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Ron addressed the Western Australian School of Mines (WASM) Centenary Graduation Ceremony in Kalgoorlie explaining to the graduates why he’s an optimist.

It is a great honor for me to be with you in this capacity tonight. For 100 years the Western Australian School of Mines has changed a lot of lives for the better – and long may it continue to do so. This is certainly something to celebrate tonight and it also serves as an opportunity to acknowledge the untiring efforts of Sir Laurence Brodie-Hall and other key players who managed to keep this school in Kalgoorlie. Many of those players I see here tonight.

I am happy to see WA School of Mines’ Alumni Peter Wreford with us tonight, as he has served our mining industry with distinction for many years. The other night it was my pleasure to be seated with Peter at an ANZAC Day dinner. I asked him at the time if he had ever considered writing a book on his experiences in the industry and his reply was: “My gift to posterity is silence!”

Bearing that in mind, I must work hard tonight to ensure my speech is at least as good as Peter’s silence. Seriously, I know what Peter meant. If we are not careful, we can get bogged down in the past and that will stop us from moving forward. So what I will do tonight is distill an essence of the past, which is experience and connect it to the future, which is opportunity. The task of properly connecting the two – the past and the future – is made easier with the wisdom bestowed on those who have known the WA School of Mines from the inside.

In this very brief word-picture, I will leave you with three things:

  1. Some quick snapshots of an earlier WA School of Mines that was simply dedicated to producing useful people.
  2. A brief explanation about why I am an optimist.
  3. Some concluding thoughts on leadership.

Let’s get on with it!

Looking back

In the 1950s and 60s, it was common for students to leave their local highschool at the age of 15 after passing their junior certificate and then completing the normal two year leaving certificate in one year at the WA School of Mines in Kalgoorlie. This had the effect of getting students into useful subjects a little earlier. Some of my friends were entering the mysteries of geology this way. They were discussing this at our home one day when my mother started asking them some geological questions. They freaked out at this display of knowledge from an unexpected quarter and the word quickly got around that ‘Ron’s mother knows all about geology!’ Several years later when I enrolled at the WA School of Mines it was pointed out to me that my mother was the first woman to study geology and chemistry from 1923 to 1924 and that she received credit passes. She had difficulty enrolling, as there was some concern about the bad language she might hear in the classroom. However, she promised not to listen, so they let her in.

When I signed up for the first time in 1956, these were the days of part-time education. We worked our day job and then spent three hours per night, five nights per week at the School of Mines. A lot of us had trouble staying awake during the classes. I developed serious bumps on my forehead caused by my head hitting the desk every time I dozed off. That’s when I started smoking a pipe in class so that the sound of the pipe hitting the desk would wake me mid-fall just as my head approached. There were an interesting bunch of students in various classes. All were from differing age groups and many of them were already in senior positions and some just starting out.

There are three vivid memories of my second sojourn from 1958 to 1961 and all relate to ‘out of the classroom’ activities. At one stage I was the Vice President of the Students’ Association and the Editor of the school’s Sigma Magazine. I nearly got run out of town with my report of the union belligerence we witnessed on a sponsored inspection of wharf loading facilities in Kwinana. The following year in 1961, I stuck to less controversial matters such as developing a case for increased efficiency in local graveyards by adopting a method of vertical burial.

In 1962, Goldfields Masonic Homes chairman Doug Daws took over as editor and somehow got his edition past the censors but it was withdrawn from circulation the minute the Director Hobby Hobson saw his copy. Some of the jokes were too colourful and the magazine’s publishing team was forced to affix replacement jokes over the top of the offending sections. Some of the copies were corrected this way and sold at a regular price of 3/- per copy. The others somehow avoided the sticker treatment and became collectors’ items sold at £1 each. This resulted in a very reasonable donation to our favorite charity, the Lorna Mitchell Special School. Most of our activities actually ran at a profit and I see from the balance sheet of the 1959 School of Mines Charity Ball that we donated £127.14/- to the same charity.

Another vivid memory was an annual dinner at The Palace Hotel. The dinner started well enough but unfortunately they ran out of food half way through the dinner. Being practical souls, we simply took up a collection and a few of us went over to the hot spot and brought back about 100 hamburgers which we unwrapped at ate at the meal table. The hotel’s proprietor Ces Murphy reacted violently to our initiative and became somewhat abusive. I think we were beyond caring at the time and some of the more exuberant members started pursuing the waitresses upstairs. Some of the lecturers then felt it was about time to leave. This included Mr Andy Wells a metallurgical lecturer who was also metallurgist at the Lake View and Star Gold Mine. As a bit of a joke, a student had tied Mr Wells’ front bumper to one of the Palace Hotel verandah posts with a view to his leaving the front bumper behind as he backed out from the curb. Instead, it pulled the veranda post down and the balcony started sagging seriously. I think I left about this time so I am not sure what actually transpired but I can remember that for some obscure reason we were forced to find another venue for the following year’s dinner.

A final vivid memory was a deputation of three of us from the student council to Director Hobby Hobson where we put forward a strongly reasoned case for increasing the academic standards of the School of Mines to that of a university. It was a novel idea in those days and after we had exhausted our case, the director explained that universities produced a very high percentage of dropouts.

“Here at the School of Mines, we only produce useful people who go back to their industry, or their region, or their countries and make a significant contribution,” Director Hobson said. “If we ever see that people run the risk of not attaining their initial objectives, we then modify their course structure often resulting in them achieving a Certificate Level rather than an Associateship. By doing this, I feel we are serving the students, our industry and the country in a most satisfactory fashion.”

Our deputation left that meeting in full agreement with Director Hobson and we learnt there was a lot of power in a well-reasoned argument. His case was certainly well-reasoned for those times. This became useful early-management advice for correctly positioning personnel and skills throughout any organisation.

We were all grateful the School of Mines had given us an opportunity to catch up. I am still catching up and that’s even after three separate periods at the school, and perhaps a fourth in my future. The first was in 1959 when I intended to do a one-year electrical course. Our family company was electrifying many of the old steam operated mine winders on the Golden Mile. It was important that I knew which wires to twist together so that the cage or skip went in the right direction and stopped at the right place. I was happy with my single subject but the forceful Director Hobby Hobson thought otherwise and felt that this should be the beginning, rather than the end, of my useful education. He eventually cajoled me into returning a year or two later. Mind you, it completely demolished my social life for what I considered three long years. Twenty-five years later when I was about 50, I ended up back at the WA School of Mines completing geology subjects. I needed just a little extra knowledge because I found myself running a couple of mining companies for other people and I really wanted to get one going myself.

We have seen countless hordes of useful people produced from the WA School of Mines and over time, I have met many of them because they are out there. Each of my three periods at this school were great years and I feel as thought I have joined one of the world’s greatest clubs just by being part of that catching up experience. The school has certainly moved on since those days and so has the mining industry. It is now far too safety conscious to have blokes like me twisting wires together.

So what of the future? Why am I an optimist?

Well, I was thinking about that this morning when I realized I had more adrenalin flowing from having dinner last night with our own management team of 20 executives than I did from spending last week in Queensland at the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ Annual Conference where 500 captains of industry were gathered.

Why was this? I think Australia’s corporate captains feel they have already reached dizzy heights and are preoccupied 90 per cent of the time with the compliance issues and only 10 per cent devoted to creativity issues. In contrast, our team are still on the way up with much more yet to achieve. We focus 90 per cent on creativity issues and only 10 per cent of our time on compliance. This is not to denigrate compliance with the myriad of regulations but if you let them take over, then nothing will be discovered or produced.

One of my favorite philosophers Henry David Thoreau once said: “Youth gets together the materials for a bridge to the moon, but later the middle-aged man decides to make a woodshed with them.”

As you embark on your careers, don’t let lesser people turn your bridges to the moon into any old woodshed. Let your visions shape your destiny and if anyone like this gets in your way, run right over the bastards!

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