Michael McKernan’s eulogy for Brendon Kelson, National Arboretum, Canberra, 5 April 2022

Brendon Kelson’s friend and former colleague, historian Dr Michael McKernan, gave this eulogy at Brendon’s memorial service. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Dr McKernan, Brendon’s wife, Jenne, and sons Marcus and Adrian. Thanks to all of them. It can be read in conjunction with Dr McKernan’s obituary published in the Canberra Times on 11 April (hard copy only but jpg here from our subscription). Earlier post on Honest History. HH



Brendon was born in Adelaide on 29 August 1935, the son of William (Bill) and Edna Kelson.  He was an only child.  Bill was a Commonwealth public servant at Port Adelaide.  He had served in the First World War as a gunner, serving on Gallipoli and in France.  Brendon was very proud of his father’s service.

Brendon was educated at the Adelaide Technical High School, joining the Commonwealth public service on leaving school.  He was known, from day one, as ‘Bill Kelson’s son’ such was the respect for Bill among his colleagues. Brendon earned instant respect on account of his father’s reputation.  Realising that advancement would come more quickly if he transferred to Canberra he moved here in 1959.

On 16 April 1960 Brendon married Patricia (Pat) McMahon at St John’s Church in Reid.  Pat was an Adelaide girl.  They set up home in Watson and were to have two sons, Marcus and Adrian.  Brendon was extremely proud of his sons, sharing many interests with them, talking of them, always in loving terms.  His marriage was happy, giving him great joy.  At Pat’s funeral I said I had an image of the person Brendon would have married before I met Pat and that Pat was the exact opposite of everything I had thought.  Like so many, I adored her.  She made Brendon very happy.

Brendon worked in the department of Education, running the School Libraries program among other things and then transferred to the Arts area of the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. He made an impression as an agile, thoughtful, hardworking public servant with a particular affinity for the arts.

He became the Executive Officer of the Commonwealth Literary Fund, becoming the trusted confidante of the senior academics and writers on the Board, gaining many important friendships with Board members and Fund applicants.  Never one to show off, nevertheless, I was often astonished when mentioning the name of an Australian writer he would say, ‘yes I knew her quite well’.

He was also Executive Officer to the Commonwealth agency for Assistance to Australian Composers and Richard Llewellyn who is here today tells me that Brendon became an instant friend of Richard’s father Ernest.  Brendon had a deep love of music and an extraordinary knowledge.  His collection of over 10 000 records was testimony to that love and knowledge.  He formed a close friendship with Ross Gengos and his wife Robin from whom he would have bought many of these records at their Abels Music in Manuka.

When the government finally agreed to the creation of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra it was obvious that Brendon would be an important and necessary appointment.  In 1977 he was appointed Secretary/Manager of the National Gallery of Australia.  When this was announced at ‘morning prayers’ in the department his colleagues stood and applauded.  Brendon told me he was astonished.

The Gallery was such a natural home for Brendon who did so very much to establish it on a firm basis.  He made many friends among artists and other gallery directors, was knowledgeable, approachable, with a clear vision for Australia’s national gallery.  However, James Mollison, the founding director, caused Brendon considerable anxiety.  Brendon understood the correct way of proceeding in a public sector environment, trying to steer his director in that direction.  Uncomfortable with decisions being made, Brendon resigned to return to the mainstream public service.

Hearing of this, the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Noel Flanagan, rang immediately to offer Brendon the job as the Memorial’s second assistant-director.  Such was Flanagan’s regard.  Brendon accepted, as an engaged museum person, and also because of his pride and reverence for Bill Kelson’s war service.  Brendon began at the Memorial in early 1982.  I had started there in August 1981, also as an Assistant-Director.

We quickly came to respect one another for our respective abilities but Brendon puzzled me.  Brendon was always impeccably and elegantly dressed and moved with dignity and grace.  I was the exact opposite, how I must have pained him.  Brendon was also reserved, cautious in his opinions and very, very private.  I realised he read widely and earnestly, possessing a remarkable curiosity and had a very lively mind.  But he never talked about what he was reading, never pushed his ideas, never opened up.  Yet we worked closely together, were in very many meetings together, enjoying joking about the extravagant, ebullient, erratic Noel Flanagan.

Gradually Brendon began to trust me more and he would talk about his books and his intellectual interests.  Though with a very small professional staff, the Memorial had recruited very cleverly to bring together a remarkably diverse and intelligent group of historians, curators, conservators and registrars.  Brendon began to relax into this vibrant group, respecting his colleagues and gaining their respect too.

When the government appointed an entirely inappropriate former airman as director Brendon and I realised we would have to collaborate closely to stave off disaster.  Things became so bad for Brendon that he left the Memorial, seeking refuge in the department of Home Affairs.  His exile was temporary when the new director, Keith Pearson, brought him back.  Our friendship, forged in difficulty, thrived.

There was an elaborate party for the opening of the National Film and Sound Archive at its new premises in Canberra in October 1984.  I was chatting to Brendon when another friend approached.  ‘Did you see that some idiot paid an outrageous price for a house block in Oxley?’ he said.  ‘Yes’, said Brendon, ‘that idiot was me.’

Brendon threw himself heart and soul into designing and refining this house.  It was built to house his darkroom, to professional standards, and his vast library of books.  It was an unusual house taking full advantage of its gardens which almost came inside.  Taking meticulous care with every detail Brendon was particularly proud of what he had achieved, and rightly so.

Brendon himself followed Keith Pearson as director of the Australian War Memorial.  He was an utter delight to work with: generous, encouraging, visionary and deeply ambitious for the growth and relevance of the Memorial.  Forging a close friendship and excellent working relationship with the Chairman of Council Dame Beryl Beaurepaire, Brendon did his best work and was clearly, and delightedly, at the top of his game.  He was also very witty, had a keen delight in the foibles of others, but was immensely kind.

Brendon’s greatest triumph at the Memorial was the Entombment of the Unknown Australian Soldier on 11 November 1993.  He decided it would be done and he fired up all the needed people, Beryl was on board first, then the minister, then the government and then all the stakeholders, from every range of Australian life, veteran, political, media.  But perhaps Brendon’s greatest contribution was to agree to the formation of a small and expert team and leave it entirely to them, as long as I kept him fully briefed.  The day itself vastly exceeded every expectation.  After the founding director, John Treloar,  Brendon made the greatest single contribution to placing the Memorial on the pinnacle where it now exists.

And then, characteristically, he let it all go, retiring late in 1994.  Fortunately he enjoyed a long retirement.  He suffered a grievous blow when Pat died on 29 November 2004 and for a long time I was very worried for him.  He had been knocked completely off his stride.  But, with great good fortune, he met Jenne Llewellyn.  I well remember Brendon shyly telling me of this.  We were having dinner.  Brendon slowly opened his wallet, showing us a picture of Jenne, cautiously telling us about her.  His good friends at the table were thrilled.

Jenne and Brendon married on 19 August 2006.  Each brought remarkable but different gifts to the marriage and they merrily moved between Canberra and Moruya.  Retirement and marriage gave Brendon the time he needed to concentrate on his art.  He was a skilled and accomplished photographer, producing several books of his work, each of them exquisite.  The care he took over each image was astonishing and his technical skill remarkable.  Towards the end of his life he compiled several books of his work.  They will remind us forever of his skill and ability.

When Brendon became ill in 2019 Jenne suggested to me it might be good for Brendon if we had coffee together regularly.  So for the next years, until quite recently, we were at the Brew Bar at Tuggeranong at 10.30 every Tuesday.  We spent at least an hour together each week, often longer.  My knowledge of Brendon and my affection for him deepened immensely.

What surprised me most and impressed me beyond measure was his confident, mature, knowledgeable embrace of what the future must bring.  Suddenly he opened up.  He seemed comfortable talking about himself.  His constant refrain was of the great pleasure his life had brought him.  His humour was possibly even sharper and more wicked, his reading as widespread and as determined as ever and he loved to reminiscence.  He told me so much that I had never dreamed of, as, for example, when he asked me if I knew that as a young man he had decided to become an Anglican priest.  I was astounded; it seemed unimaginable.  Then, with a laugh, he said that the priest whom he consulted, who knew him quite well, looked at him directly and said, ‘it would be a disaster.’  So Brendon laughed ‘my vocation evaporated.’

In the days since his death it has become apparent, I am sure, to everyone here today, and certainly to me, how many lives he had touched.  Principally in Canberra, but in every part of Australia.  So many people have said to me, ‘oh I was so sorry to see that Brendon has died.’  They knew him as a photographer, in the theatre, in music, as a guide and mentor, as a neighbour, as a friend.  What a wonderful tribute, which, I think, would have surprised him.

But Brendon was a fighter when warranted.  Once we stood in the trenches together in a piece of public service madness and we fought together with determination until we had a victory.  When the current government agreed to a proposal to rebuild the Memorial Brendon became one of the leaders to oppose what he called ‘the theme park’.  It seemed to me he devoted every minute of the day to this cause arguing persuasively, with clarity, and astounding energy for one who was so unwell.  Brendon knew the fix was in and the fight could not be won.  That was no reason to abandon it.

I will miss my Tuesdays with Brendon more than I care to say.  Like every one of us here we will miss Brendon every day with an ache and a longing.  Brendon was perhaps shy, certainly private, but his capacity to connect with people was, simply, wonderful.  Brendon was a skilled and excellent public servant, a devoted husband and father, an intelligent and interesting conversationalist, whose long achievements in life are glorious, for which the nation, and all of us, have reason to be deeply grateful.  He was my dear friend.  He was our dear friend.

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