Trish Topp has kindly given us permission to publish her beautiful eulogy to her late husband from Chris’ funeral ceremony on Friday 15th July 2016. Trish wanted us to make note of the fact that it was written to be spoken not read as a text.
Chris Topp was born in Bowral on 24th April 1946, the middle child of Ann and Godfrey Topp. He grew up in Mittagong with his sister Margie and brother Charlie, attending Mittagong Primary, Tudor House and then Kings. You have all just sung a couple of the hymns he learnt there, tunes and words he always loved. I knew that they would not necessarily be so well known in this context but I hope you’ll be able to join with full voice in the ones still to come. In later years we both wondered at an 8-year-old going off to boarding school and yet his memories of that time were happy, full of the freedom in roaming the grounds and disappearing from teachers’ supervision for the whole of each Saturday.
After an undistinguished Leaving Certificate, he attended university and found new zest in studying Economics and Politics at the Australian National University. It was here he discovered his talent and love for athletics and he and a friend founded the ANU Athletics Club for the sole purpose of being able to attend intervarsity and state carnivals. We still have the Canberra Times newspaper clipping for a country/city competition which was titled “Unknown Runs 10.5 seconds for 100 metres”. At the end of his Arts degree he moved to Sydney to do a Dip.Ed at Sydney Teachers’ College in the grounds of Sydney University and it was there that we met through a mutual friend Rod Lander. Rod and I sang in the university choir and Chris was coopted to be on the door at our concerts. He was, as you’ll see from the slides, a most gorgeous young man with beautiful eyes and during that year he was training hard as a sprinter. Indeed study was not a priority (don’t listen to this, any of you students) and I still remember a friend saying to him in Fisher Library one November day, don’t you have an exam today? Oh yes, that’s right, it turned out he did, and yes, by then he had missed it. National Service put an end to his budding athletic career but not to his fitness and he left the army at the end of 1969 as a 2nd Lieutenant. We’d kept in contact during those years, and at the end of 1970, we were married. Looking at those wedding photos in later years always amazed us at how young we were, 24 for him and 22 for me, how gormless and how little we knew about anything, let alone ourselves. After a brief foray into the business world, Chris decided that Dip.Ed notwithstanding, teaching was for him, and he spent a very happy 2 years at Gymea High School. I was by then doing a Masters and eighteen months after we were married, we left for England and travel. Chris had a beat-up old VW beetle and we drove to Darwin along roads large sections of which were then still unsealed. From Darwin to England where we imposed ourselves on various more or less willing relatives of his parents and eventually found a flat in Dollis Hill. Chris taught at Holland Park High which was an experience unlike any he’d had in Australia, 2000 students and no uniform where it was difficult to tell the staff from the students and the students from the not infrequent muggers who’d enter the school. There was then no security on getting into the school. Decades later we went back to Holland Park, but couldn’t even get in the gate where security guards were on patrol. Despite the difficulties, Chris had some wonderful times there, particularly with an A-level Modern History class where the students who’d survived the system thus far were utterly self-reliant and self-motivating. I’d initially found office temp work and then a teaching job at Sion Manning school where, with no experience and no teaching training, I required to be put together again each night by Chris and acquired a set of pencils and books which I took to every class because the students never brought their own.
For 2 ½ years we lived in England and went travelling on our Australian savings. We were working on a kibbutz in Israel when the Yom Kippur war broke out in 1973; we were in Greece in 1974 when the Cyprus crisis occurred and found ourselves two of the half-dozen or so tourists on the island of Mykonos, in peak season, with the island virtually to ourselves and prices dropping daily. We were on our way back to Australia overland, and caught the first bus to Turkey from Greece after the crisis, packed with Greeks who lived in Turkey, but who’d fled when the crisis occurred and were now returning. We took six months on the overland trail, using local buses, trucks and trains. We went through countries you couldn’t get through now – Afghanistan, the Kyber Pass into Northern Pakistan and finally to India where Chris’s British passport photo, an army one of him in officer’s uniform, occasioned reverential nostalgia from the customs officer, concerning the “good old British ruling classes” with no irony at all. We ended up in Nepal and climbed to 5000 metres at Lake Gosainkunda, without guides, and with no knowledge that there was such a thing as altitude sickness.
It’s strange how those early years of travel still bring to mind such stories, while the following years of having children, re-establishing teaching careers, and bringing up children all meld into one. And yet those are the years which Chris would always regard as the most important to him. They provided a context in which he found and developed his real self. The innumerable pleasures – and pains – of seeing the children grow and unerringly point out their parents’ inconsistencies and idiocies. But also generously and beautifully loving you. We both felt that we’d been undeservedly blessed with Kathryn, Steph and Finbar. And getting to know them again as adults after they’d left home for some time was probably the greatest pleasure of his last 15 years. They were the joys of his life. The cycle continues with Huon and Zola.
Chevalier was the centrepiece of Chris’s working life – indeed, he taught there for exactly half of his 70 years. He was not a Catholic but became deeply imbued with the MSC emphasis on the importance of the heart. He was deeply interested in heart questions: what was the heart of education, how to educate the heart, how to tune one’s heart, how to become attuned to the heart of anything and everything. He began as a teacher, became head of the Social Sciences department, then Yr. 11 coordinator, Admin Master and the first lay Deputy Head, and finally, a teacher again. He trained the athletics squad, he began the tradition of the Year 11 play, he was part of the group which, under Fr Franzmann, rewrote the structure of the school executive with new job descriptions, he oversaw the integration of girls into the school, he became identified with the new and growing number of Wilderness courses. He taught Economics and History, and at various times, junior Maths and RE. He loved being a home room teacher and became very close to many of his charges. When he had to run staff meetings, the prayer he would choose to begin was almost invariably the Leunig Tomato prayer, also included in your booklet. Many staff have told me how they came to associate the summer pleasure of homegrown tomatoes with Chris. On retirement, he mentored staff and was then invited to become Chairman of the Board, a role he only gave up when he became ill 15 months ago.
During his illness, he received numerous thanks and affirmation from staff and ex-students and the gifts that were given to him included such verbs as being:
enfolded, wrapped, hugged, uphold, hold strongly, supported, prayed for
And such comments as:
- his exceptional aptitude for his profession and for his family, and by his friendship and support for so many
- he was so authentic – no falsehood. Just open and honest goodness
- blessed with boundless vitality but above all, a truly decent human being and much loved for it
- He was one of those folk I call ‘mortar’ people. There are lots of bricks in the world, good strong and solid, but some have that rare gift of holding people together. That’s why he was such an able builder of community. Bricks alone just won’t hang together without someone to bind them. And he was so authentic – no falsehood. Just open and honest goodness. That is what I shall remember, among much else.
- he was such a wise head and always calm and logical in his approach to all things.
- I am in admiration for the kind and gentle man that he has always been. I have admired his wisdom too and respected him greatly.
- He just looms so large in so many of our lives
- his life has been as good and meaningful a life as any of us could hope for. He has changed, and changes, the lives of so many people.
Forgive me for indulging in these tributes. Chris would be uneasy at my relating them but he felt loved and cradled by all this support and he carried that love with him. He was never much impressed by medals and honours, but I had never seen him so moved as when he was awarded by the College in October of last year the Esprit du Chevalier Medal. The citation read…
- 35 years of exemplary service to Catholic MSC Education
- Outstanding leadership as the first lay Deputy Prinicpal of Chevalier College
- Generous and selfless contributions to wider community initiatives in the Southern Highlands and beyond
- Transformational Leadership in the role of chairperson of the Chevalier College Board
- Instrumental in the development of and participation in many of the long lasting co-curricular activities of Chevalier college
- Everlasting positive impact on the lives of thousands of students
Chris had always enjoyed film and it was during the 90s that he became part of the group which, with the guidance and support of Richard Ruhfus, founded FISH, Films in the Southern Highlands. Indeed, before FISH ever existed, he had founded, on a much smaller scale, BUFS, Bowral Underground Film Society, which would hold screenings in members’ homes. Chris acquired a 16 ml projector and borrowed actual reels of film from the National Film and Sound Archives which would be delivered to our place by an obviously curious postman. I remember one day when I was actually at home when the films were delivered, and the postman enquired with a knowing wink whether he too could view the films being screened by this Underground Film Society. Having initially only one projector meant that we had to pause each time a reel of film finished, so that the new reel could be put on. FISH was an altogether more sophisticated affair, with Richard’s generous offer of being able to use one of the Empire cinemas for our screenings, until the new society got on its feet financially. He was adamant that we never apply for any sort of grant but that we had to be self-supporting. For a number of years now FISH has had over 300 members with regular screenings throughout the year and its financial stability has enabled it to help many community groups.
Chris’s own pleasure in photography was a lifelong passion. He always made a point of attending photography exhibitions and read widely on techniques and famous photographers. He built a darkroom and spent many hours developing his own film until it became difficult to acquire the materials and then digital photography opened up new delights. He was in awe of our local photographers, especially Chris Donaldson whose talent and generosity made it possible for him during the last year to see the prints which Chris Donaldson was producing, even though he didn’t make it to many of his exhibitions. Those photos you may have noticed in the foyer are all by Chris Donaldson. One of my Chris’s projects over a number of years was his beloved forests down on the south coast, mainly near Bawley Point, where he’d wander off for a day’s photographing. Back home, he’d produce these prints which he broadly labelled sex in the forest – pictures of trees whose main branch divided into two with interesting lumps and bumps and openings in interesting spots. He’d then invert the negative and print them and they looked like – well, you get the general idea. They were extraordinarily evocative! I was sure there would be a market in postcards for these prints, but he always demurred. Possibly not the sort of thing Chevalier parents would like to see their deputy dabbling in. But the postman probably would not have been surprised!
Woven throughout his life was Chris’s love of the bush and of bushwalking. One of my brothers told me that Chris had said that the bush was his church, and this was absolutely in keeping with his sense of the centrality of the natural world in what it meant to be human. Every single time we were outside of a town, whether it was a new piece of country to us, or a much-loved familiar site like the Gib, the South Coast or his beloved Blue Mountains walk, he would wonder aloud at what life might have been like for the indigenous people before white settlers and how they might have been part of this land. His attention to detail in the bush was indeed a sacramental view – that everything visible was simply a sign of some inner meaning. Chris was wary of using overtly religious terms, but his sense of the bush was one of the blessedness at the heart of things and he ALWAYS felt that he learnt and was made more resilient by the time he spent there. There is an aboriginal term, dadirri, which roughly translates as an inner deep listening and quiet, still awareness — and this is as close a description as any of what Chris thought was most important in life. He and Des Ryan, with the urging of Fr Strangman, wrote the first Wilderness courses at Chev, long before these became more common in other schools. He spent countless weekends taking students on bush trips, first in hired town buses which made the journey down the Wombeyan Caves Road to Barrallier, and then in what they called the Wildebeast, Chev’s 4 wheel drive truck. Later when Wilderness became not just a co-curricular activity but approved courses from Year 7 to Year 12, he took hundreds of students on various two, three and four – day expeditions, and eventually on the 5-day expedition from Katoomba to Mittagong, or in the reverse direction. Those of you who’ve done that walk will know what a tough journey it is.
He helped prepare and train many other teachers, not just from Chev but from various other schools, in making and leading such trips. He taught his own children the pleasure and value of bushwalking, bushcraft and map-reading and Steph still tells with awe the story of how in Year 8, she broke one of the cardinal rules of Wilderness by leaving her group for reasons she thought were justified. She turned up at the meeting point some time later and was sent straight back by her father, still carrying her pack, to rejoin the others and return once more, thus having to walk the distance three times.
In his retirement, Chris joined the magnificent Mount Gibraltar Landcare Group which has done so much to protect and restore the Gib and provide environmentally friendly access. He’d come home at the end of Thursday mornings and relate stories of members of the group, many of them septua and octogenarians, down on their hands and knees weeding and chatting and philosophising. He loved being part of this and the gradual removal of ivy and the uncovering of the bones of the land were yet another metaphor for getting to the heart of things.
He also found a new love – or rather, he uncovered a latent love – for pottery. His family connection with Frensham and with Sturt had kept him in touch with what was happening there but in, I think, 2012 he agreed to make up enough numbers for a pottery class to be held at Sturt. Dabbling in clay and learning to use the wheel were activities really suited to his personality – natural materials, learning about the different types and qualities of clay and of kilns, about shape and form and glazes, and the continual, consistent patience of the potter. There were also lessons which we later realised needed to be applied during his illness. The need to be willing to destroy and start again; to not invest your ego in your own creations but to let go when a batch of fired pots didn’t work for either technical or artistic reasons; to be willing to be patient and look again the next day at a newly fired pot because it had turned out differently from the way you’d hoped or expected. And the central, spiritual one of life itself being a continual process of centring, shaping and firing. The number of biblical analogies to the potter took on a new meaning. Part of all this learning was the pleasure of the potting community of teachers and students – a group of people with whom he’d had little contact in his school teaching life. He took over responsibility for the small outlet of the Melbourne firm of Clayworks in the Sturt pottery and sold clay 2 afternoons a week not just to the Sturt people but to many of the artists and artisans of the district. In this way he got to know a large number of craft people and he’d often talk about the essential calm, humility and centred-ness of potters.
And so – his illness. In March of last year he mentioned a back pain which didn’t go away and in April he finally went to the doctor. Xrays and scans revealed a lesion on the lung and initially we thought it was lung cancer although he hadn’t smoked since army days almost 50 years ago. It took a long time to diagnose as melanoma and then to determine the sub-type and he was sent from Bowral Hospital to Macquarie University Hospital to RPA and eventually to Lifehouse, the new Chris O’Brien Cancer Centre in Camperdown. Most of you will know the rest of the story from my email updates. From the start we both wanted family, friends and colleagues to know what was happening so that people would not feel afraid to ask or to talk about it. I hope you all understand how important were the responses we used to receive every time I sent out an update – emails, cards, visits, phonecalls. Being sick can be a very lonely business but because of your responses, he always felt part of his community. Often on our back verandah we’d find flowers, food, books, DVDs. The affirmations he received were woven into our gradual acceptance of the fact that he was not going to improve, despite the wonder-drug with which he was being treated. The tumour had just grown too fast too quickly in the early stages, and the side effects on heart and kidney were in the end to prove fatal. And yet – we had those 15 months. We met some extraordinary doctors and nurses along the way and I’ve received some heartfelt condolences from many of them, commenting on Chris’s qualities and intelligence. We had the time to talk and to see more of the children and grandchildren and for all of us to adjust to what was happening, even though we didn’t really know what it was that was happening or where the journey would take us. The Leunig cartoon I’ve included at the end of the booklet seemed to be drawn just for us.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned Garrison Keillor in my email updates – the American author of the Lake Woebegone stories which the ABC used to broadcast from Minnesota Public Radio. He’s a gentle, funny and wise storyteller and Chris and I loved these stories of the fictional Lake Woebegone where all the men were strong, all the women were handsome and all the children were above average. Keillor used to say that it was such a shame to miss one’s own funeral – if only you could have hung on for another week or so! Well, black humour aside, there is a sense in which Chris did hear in the last year of his life the lovely things which are normally reserved for a funeral. To know that he was, apparently, so widely loved and esteemed is an absolutely extraordinary gift which is not, alas, granted to everyone. Although there were many times when that journey of illness seemed to both of us more than we could bear, and many days which had simply to be plodded through, we both realised eventually that it was also the means by which the sense of relationship and community, and the flow of love and interaction, became apparent. It taught us to be more mindful. And it taught us to understand that these things had always been there – it was just that we had not thought of, had not realised and therefore had not appreciated their real worth.
Chris was no saint, and he could, like all of us, be hard to live with. But our life together was very fortunate and not only did I love him, but I honoured and respected him deeply. He was an interpreter not only of nature, but also of people – a superb reader of the unwritten text. His insights were intuitive and generous. After 45 plus years of marriage, he remained a standard of integrity for me. But our relationship and our family did not happen in isolation. Our time together was always in the context of our larger families, the mad, the bad and the beautiful, and our community of friends and colleagues. I know you all join with Kathryn, Steph, Fin and me in wishing him a loving farewell, a salute of gratitude and esteem, and a glorious dancing of his photons off into eternity and light and love.
It Is Time To Plant Tomatoes (Michael Leunig)
It is time to plant tomatoes.
Dear God, we praise this fruit and give thanks for its life and evolution.
We salute the tomato, cheery, fragrant morsel,
beloved provider, survivor and thriver and giver of life.
Giving and giving and giving. Plump with summer’s joy.
The scent of its stem is summer’s joy, is promise and rapture.
Its branches breathe perfume of promise and rapture.
Giving and giving and giving.
Dear God, give strength to the wings and knees of pollinating bees,
give protection from hailstorms, gales and frosts, give warm days
and quenching rains.
Refresh and adorn our gardens and tables.
Refresh us with tomatoes.
Rejoice and rejoice!
Celebrate the scarlet soul of winter sauces.
Behold the delicious flavour!
Behold the oiled vermilion moons that ride and dive in olive-bobbing seas of vinegared lettuce.
Let us rejoice!
Let this rejoicing be our thanks for tomatoes.