The man behind the black armbands

Tom Maggs was remembered by Australia’s cricket elite on Boxing Day, though cricket was not his scene. He was a champion of another kind.

Tom Maggs

Tom Maggs

Last week I went to the funeral of a man who died on Christmas Eve after a stroke, just a week shy of his 65th birthday. His son-in-law happened to be Australia’s test wicketkeeper, Tim Paine.

Millions of cricket watchers would have noticed Australians wearing black armbands when they went out to bat in Melbourne on Boxing Day. It was duly noted in the media, but with virtually no information about the person who inspired it. I want to help fill in that gap.

It’s ironic that Tom Maggs was remembered at a major international cricket match. He had absolutely no interest in sport throughout his life – until a year or two ago. He started following cricket only after his daughter Bonnie brought a champion of the game into the family.

Tom loved doing stuff outdoors – tending to animals, tramping in the wilderness and such like. He had a physical grace about him and in his younger days might have passed for a sportsman except for his short-sightedness. But he was another kind of champion.

Tom Maggs served as radio operator and sledge dog handler (he loved all animals) through two Antarctic winters at Mawson station. He joined the staff of the Australian Antarctic Division when it was still based in Melbourne, and moved to Hobart when the AAD was relocated there in 1981.

When I first met him soon after I joined AAD staff in 1987 he was preparing for a stint as station leader at another Antarctic base, Casey, through the winter of 1988.

That same year Sydney entrepreneur Dick Smith decided to spend some of the fortune he’d made in electronic retailing to show the AAD why it should be flying planes. In November 1988 he and British pilot Giles Kershaw landed on Antarctic ice to complete the first-ever Hobart-Casey flight.

Exeditioner Owen Holmwood, one of the welcoming party at the landing strip as the two aviators stepped on to the ice, later recalled how station leader Maggs dealt with this historic occasion:

“Tom was just starting to wax lyrical about the staggering importance of the event, when there darted out from among the assembled multitude two St. Trinians schoolgirls, with blond wigs, fulsome blouses, short blue tunics, frilly knickers and fishnet stockings.

“They skipped straight past the official party, and presented the startled airmen with bunches of plastic flowers and kisses on both cheeks. The two interlopers then dashed back into the crowd to put on warm clothes, before anything that girls don’t have dropped off.

“Tom, ever the pragmatist, realised that he had no chance of restoring that sense of decorum which is so characteristic of [Australian Antarctic] ceremonies, and dispensed with further formalities.”

Two things about Tom come out of this. First, his sense of humour.

Some official speakers might take offence at such an interruption, but not Tom. Whatever Smith and Kershaw thought, Tom knew a good joke when he saw it, and doubtless led the laughter. He was himself a real wit, but his was a gentle humour, never at others’ expense.

Second, he was eloquent in both speech and writing. Wondrous Antarctica came to life in his words, whether it was the exploits of ice explorers, sea ice exploding against a ship’s hull, sledge dogs howling at the moon or the first sunrise after a long winter. I only wish I had his gift.

He loved listening to music, mostly classical. He was an avid reader and a deep thinker, and enjoyed wrestling with complex questions. He was very much at home among the scientists he worked with, and had a rare ability to articulate the complex processes they studied.

Tom Maggs had a long and distinguished career at the AAD and in the wider international Antarctic community. His leadership, skills in writing and analysis and love of nature landed him a succession of management roles in environmental policy and strategic development.

Underlying his career was a deep humanity, evident in all that was said about him at his crowded funeral in Hobart last week. Memories shared by his beloved daughters, Bonnie and Georgie, were touching testament to his finest attribute, a father’s unstinting commitment to his own.

When I left the AAD in difficult circumstances in 2002, Tom was MC in a rousing send-off at which he and other colleagues said many nice things about me. I felt as if I was listening to especially friendly eulogies at my own funeral. It was a huge fillip and a great start to my new life.

Such compliments are to be taken with a pinch of salt. I think Tom knew his strengths and his weaknesses. If he had been able to hear the eulogies about him last week, he’d have enjoyed the moment with his characteristic smile and then got on with the rest of his life.

I’ll always remember that smile. Tom Maggs richly deserved a black armband on the MCG. I am proud to have known this humble, generous man and sad indeed that he is lost to us.

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