Oswald Leo

Leo Oswald was born in Shepparton in 1916 to Bobby and Hannah Oswald. He was one of four children – Kath, Jack and Mollie were his siblings. The family lived in Wyndham St, opposite the Butter Factory, where the Shepparton Club now stands. His early education was at St Brendan’s school.

In the early 1930s he entered the noviciate in Mittagong, and became a Marist brother – taking the name Brother Evangelist. He taught in schools around NSW and Victoria. From the late 1940s he taught at Assumption College in Kilmore, before taking some time out from teaching in the late 1950s to study for a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University. After he graduated, he returned to Assumption in the early 1960s.  

He had a few nicknames at Assumption College – the first being “Nick” after Nick Carter – the famous literary master detective. His ability to detect any wrongdoing amongst the boys was legendary. After that the name that took hold to describe Br Evangelist was “Rocky”. There are a number of theories as to the genesis of this name – “Rocky”.  Some recall that is was derived from the great American boxer of the time, Rocky Marciano. Marciano was ruggedly handsome, and fiercely determined, characteristics shared by Leo. Others thought that it was because of his physical characteristics – he did have a rather craggy face. It is also said to have something to do with the fact that he taught geography.   

At Assumption College he was renowned as a gifted teacher, a charismatic raconteur and an elastic man in a strict organisation. He often displayed acts of kindness, which were in many cases outside the rules. In 1948 the Australian cricket team were touring England – many will recall this was the tour by the squad known as “the invincibles”. Leo’s room was at the end of the dormitory, and he was in possession on a radio set. He would turn the radio up after lights out so the boys could listen to the first session broadcast live via the BBC. 

He was generally in control of things, but if events didn’t go his way he could get cross. One day during the school holidays he and some of the other brothers went fishing at a creek near Flowerdale. They took a few cans – but it was in the days before eskys and the days when you need a special opener to pierce two holes in the top. They put the cans in the creek to cool down, and cast their lines. When it came time for that refreshing ale, they realised that someone had forgotten the can opener. After trying with screwdrivers, rocks, and who knows what else without success Leo angrily threw the cans back in the creek accompanied by some mild profanities.   

Crucial to understanding the legacy of Leo Oswald is to understand his ability as a teacher. He was a phenomenal teacher of geography and Australian history. He had an innate ability to convey the concepts of geography in particular. On more than one occasion, his students topped the state in leaving certificate and matriculation geography. Many Assumption, St Josephs & St Johns old boys now enjoying lives as senior professionals credit Leo’s geography teaching as the factor that was able to get their matriculation scores high enough to gain entry to the university course of their choice. Think about how many years he taught, and how many esteemed careers he set in train – it is a significant legacy. 

As a nation Australia could have gone in a number of directions after the great depression of the 1930s. Where it went was to become an innovative, well ordered and highly prosperous nation driven by generations of educated people. This was made possible by the brilliant educators in Australian society at that crucial stage of our nation’s development. Leo Oswald was one of the greatest of those educators.  

I was talking recently with an Assumption old boy from the 1940s – he spoke of Robert Kennedy’s speech after learning the news of the death of Martin Luther King. Kennedy said “we must tame the savageness of man, and make peaceful the life of the world”. This former student of Leo’s said “we were the savages, and through Leo’s teaching he helped us make peaceful the life of the world” 

Sam Birrell (nephew)

My parents met in 1971. 

My mum, Maureen had been trained as a nurse, then studied midwifery with the sisters and decided to join.  She became a sister of St Joseph, but agonised over the decision of whether it was really for her. She left just before her final vows in the 8th year.  Shortly afterwards, Dad was introduced to Mum by Denise and John, others who had recently left their orders and found love.

Dad described meeting Mum’s parents as a bit like a cricket match, Grandma Elsie would bowl in the questions, and he blocked them all successfully.  When Pop-Pop Jack piped up with “Leo do you mean that you and Maureen are thinking about getting married?”, Dad said: “well that’s the general idea”, and that was that, he was offered a drink and welcomed to the family.

They married on December 13th 1971: he at 55 and she at 32.  He did quite well for himself.

With Grandma’s help (an insider at the bank), they got a loan and bought a house in Chelsea Heights and I was born in 1973. At that time he was working at St Bede’s, teaching his specialty subject geography... or earth studies at the time.  He continued there until 1986 when he retired at the age of 70.  His final year teaching had been in the establishment of a junior school library, introducing new school boys to the joys of learning.

I’d loved having his advice and support on a daily basis, and his move forced me to become more independent in the school community.  Although as you could imagine, I had the best home tutor on earth.

By then he’d already started to lose his hearing.  He joined Patterson River Golf Club in 1988, but Mum was unwell with depression and needed his support at home so he wasn’t able to continue that pursuit.  Auntie Mollie came down to help run the household, a big relief to Dad.  He focused his energies on being a committed husband, and tirelessly boosting her confidence.

Over the last few years Dad’s eyes deteriorated quickly, a big loss for such an intelligent and learned man.  

Earlier this year Dad and I realised we couldn’t look after Mum at home any more, and she went into care at Andrina Aged Care.  In fact he and I worked well together from that point, and with a little less pressure our relationship improved enormously, which has given me some lovely memories.

Dad had been in and out of hospital for the last year, but was actually improving when he died on Sunday.  So despite his advanced age, his passing has been a shock to us, and I thank you all for your love and support.

Mark Oswald (son)