Jennie Thomas: The Midas Touch 

Jennie Thomas turned personal tragedy into humble generosity and has opened her heart to the region’s best and brightest, writes ROSEMARIE MILSOM.

The widely respected former vice chancellor of the University of Newcastle, Professor Nick Saunders, was many things, but huggable was not one of them. That  never stopped Jennie Thomas. 

‘‘She has this wonderful philosophy about the value of a good hug and she disarms people,’’ says Bernie Curran, executive officer of the University of Newcastle Foundation, the institution’s philanthropic arm.

‘‘You watch these stiff people so used to being academic and reserved suddenly being swamped by a big hug,’’ he says chuckling. ‘‘That’s a measure of her affection and warmth,’’  he says of the foundation’s most dedicated donor.

Unfortunately I miss out on one of Thomas’s famous hugs because our interview happens over the phone. The 71-year-old pint-sized dynamo lives in Canberra and her impending visit to Newcastle for the International Space Time Concerto Competition, an ambitious and historical music event she helped fund to celebrate the Newcastle Conservatorium’s 60th birthday, conflicts with Weekender’s production schedule.

Thomas is well-known at the university for her enthusiastic support of students and researchers through a number of grants and scholarships, but her generosity also extends beyond the leafy Callaghan campus to include the Hunter Medical Research Institute, Hunter Melanoma Foundation, Victor Chang Cardiac Research Centre, an eye clinic in Sierra Leone, small business loans in Niger and education and health projects in Fiji and Burma.

When we speak, she has just returned from a two-week trip to Burma with her partner, respected ACT horticulturist David Young. 

‘‘It was an eye-opener,’’ she says. ‘‘David and I travel a lot and this was the best trip we’ve ever done. The people made it stand out – they are so gentle and warm.

‘‘One of the first ladies I met was called Me Me and she told me something I’ll never forget; she said, ‘Jennie, the way you talk about your country, it’s a ‘me’ society. Turn the ‘m’ upside down; you need to become a ‘we’ society’. We had a big hug on that one,’’ she laughs.

It is a long way from a small dairy settlement near Lismore, where she grew up as the third eldest of nine children, to Burma, but Thomas is nothing if not adventurous. The former teacher first travelled overseas in the late 1960s when her late husband Philip Emlyn, known as ‘‘Em’’, an industrial chemist who graduated from Newcastle University – then a part of the University of NSW – took a job demonstrating the use of atomic absorption spectrophotometry (AAS) in European laboratories. 

The modern form of AAS was largely developed during the 1950s by a team of Australian scientists and it revolutionised chemistry. Em’s knowledge and skill were in high demand.

‘‘He trained and mentored a lot of young physicists and chemists and computer experts,’’ Thomas recalls. ‘‘They were all his family; our house was always full of young students. It was a very exciting time in chemistry.’’

The couple, both scholarship recipients who met in Newcastle, married in Wallsend Baptist Church in 1962 and relocated to a pretty village in Switzerland, half-way between Lucerne and Zurich, for 18 months. ‘‘The first night we got there, Em was told he had to go to Germany the next day,’’ she remembers. ‘‘I didn’t know any of the language. He got up at 5 o’clock in the morning and vanished, and there was me.’’ 

She pauses. ‘‘I learnt a lot about myself, I learnt a lot about people. I learnt to be more observant than talk,’’ she laughs, ‘‘which is a bit hard if you’re me and you’ve grown up in a big family and all of a sudden you’re on your own in a European village where nobody speaks any English.

‘‘Em was off to a different country every week and if I wanted to, I went with him. I visited Russia during the Cold War and China not long after Nixon’s visit. Sometimes I didn’t want to [travel], and I just walked and explored Switzerland. It was an amazing experience. One of the things that held me together was that I had a lifeline with my mum. I used to write to her sometimes two or three times a day because she was so excited that I was able to travel, because she couldn’t.’’

After their return to Australia in 1971, the couple settled in Melbourne and Thomas helped establish child migrant education within the Victorian Education Department. She developed the curriculum, trained other teachers, and became a consultant. She also pursued her interest in renovating and building houses. ‘‘I don’t know that I’ve ever lived in a house that I haven’t done up,’’ she enthuses. ‘‘I like seeing results for hard work.’’

took his own life in March 2001. He was 60. The couple had been together for close to four decades.

‘‘It’s a very dark place to be in,’’  Thomas says of the grief that overwhelmed her after Em’s death. ‘‘I did not ever think I would laugh again; I really didn’t believe it. He was a brilliant person, a caring person, who made a lot of difference to a lot of people’s lives.’’ 

Thomas remembers standing by his grave and questioning what to do next. ‘‘I just didn’t understand, but I realised that,’’ she pauses. ‘‘There are two ways you can go – you can feel sorry for yourself and say, ‘Why me?’, and then I thought, I only have one life and I need to do something that’s important. That’s when I decided to put Em’s money to good use.

‘‘I don’t need it for me; I live a fairly simple life apart from travelling, and I can go on making a difference to young people’s lives, I can go on mentoring people, and I tell you what, they give me back more than I’ve ever given.’’

Thomas fronted up to meet Bernie Curran at the University Foundation who then introduced her to mental health researcher Frances Kay Lambkin. Thomas asked Lambkin an important question, one that has since become her catch cry: ‘‘What is your dream?’’ Lambkin described how she wanted to create the world’s first computer-based therapy for those battling abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and depression. Thomas made a one-off $60,000 donation.

‘‘I’ve got a bit of a reputation in Newcastle for picking the right people [to support],’’ she says. ‘‘They’ve got to have that bit of extra something – I don’t know what it is, but it’s a spark and I can see the dream is real and that they will go on with it.

‘‘I make a small contribution and then they make that bigger contribution back to society. Frances was a case in point; she was left-field – I like left-field –  and when I walked into her and [fellow researcher] Amanda Baker’s office one day and they told me about the DVD and using the computer to reach people with depression who might not seek help, I said, ‘Right, well, we’ll do that. Go for it’.’’

She also returned to John Hunter Hospital and asked the cardiologists who had treated Em how she could help. ‘‘He’d had depressive episodes throughout his life, but of course we didn’t have the knowledge that we have now,’’ she says. ‘‘At the time Em had his heart attack and stroke, I didn’t go back to the hospital and say, ‘He’s fallen into deep depression’. Now I know that so many people who have those significant health events later have a depressive episode and it can be very serious.’’

Thomas became aware of research at HMRI and helped fund BraveHeart, a pilot study involving 39 patients at the hospital who were experiencing significant symptoms of depression or anxiety at the end of cardiac rehabilitation. The study showed that coronary heart disease patients who feel depressed or anxious can benefit from group therapy.

Em’s life – and tragic death – has helped her pinpoint projects to support across the arts, health and environment. She often reflects on the opportunities that came their way because of their tertiary studies, which only happened because they received scholarships.

‘‘We had very little money,’’ says Thomas of her youth. ‘‘Bringing up nine children in a scattered country settlement was a struggle. My parents, both teachers, had very few of this world’s goods, but they lived a life of loving and caring for us and others in our community. They gave us love and laughter, literature and learning.

‘‘Em also came from a home with little money or material goods. He arrived in Australia from a mining village in Wales when he was 10 and went to Toronto Public School, then Newcastle Boys High. What we both had was a love of life and people, a love of learning, and the determination to achieve our goals.’’

Thomas is passionate about supporting university students to reach their potential.  ‘‘There’s a country girl there,’’ observes Curran. ‘‘She can’t stand bullshit, which is one of the reasons she likes being involved in the selection committees because she cuts through the garbage and gets to the essence of who someone is. 

‘‘It doesn’t matter if you’re a stand-out on paper, she is looking for that little bit of something different.

‘‘She nosed around like a wombat until she found Alexia [Sinclair, award-winning photographer and digital artist] who won one of Jennie’s Travelling Art Scholarships while she was studying fine art at the university.’’

Thomas stays in contact with recipients and relishes news of their ongoing achievements  

Curran says: ‘‘She does like to get involved in the life of the recipient, not in an interfering way, but in a way which encourages them. ‘‘They not only get the benefit of the dollars, they get the benefit of her – she becomes a mentor. I often use this image of Jennie as the mother duck walking across the road with an increasing number in her brood, ready to shelter under her wings.

‘‘Some donors will say, ‘Here’s some money for indigenous students doing medicine, you find them’ and that’s it, that’s their involvement. That’s not the way Jennie does it.’’

Thomas, who has no children of her own, has created a large and eclectic extended family. She  wishes she was more comfortable with the term ‘‘philanthropist’’. ‘‘It sounds money oriented, but it’s people-oriented. Bernie pulled me aside one day and being a classics scholar loves explaining the origin of words; he said, ‘It means lover of mankind, remember that, that’s what you are’.’’

Though reluctant to sing her own praises, when I mention that Em would be proud of her work, she replies:  ‘‘I’m sure so.’’

She believes Em would also be pleased about her involvement in the International Space Time Concerto Competition and she made sure his beloved classical music would feature alongside innovative compositions, including an iPhone ensemble. 

The competition, which has been described as ‘‘Beethoven meets the Matrix’’, offers an  opportunity to perform with a full orchestra. Several finalists will  play live with an international internet-linked ensemble spanning five countries.

‘‘I’m getting very excited about it,’’ says Thomas, who contributed $30,000. ‘‘I think it’s an amazing opportunity for Newcastle. It’s a first in the world!

‘‘You’ve got to have a go; that was one of things Em and I used to say. When an opportunity opens up, you take it and if it doesn’t work, you’ve had a go.

‘‘My dad put me on the train [to study in Newcastle] when I was 17 and he said, ‘Go and make something of your life’. That’s what I say to my dreamers: go and do it.’’

The International Space Time Concerto Competition will be held in The Newcastle Conservatorium on Friday, November 30, and Sunday, December 2, and also screened live in Civic Park. Visit spacetimeconcerto.com for more information. Jennie Thomas blogs about her adventures at jtdytravels.com.

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