More from 2009: Sydney High revisited

Seems like yesterday! See also Tag Archives: Sydney High.

29 January: “The Mine”

They’ve been doing a lot of work at Sydney Boys High. The grounds look fantastic, even if the main building is due for a paint job. Even the web site has had a makeover!

29jan 009

Some of the Class of 2014 (!) lining up outside the gym. I was Class of 1959!

29jan 011

New tennis courts. There are new basketball courts on “The Flat”

29jan 013

These were amazing, changing as you walked around them. Note Craig Wing on the mug shots top left, and Andrew Goodwin behind the top head…


Sixty years on

Yes, next year will mark sixty years since my final year as a student at Sydney Boys High. They had trams still then — I wonder if the troubled new ones will be running next year?


See also 1959 revisited and The year my voice broke…, which refers to 1958.

1950 Grounds 3

Recently I downloaded the latest Flying Higher — an excellent new publication. And look, my Maths teacher 1958-59 is still with us! He was my boss too from late 1985-1987, and then 1989 through the early 90s. He claimed, probably correctly, that I owed him a Maths assignment from 1958…

Screenshot (215)

How many HSCs is that now?

In today’s Sydney Morning Herald two once-familiar faces illustrating They topped the HSC over the past 40 years – what are they doing now?


Jason Hui (left) who topped the state in the 1988 HSC, is now a gastroenterologist and hepatologist in Sydney. 

I remember them both but not from Year 12 as 1988 I was at Masada College in St Ives.

Actually I have gone through 50 years of HSC, though out of the fray for the last eight. Some tutoring in Sydney’s Chinatown in 2010 was my last hurrah.

Now as for FIFTY years ago see Shire: Jannali, Cronulla, family.

1966 I began teaching at Cronulla High School, now in Scott Morrison’s electorate. My second HSC class there — and the second HSC ever! — have a reunion planned. I have been invited, but am not sure I can make it. Night-time events in Sydney are an issue for me these days, but I will surely be there in spirit.

Class of 1968 member Paul Weirick has also sent a list of those attending. Brought back lots of memories.  Fortunately, I had been able to attend a couple of events around the 50th anniversary of the school itself — so I haven’t totally missed out.


1978 I was on secondment to teacher training at the University of Sydney, but knew the Class of 78 at Wollongong High.

1988 is already covered. 1998 I was at Sydney Boys High again. Also finishing my Grad Cert TESOL at UTS.

Students at Sydney Boys High School sit their HSC English exam on October 25, 1981.

Photo from Essential Kids.

More on Jason Hui — found online.

HSC stars 10 years on  (Edited Extract From “Sunday Life” January ’99)

Jason Hui, 27, of Sydney Boys’ High, came first in the state in 1988 with 496. He studied 4U maths, 2U English, 2U physics, 2U chemistry and 2U economics and is a doctor.

When he arrived in Australia at 13, Hui’s English skills were poor. He started year 9 and could barely understand the teacher.

His parents had sent him and his older brother out from Hong Kong to study. They boarded with an Australian family throughout high school and their parents visited when they could. “If you come from overseas with the aim of studying and going to university, you tend to be very focused and less distracted by other things. As the HSC drew closer I just studied whenever there was time. But I loved maths, physics and chemistry so it wasn’t a burden.

“Working hard was the norm in my school. It was a fantastic year with a lot of very bright people—there were two 4-Unit maths classes. I think we all pushed each other along and there was a lot of competition. I’m sure I wouldn’t have done as well at another school.”

At the time, Hui was tossing up between medicine and engineering and says he probably chose medicine “because there were a lot of engineers in my family and I wanted to do something different.” Looking back, it was the right choice. I can’t imagine myself in anything different.

“The amazing thing about medicine is you never stop learning. At each stage you encounter new situations and you have new and difficult decisions to make. That’s what makes it so interesting.”

Hui did six years at Sydney University, sharing the University Medal with Mark Gorbatov (88)—a former Sydney Boys’ classmate who came second in the HSC in the same year with 495.

“When I did the HSC, people said it was the hardest exam you ever did. At Uni, you quickly realise that is totally untrue. Exams get harder as you become more advanced and studying and working at the same time is much harder. To work 9-10 hours a day and then get home, have dinner and spend three or four more hours studying is very difficult.”

And that sparks my memory! I recall — and this was before my getting expertise in teaching English as a second language — seeing in 1985-6 that Jason had a problem. I referred him to a then neighbour of mine in Chippendale — unfortunately I can’t recall his name: a delightful young man who was then doing Linguistics at Sydney University under the famous Professor Michael Halliday and Dr Jim Martin. The neighbour gave Jason some help with his English.

Looking back to December 2013

Memories…. Well worth reposting.

Nobel prize winner’s obituary triggers memories

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald has an obituary for chemist John Cornforth (1917-2013).


What struck me was this:

John Warcup Cornforth was born on September 7, 1917 in Sydney, the second of four children of John Cornforth, a Classics teacher from England, and his Australian wife, Hilda (nee Eipper), a nurse, and grew up in Sydney and Armidale. At 10 he started to go deaf from a condition called otosclerosis, where the bones in the middle ear become deformed and stop transmitting sound. By 20 he was completely deaf, except for the ringing in his ears of tinnitus, a common side effect of the disease.

Luckily, at Sydney Boys High, a young teacher, Leonard Basser, influenced Cornforth in the direction of chemistry, which seemed to the young student to offer a career where his deafness might not be a handicap. And so it proved, he was accepted to the University of Sydney at 16 and because he couldn’t hear the lectures he started reading textbooks, which in those days were mostly in German, so he taught himself German as well. He graduated in 1937 with a bachelor of science, first class honours and University Medal…

Leonard (aka Lenny) Basser! Do I ever remember him!

Lenny Basser, left, and my good friend Roger Dye far right.

1958 when we were 15 – Roger and I, that is.

Not the promised education post

Posted on April 24, 2010 by Neil

I will mention, however, that I spent a couple of hours yesterday at SBHS. Passing the archives room near the Library I saw a librarian and a lad busy so wandered in. Well, what I was really looking for was a spare power point for my laptop but they couldn’t oblige. However I discovered they were researching /writing an article on legendary Science teacher and athletics coach of the 1950s Lenny Basser. “Oh yes,” say I, “I remember him. Always wore yellow shirts. People who wore yellow shirts in the 1950s were very odd.” I went on to mention that he had taught famous scientist Lord May of Oxford, to which they responded with a Nobel Prize winner or two he had also taught.

The yellow shirts will appear in the article, I suspect.

Assuming that was the High Flyer Volume 4 No 1 2010, the shirts didn’t get a mention:

Len  Basser  taught Chemistry  at  SBHS  from 1931  until  his  retirement in  1959.  He  was  Athletics Master  at  the  school  for the twenty eight years. He captured  and  inspired  the eager minds of his students encouraging  them  to pursue careers in scientific research.

The Len Basser Award for Leadership  in  Science  at Sydney University honours the legacy of an outstanding chemistry teacher. Eight of Basser’s students became fellows of the Royal Society, including Lord (Robert) May, a former President of the Society, and Sir John Cornforth, who shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1975.


Robert May (right) with his mother and younger brother c.1948

Lord May recalls:

My wife, Judith, who grew up in Manhattan, is of the opinion that every other Australian she meets went to Sydney Boys High. That is based simply on empirical facts. It was in the era of grammar schools, where the top schools in Sydney were unambiguously the state schools. Sydney Boys High drew its intake from the eastern suburbs, and that is also where the Jewish diaspora out of Shanghai ended up. It had a lot of really bright people and it had superb teachers. The teachers I had in high school were uniformly excellent. One of the really formative influences on my life was the chemistry teacher, a chap called Lenny Basser. He now has a federal prize in Australia named after him. The education minister a few years ago wrote to various Australians asking for stories about their teachers and he found that a Nobel Laureate and the President of the Royal Society mentioned the same person. When you look into it, this teacher taught eight Fellows of the Royal Society, and he taught us by not teaching us. He said, ‘You people are going on to university. I’m not going to give you notes for a syllabus for the honours course. Here’s a list of the syllabus topics. Write me some essays on some of them. Here are books in the laboratory library of previous students who have done this’, and he would tell us stories about these people.

But this is a very strange deductive method. What if you got blocked?

I think it was brilliant. He would tell us stories about the stockmarket. As you can imagine, half the class loathed him because he didn’t give them a nice well-indexed set of things to learn for the exam. But then there were people like myself and my two particular friends in school. One of my friends was the state high jump champion. He and I both thought Lenny was wonderful. The other friend was a more scholarly person, who found him a pain in the neck. Lenny also coached the track team at Sydney Boys High. For 28 of the 33 years that he coached it, the team won the state Schools Athletic Championship. It was unbelievable. It was not that he coached them by making them work too hard, but he was ahead of the wave in new techniques and motivating people.

I just wonder: doing that for the very bright boys, letting them get on with it – did that leave the rest of the class behind?

Well, he got very good results, let’s put it that way. He never became the head of the science section at Sydney High because, to do that you had to move to another school, and he liked being at Sydney High.

I keep wondering whether some of those successes of the old days couldn’t even get to first base now, because none of it would be allowed.

Yes. I think it would be different. You wouldn’t have it quite the way it was. In each subject, the classes were streamed. I mean, people are mixed by different things. Even at Sydney High, the most esteemed characters were the sporting stars. I think that is really healthy. It is a great mixture because you rarely get someone who is both the top sportsperson and the top scholar.

“He never became the head of the science section at Sydney High because, to do that you had to move to another school, and he liked being at Sydney High.”  Still true of quite a few people at SBHS! Back in the late 50s the Head of Science was in fact an elderly chap much stained by tobacco whom we dubbed “Dodo” – as in the extinct bird.

Tracking Lenny Basser led me to a former classmate, in Science at one point but more memorably in the weird Mr Levy’s French class. I had wondered what became of this lad who had come to us from Cranbrook – a decided disadvantage – little realising that he was a leading geophysicist these days! “He has been Professor of Theoretical Geophysics and Foundation Director, Institute of Theoretical Geophysics, Cambridge University, since 1989 and Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, since 1970.” Herbert Huppert.

I have found a fascinating interview with him telling me much that I had little insight into at the time. Since this is already out there, I hope Professor Huppert won’t mind my sharing.

Born in Sydney, Australia, 1943; my maternal grandfather was a shamus in a Viennese synagogue; both he and his wife were very religious; I got to know them when they came out to Australia in about 1947-8; the remarkable thing about my paternal grandparents is that I knew nothing about them; my sister and I both assumed that they perished in the Holocaust although we had not been told; my father died when I was thirteen; about seven or eight years ago my sister did some extensive research in the Viennese archives and found that both had died natural deaths in hospital in 1935 and 1937; my father rarely talked about his time in Vienna and neither did my mother; she would talk about St Stephen’s dome in Vienna and the giant wheel nearby; when I was eight I bought her a book on Vienna for her birthday with both illustrated on the cover; she was clearly upset by it and I never saw the book again; many years after when both were dead (my mother died when I was twenty-two) I heard that a few months before they left Vienna my father was told to queue up to get a visa to leave; the night before he was warned that the queue was to be bombed by Nazis; he decided not to join the queue and it was bombed; two weeks later he did get an exit visa; they left in 1938 and arrived in Australia on 26th January 1939…

…I first went to a Jewish kindergarten which I remember with both pleasure and terror; on one occasion the headmaster threatened to put me into a duplicating machine as I had been so naughty and that terrified me; generally I enjoyed the school and had lots of friends; I then went to an “institution” which my mother chose, which cost about £300 a term; it would have been better if my father had paid the money to charity and sent me to a state school; I hated this institution, Cranbrook, with a passion; I have recently come across two people who went there some ten years after me who thought it was wonderful; one is Richard Hunter who is Professor of Classics here and the other is the new Director of the Fitzwilliam…

Cranbrook was everything that I hated; I went there when I was just six; clear that I could add and on that basis put me up a class without ascertaining whether I knew anything else; I found myself a year and a half younger than everyone else and I was nowhere near mature enough; that had a bad influence on me; later it became better because when I went to a proper school I could run well, but Cranbrook was a terrible institution; I left when I had just reached twelve; I passed the exam to Sydney High and my mother gave me the choice of going there or staying at Cranbrook; if I had stayed in Cranbrook five more years I would not be here today; they taught badly; they hired a chemistry teacher who was a Nazi who told us how wonderful it had been flying over England and bombing it, and also about the problem of German Jews; it was just unbelievable; there was bullying, but don’t know whether it was anti-Semitic or just of younger people; we were forced to have a shower after P.T. after which we had to dress outside; there was a female music teacher who was constantly looking out at us; there were many things like that

21:33:13 Sydney High was much better and I can’t remember a day of unhappiness there; it was a fabulous school and has produced some brilliant people, including Bob May, President of the Royal Society, and John Cornforth, Nobel Laureate in chemistry; we had an inspiring chemistry teacher, Leonard Basser; he was also the athletics coach and I ran for the school, something what was inconceivable at Cranbrook…

I told the story of another of my class of 1959 confreres in 50 years on – 1: a classmate’s story in 2009. There I quoted from a biography:

Peter Francis Nicholas Deli was born on 26 March 1942 in Wellington, New Zealand. His parents, Lewis and Lily, were both Hungarian refugees who had fled Europe just before the beginning of the War. His father, an architect by training, had been a violinist in the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. His mother, who was Jewish, had tried to emigrate to Britain and Australia before settling for New Zealand. They met in New Zealand and married in 1941. After the War the Deli family moved to Sydney, Australia and settled in the Eastern Suburbs at Bondi. Sydney had a much larger population of East European migrs than the whole of New Zealand and the Delis were soon absorbed into the Hungarian community’s protective embrace. Peter’s early school years at Double Bay Primary School were far from typical of the elementary educational experience of most Australian children at the time. The extraordinary mix of nationalities and class backgrounds in the school must have had a profound effect on his early development. In 1955 he won a place to the prestigious Sydney Boys’ High School, one of the best secondary schools in New South Wales. Peter excelled in his studies during these years and matriculated with honours to the University of Sydney in 1960. During his undergraduate years he read History and Philosophy, graduating Bachelor of Arts with First Class Honours in History in 1964….

I continued:

After a very interesting career, including being in Paris in 1968, Peter succumbed to leukemia and died at home in Hong Kong on 12 February 2001.

The point made there about the cosmopolitan mix at Double Bay and SBHS at the time certainly struck me when I “migrated” from Sutherland (with Ross Mackay, Arno Eglitis, Robert Burnie and Laurence Napier) to SBHS in 1955. On the other hand, much to the surprise of one of my coachees who is now at SBHS, of  206 of us starting out in 1955 only one was Chinese (ABC) and one was Indian – Ashok Hegde, who became a close friend until he went to London in 1958.

Ashok’s father was in 1958 the Assistant Indian Trade Commissioner in Sydney, if I recall correctly – but thus not a permanent resident in Australia.


That SBHS debating team of 1996

Coached them in several of their junior years too. Here they are:


And there was one more, Sherman, but perhaps he had dropped out of the team by 1996. They are all friends on my Facebook nowadays. The other remarkable thing — and this applies to quite a few other Sydney High students I knew, especially debaters, is how many of them now reside overseas: Andrew in Oxford, Prashant in London, Alexander in Berlin — and Peter, on the end there, in Canberra, which is almost a foreign country!

In my last post here I mentioned running into Andrew in Surry Hills in December 2008. Let’s look at what an amazing ten years — well, 22 since 1996! — he has had. Andrew is now Professor of Materials Chemistry at the University of Oxford. His research group is based in Oxford’s Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory.

And this I found fascinating: LGBT IN STEM.

…It wasn’t just the absence of obvious role models that mattered. There were many small individual incidents that collectively portrayed an unwelcoming – or, worse, hostile – attitude towards LGBT scientists. I could give many examples, but the one that sticks particularly in my mind took place on the first official college event after my appointment at Oxford. A senior colleague, on learning that I was Australian, shared his hope with me that I wasn’t from Sydney “because they’re all f**king p**fters in Sydney”. Unfortunately I was unable to disprove his assertion.

This all happened only nine or ten years ago. And yet it feels as though so much has changed – and very much for the better – in that time. There will be many reasons for this (general awareness of LGBT issues, the role of social media, visibility of LGBT scientists, the amazingness of the newer generation…?) and others will be able to speak much more authoritatively than I on the topic. For my own part, it is just a relief to feel quite genuinely that I don’t need to hide my personal life in professional circles, and can simply get on with the job I’m so lucky to be paid to do….

And I am equally fortunate that the group as a whole – and my collaborators and colleagues – have been extremely supportive of those students, of me, of my husband Jonathan, and of LGBT issues in general. Increasingly it seems that one’s sexuality is less and less of an issue in a scientific career – just as it should be.

Yet it would be naïve to suggest challenges don’t still remain. Science is an international endeavour and many other countries are still very unwelcoming places for LGBT individuals of any professional persuasion. For LGBT scientists, it’s not simply a case of coming out to one’s colleagues in a single cathartic event. Instead it’s a repeated process of coming out time and time again, as one meets new contacts at conferences or meetings, often in environments that are obviously less supportive than what we have started to grow accustomed to here in the UK.

But what makes me so optimistic is the attitude of the students. To them it seems so clear that what matters is the quality of what one does rather than sexuality or gender identity, or race. How refreshing! We are quite simply all the better off for such an outlook. And so I feel lucky to be an LGBT academic at a time of such tangible, long-needed, and productive change.

Beautiful, Andrew!