Peter Burns, an active member of Amnesty International Australia since the 1970s, passed away on 14 March 2018. I had the privilege of being invited by Beverley and the family to assist them in planning the celebration of Peter’s life, which was held on the 21st of March at the Woongarra Crematorium Chapel in Townsville.
We began our celebration with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners, the Wulgurukaba and Bindal people. Following that we had a “muster” of all the groups represented which was an impressive indication of the breadth of Peter’s passions and interest. There were people there from the University of the Third Age (U3A), from James Cook University (JCU) where Peter taught Indonesian for many years, from the Indonesian community of Townsville, from the Townsville Arts community, from the Townsville Amnesty group, and from the Australian Labor Party, of which Peter had been a member for even more years than he had been a member of Amnesty.
Andrew Burns gave a moving tribute to his father. We learnt that Peter was born in Adelaide in 1934. He moved to Melbourne after World War II where he studied Dentistry for two years and then completed a Primary Teacher’s certificate. On the basis of the science subjects he studied as part of his Dentistry studies, he soon found himself teaching science at Bright High School where Beverley Nicholson was Principal.
In Andrew’s words: “The prospect of marrying Peter must have had quite some allure because the immediate professional consequences for Beverley were so disadvantageous. When they married in January 1960, regulations then in place resulted in Beverley becoming a temporary teacher while Peter became head of the school.”
So that Peter could complete his education degree, Peter and Beverley moved back to Melbourne where Peter commenced his studies of Indonesian which became his passion for the next 50 years. Peter, Beverley and their sons Andrew, David and Stephen, moved to Townsville in 1974 where Peter was an Indonesian Language lecturer at JCU until his retirement in 1996.
One of Peter’s attributes that Andrew especially admired was Peter’s sincerity to his commitments. Andrew reminded us of his father’s regular presence at the weekly “Fridays in orange” vigils that the Townsville Amnesty group held outside the office of Federal MP Peter Lindsay. We were calling on the Australian Government to ensure that David Hicks be given a fair trial or be released from imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay. We wore orange because this was the colour of the jumpsuits worn by Guantanamo inmates. Each week Peter would repaint a large board which gave the number of days David Hicks had been detained without trial. Andrew told us that the Board was still in the back shed with the number 1937 painted on it.
(Fridays in orange – by then David Hicks had spent 1860 days in detention)
Andrew also told us that Peter had been a member of the group that successfully lobbied then-Queensland Transport Minister Russ Hinze to introduce the first bike paths to Townsville.
Andrew paid tribute to Beverley’s caring for Peter as he endured the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. Peter had had Parkinson’s disease for eight years. Towards the end of his life Peter was physically frail but he was spared the terrible mental deterioration that afflicts so many sufferers. Peter continued to enjoy Crosswords until two months before his passing. Andrew’s concluding words were “I will miss Peter. I will miss his curiosity, his generosity of spirit and our conversations profoundly.”
Following Andrew’s tribute, those attending were invited to share their own memories of Peter. U3A colleagues said how much they enjoyed the philosophy courses taught by Peter, and gave us the hilarious story of Peter’s antics during a debate held between U3A members and JCU Law students. Jeanie Adams told us that as a beginning tertiary teacher she taught with Peter at Melbourne Teachers College (Secondary Art & Crafts). Jeanie described Peter as a great mentor and told us that on occasions she and John had baby-sat Andrew, David and Stephen.
Artist Jenny Tyack shared stories of Peter’s artistic accomplishments and pointed to Peter’s self-portrait displayed at the front of the chapel and painted during one of Jenny’s classes. Trevor Mack paid tribute to the guidance Peter had given him when he commenced as a lecturer of Indonesian at JCU. Lindy Nelson-Carr, former ALP State MP and Cabinet Minister in the Beattie and Bligh Governments told us of her appreciation of Peter’s longstanding commitment to the Annandale ALP Branch and the wise and generous contribution he made to the life of that branch.
We shared a letter sent to us from Trish Johnson from Canberra when she heard of Peter’s passing:
“In 1985 I wanted to join an Amnesty group in Townsville, but one was not currently active. When I set about starting one again, Peter Burns was quickly on board. His knowledge and encouragement was invaluable: he was a skilled letter writer, a passionate supporter of human rights, and a constant source of varied information and perspectives, with a quirky sense of black humour sometimes thrown in. He and Beverley were often at functions and events, such as Button Day and campaigns, and I found him a great mentor at that stage of activism.
Thank you Peter – we will miss you.”
Following the tributes, grandson Paul Burns, read “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas – one of Peter’s favourite poets. This was followed by a time for reflection when people were invited to place rose petals on Peter’s coffin and say their own farewell. We did this to the recording of Bryn Terfel singing “The First Time ever I saw your face”.
(Tropical Kazoos join Amnesty International members for the annual Labor Day Parade)
The celebration featured some of the other music Peter loved including Appalachian Spring and “Danny Boy” also sung by Bryn Terfel. The final song was Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance”, which was played by members of the Tropical Kazoo band. One of Peter’s involvements not already mentioned was his long time membership of the Tropical Kazoo Band. He particularly favoured our motto taken from a ‘gruk’ by Piet Hein “The noble art of losing face may some day save the human race”. Peter’s commitment to kazoo playing and the band was evidenced by the fact that he was the only band member who had an instrument case for his kazoo – an ornate polished wooden case.
As we played that day at the end of the service, I imagined Peter listening to our playing with a twinkle in his eye, and agreeing that this was a most appropriate way to conclude his celebration.