The early years
Late in the evening of 5 August 1940, the Batory, a Polish liner
converted into a troopship, pulled out of Liverpool harbour packed with
500 child evacuees aged from 5 to 15 and their 30 or so escorts who
were volunteers from various charitable and religious organisations.
This was the first of eight such evacuations, which sailed to Canada, New Zealand or Australia in August and September, 1940. The scheme was vigorously opposed by the Prime Minister, Churchill, who considered it a signal of cowardice to the German enemy, and came to an abrupt halt after the sinkings by U-boats of the Volendam and the City of Benares, both bound for Canada, with the tragic loss of 77 children.
Among the children on the Batory were my sister Tessie, aged 5 and myself, aged 6. We were among the few lucky ones who were headed for relatives in Australia, the others being destined for communities such as Dr Bernardo's and Fairbridge Farm. We however, were going to be met by our Uncle Abe, who had emigrated to Australia after losing a lung to gas warfare in the Tank Corps in 1917.
Looking back after 60 years, it is clear that this was a traumatic event in my childhood that shaped my subsequent destiny. I have earlier childhood memories: standing on a street corner in Hull, Yorkshire, waving a flag at a ceremonial parade for the coronation of George VI; walking to kindergarten through streets lined with coils of barbed wire early in the War; even on one memorable occasion deciding it might be amusing to walk through instead of beside the coil, with predictable consequences.
It is impossible to guess what my life might have been had I been brought up in the midst of a large and warm family in a time of peace. Instead, it turned out that life with my aunt and uncle was not all it should have been, and very soon my sister was shipped off to boarding school in Mittagong while I passed through a succession of foster homes in suburban Sydney. My early schooling at Bondi Beach Public was not particularly memorable, but in Year 6 I transferred to the Opportunity C class at Woollahra, a hotbed of ambitious students and unusual teachers who kindled my interests in all sorts of subjects. My cocky attitude probably made me the most obnoxious kid in my class, and I was quickly brought down to earth on numerous occasions.
There is no evidence of mathematical background in my family. My paternal grandfather, born in England of German parents, ran a pawnshop in Hull. His wife was no doormat, as I discovered from a family genealogy a few years ago. She traced her ancestry back to a famous 18-th century Rabbi in a province now in Poland. On my mother's side, my grandparents immigrated from Poland to England early in the 20th Century, and Bube never learned proper English. Zeide was a house painter and paperhanger. An amusing incident occurred in late 1939 when he was picked up by the police as a suspected enemy alien, but had to be released as he was the Chief Air Raid Warden in his housing estate!
Both my parents came from large families, mainly small business or tradesmen, although one uncle was an artist, and a pair of twins were prospectors in New Guinea in the 1920s. My father left high school to become a clerk in the public library and my mother was a dressmaker. Both were heavily involved in community activities and Labour party politics. In this, they followed the lead of my father's oldest brother Leo, who was a union organiser and politician, later becoming several times Lord Mayor of Hull, having a road and a park named after him, and eventually awarded a knighthood for his services to education.
Everything changed of course with the outbreak of War, when my father enlisted in the RAF and trained as an electrician, my mother and the younger children were evacuated to Wales and my sister and I were shipped off to Australia.
In 1945, those child evacuees whose parents still lived were shipped back to England on the Cunarder the Aquitania, and I resumed living with my parents and sisters, who now numbered six. Neither of my parents had any previous tertiary education, but my father used his Air Force training and his demobilisation privileges to qualify as a manual arts teacher with the idea of emigrating to Australia.
In 1948, the N.S.W. Government subsidised teachers to immigrate, provided they would sign up for two years country duty. Our family sailed on the old P. and O. liner Chitral and soon found ourselves in Nabiac, a village of some 600 in the central coast region. Of course there was no high school there, so I commuted 40 k each morning and evening to Taree High School. This of course I found vastly different from and inferior to the classical stream in my high school in Hull where I had spent years 8, 9 and 10. In particular, I remember the gross errors made by the Geography teacher who pictured for us a working coal mine with no entrance or exit! The Maths teacher was not too hot either. To top it off, I was the only student in Latin. Fortunately, the French teacher was OK, and I managed to achieve Honours in this subject in the Leaving Certificate. Strangely enough, this proved very useful 10 years later.
In 1950, the question arose of what to do after school. No one in my extended family had ever attended University, and it was extremely rare for Taree High students to do so. I myself had no particular leanings to any single area, and my father was in no position to support me as well as my sisters. Nor did I feel drawn to Education, one of the few areas in which University students were paid a living allowance. At this time, we became aware that the Joint Coal Board of N.S.W. gave scholarships for school leavers to study Mining Engineering at Sydney University, with a guaranteed job on graduating. Not having any knowledge of either mining or engineering, I had no objections, and so found myself an Engineering student, graduating in 1955.
I neither hated nor loved the mathematics, but it turned out that the only high distinctions I obtained at University were for first and second year maths, so I suppose I found them quite satisfying. In the 1950s, university maths was quite different from today. For example, we used Courant's Calculus, and Bullen's Applied Mathematics. Could Engineering students today handle the Exercises we routinely did? On the other hand, matrices and determinants were mentioned only in the last month of second year, and were regarded by both teachers and students as suitable for the best and brightest! Engineering students today have a heavy workload, but we had daily lectures 9-5 plus two evenings/week till 9pm in the Drawing Office and Saturday morning Workshop Practice. Among my fellow students was Peter Chapman.
After graduating B.E (Min.) I found employment as a cadet with Caledonian Collieries in Newcastle, first as a draughtsman, then as Underground Surveyor. I took my qualifying certificate in this area, with the intention of passing a series of exams over three years leading to Mine Manager's Certificate. However, it was not to be. A recession in the late 50's, coupled with my dissatisfaction with the lifestyle led to my requesting and receiving a release from my 5 year bond with the Coal Board, and I set off for Canada with the idea of travelling and seeking casual work in the flourishing mining industry there.
This too was not a success, so I applied for and was awarded a French Government scholarship to study petroleum engineering at the noted Institut du Pétrole at Rueil Malmaison, close to Paris. This was the first time I had met real mathematics. The lecturer, M. Houpert, was a Polytechnicien who made no concessions to the engineering background of the students. I relished the course because as an auditeur libre I was not compelled to sit the exams! A stage of practical experience in the gas fields of Lacq in the Pyrenees was followed by an award of a research scholarship to do a Masters in Oil and Gas Engineering at Penn State University.
Soon after I arrived in State College I married Beth, whom I had met in Paris where she was a Sorbonne student from Queensland. After graduation, we set out on a long drive around the U.S., eventually landing in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I applied for a position as an Engineer in the Research Lab of Esso. Two years in Tulsa taught me that I was essentially a mathematician, and not a team player.
So as a late starter aged 30, I enrolled for a Mathematics PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle. My original intention was to specialise in Discrete Applied Mathematics, under Victor Klee. But his absence on leave, and my comparatively high grades in Algebra led me to research in abelian groups, under the supervision of Ross Beaumont with much support from Dick Pierce. Unlike many graduate students at that time, I felt under pressure to finish as quickly as possible, as we had a family under way. Furthermore, Beth had also undertaken PhD studies in the Department of Romance Languages, specialising in Mediaeval French. The result was that our savings from Tulsa were dwindling and I needed paid employment.
Unlike today, that was no problem in 1968. A single phone call from Professor Beaumont landed me an Assistant Professorship at the University of Montana in Missoula. A year later, we had a pair of doctorates and two children and began to think of returning to Australia.
For the final section of these memoirs, Click here.
Date and place of birth:22 October 1933, Hull, Yorkshire, England.
Associate Professor of Mathematics (Pure mathematics), The University of Western Australia.
1993: B.H. Neumann Award for Excellence in Mathematics Education.
Currently member of:
Australian Mathematical Society,
American Mathematical Society,
Mathematical Association of America,
World Federation of National Mathematics Competitions.
Author: Phill Schultz, firstname.lastname@example.org
Last update: 24 December, 2001