the still powerful and brilliant mind and personality.

We didn't see the final passage through alone and I would like to express thanks for all the kindness and help from friends, neighbours, relatives and unfailingly compassionate medical staff. I know my father himself graciously thanked all who came to see him or tended him in his final illness.

I've ploughed my brain for an appropriate final remark, something that would convey the essence of the man I was so fortunate to call my father but I can't capture it. I know he would have made a brilliant job of this. All the best moments of my life are associated with my father's unique style of speech-making and his pithy remarks. Yet all I have for him is, "We loved you Daddy. We know you never would have left us willingly and we would never willingly have let you go. Goodbye."

Alethea Morison

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