Happy birthday Dad : pontificator, provider and posthumous internet hero

Today would have been my father’s 89th birthday.

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Dad was a man who liked to run his own show.

He had taken on responsibility early and never really relinquished it. In 1947 – at the age of 18 – he lost his father and took on the family woodworking machinery business. He completed his engineering degree two years after his father’s death, but had very little idea of how to run a business, as he openly acknowledged.

So he put on a pair of overalls and took lessons from the tradesmen – his employees – working his way up from machine tool operator, to salesman, to accountant and – finally – to designer. AB Campbell Pty Ltd* became very successful, and Dad was rightly proud of his achievements.

There’s an old black-and-white photo on Mum’s sideboard of a young Dad in the early 1970s, shaking hands with Governor General Sir Paul Hasluck. He was being presented with an export award for his company’s achievements. It was, as far as I know, the only official recognition he received.

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In the twelve months since his death, I have come to know my father better.

Mum has taken comfort in talking about him and I’m a willing listener. I learned that he always thought he deserved greater public recognition for his design and innovation. He certainly got none from his five children. We were too busy trying to get our parents’ attention. And he was, after all, our greatest obstacle. One of life’s great pontificators, he loved to hold the floor at the family dinner table.

In the months after Dad’s death, I was researching my grandfather for a piece I was writing for The Big Issue. My google search took me to an online woodworking forum, and a 2013 conversation ‘thread’ that went over seven pages. The instigator of the conversation had the username ABCampbell1970.

I’d stumbled onto a strange brotherhood of fanboy carpenters, bent on painstakingly putting together the history of the family business started by my grandfather and carried on by his son.

I followed entry after breathless entry of false leads, hypotheses and forensic research by this group of what I imagined to be ninety year old ex-tradies with too much time on their hands. It became evident they were unaware of the existence of my father, or the central role he played in the success of the company that bore the name he and his father shared. So I joined up – to a woodworking forum! – and sent this message.

I’m about 5 years too late but I’m AB Campbell’s granddaughter. I may be able to help you if you’re still interested.

What followed was an avalanche of enthusiastic responses that culminated in a meeting with ABCampbell1970. Arriving at the nominated cafe, I looked about me for a nonagenarian in overalls. Beaming at me from across the room was a fresh-faced 48 year old called Matty.

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Our meeting was slightly surreal for both of us.

Matty couldn’t quite believe he was having a cup of tea with the daughter of AB Campbell. I was having difficulty coming to grips with the fact that my father had a posthumous fan club that hadn’t, until recently, known of his existence.

Matty had been close to tracking down AB Campbell a number of times over the years. The last time was a week after Dad’s death. A truck driver making a delivery of timber at Matty’s yard recognised his AB Campbell machine.

I went to AB Campbell’s funeral last week

he told an incredulous Matty. It was the first confirmation Matty had of the existence of a Campbell son. Matty looked up Dad’s death notice and saw the date of the funeral. He had tears in his eyes when he told me:

Elizabeth, it was on my birthday.

Over the course of the next two hours, Matty and I exchanged information. He described the 14-year-old he once was, besotted by AB Campbell woodworking machines – ‘the last of the great woodworking machines made in Australia’. People are bidding on my father’s machines! Even the name plates are in high demand on e-bay.

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I gave Matty a copy of Dad’s memoir Recollections of a working life. It might have been the holy grail, so careful was his handling of it. Inside it were the answers to all his questions. His reverence for my father’s achievements was touching. It also almost broke my heart.

Retelling the story to Mum, we were both excruciatingly aware of how much Dad would have loved to meet Matty and talk to him about the business. In 2013, when the woodwork forum conversation took place, Dad was still fit and healthy. Together Mum and I worked our way through that sad conversation and came out the other side. We agreed that Dad would be delighted that, at last, his family finally became aware of his brilliance. He had, after all, been telling us about it for years.

Three months down the track, Matty and I remain in touch.

He tells me of his interstate trips in search of AB Campbell machines and I remain his conduit to my father’s story. The other day, Mum found an old family jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece in the shape of a fish. She wanted to give it to my granddaughter, the firstborn of the next generation. In a gorgeous piece of synchronicity, Matty offered to make the missing piece. He sent me this photo with a message:

I was thinking of making this little missing fish AB Campbell grey. What do you think – too industrial?

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Too adorable. I’ve left it up to him to decide.

Finding Matty has helped me to find a way through my grief.

And I didn’t even know that’s what I was trying to do. We can put off the grieving process by keeping ourselves busy, concentrating on those family members we feel are in greater need. But eventually it will hit us like a wave – not once, but multiple times.

Today – my father’s birthday – I am in another country, looking out over gentle hills and farmland, and thinking about him. I realise I have been having trouble trying to reconcile my feelings for this bombastic, brilliant, impatient, unknowable, loving and, most of all, complex man.

And then it came to me.

Like that little fish, Dad was a one-of-a-kind who refused to blend into the crowd – a little bit industrial grey and a little bit rainbow coloured – and I loved him.

Happy birthday Dad.

*The business name has been changed.

4 thoughts on “Happy birthday Dad : pontificator, provider and posthumous internet hero

  1. Nice tale. I think when we are young we just see our parents as mum and dad…not people with their own history, triumphs and losses. Great that you’ve discovered lots about your dad 😉

  2. Beautiful tender story Elizabeth. It is interesting, fun and sometimes confronting to find out that our parents had lives before us. And when we do find the “person” behind the Mum or Dad monniker perhaps it helps us understand them a little better. Bravo, my friend!

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