A memorial for Mature Age Gays (MAG) stalwart and 1974 Western Australia Citizen of the Year Murray Johnston will be held this Saturday.
Murray Howard Johnstone was born on the 24th March 1928 in Toodyay, a little country town about 100 km from Perth.
His father, Robert, was then the headmaster of Toodyay Primary School. When Murray was eight, the family moved to Swanbourne, Perth as Robert had been appointed headmaster to its primary school. From then on, Murray grew up in Perth, where difference was not tolerated.
“I remember I associated with boys at school; I wasn’t interested in girls. Then around 12, I realised I liked boys. It was considered quite normal then, a lot of kids were interested in that sort of thing. Then in my teenage years I realised I was gay. But you had to be very careful. Anyone who showed any tendency toward anything off the beaten track was immediately ridiculed.”
Throughout his undergraduate years in the University of Western Australia (UWA), Murray never showed his hand. And that was how life was to remain for many years to come.
While in his third year at UWA, he became a cadet geologist with the Bureau of Mineral Resources (BMR) in Canberra, and on graduating in 1950 with First Class Honours in Geology, joined the BMR as a geologist, and was sent to assist with the mapping of the Carnarvon Basin. From 1950 to 1953 he played a major role in unravelling the stratigraphy and structure of this very large and prospective basin.
In 1952, Caltex joined with Ampol to form West Australian Petroleum (Wapet). Meanwhile, Murray had learned the techniques of wellsite geology. So, in 1954, when Wapet belatedly found that the parent companies had shipped two rigs to WA to evaluate the oil find, there was a sudden shortage of trained wellsite geologists and Murray was asked to join Wapet at a princely salary! Thus started his career in the oil industry.
In 1970, Wapet transferred Murray to the head office of Chevron in San Francisco on a stratigraphic training assignment. At a bar there, he met a lifelong friend, Steve Curtis, who introduced him to the gay scene there. Twenty-three years later, Murray and his partner Richard revisited Steve and his partner Chuck who showed them around every gay nook & cranny of San Francisco and then some!
In 1972, Murray became Wapet’s chief geologist. In 1973, he was appointed Secretary of Geology for the ANZAAS conference. And in 1974 had the shock of his life when he was invited to a State dinner in Perth and before it was over found himself under the TV spotlight being named Citizen of the Year for the Professions by the WA Governor, Sir Hughie Edwards.
The award recognised Murray’s unremitting work organising, lecturing & supervising three major national & international conferences during the year as well as the many years of public service in which he became a walking encyclopaedia of West Australian geology.
Only 46, he had been identified with the search for oil in Western Australia ever since it began in earnest a quarter-century before.
Murray joined the Geological Survey of WA as Supervising Geologist of the Sedimentary Division from 1978 to 1982. Then in 1983 he joined Esso as Senior Exploration Geologist, assessing prospects throughout Australia in the Sydney head office. There he was involved in a fabulous project to create a 3D model of all the offshore basins of Western Australia. This was the culmination of his geological experience: he had seen the geological knowledge of the WA basins go from almost non-existent in the 1940s to a full 3D revelation in the 1980s.
When Esso moved its head office to Melbourne, Murray opted for retirement in Sydney, but kept in touch with the oil industry.
In 1992, he was appointed chairperson of the Second American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) Conference, held in the Sydney Convention Centre.
At the 1994 AAPG Conference in Kuala Lumpur, he was presented with a Special Commendation Award for outstanding contributions to Australian petroleum geology and in the official program it was noted that “With his wealth of varied company and government experience, Murray’s knowledge of the petroleum geology of Australia is unequalled. He has a special ability to synthesize large amounts of disparate geoscientific information into a coherent whole.”
Murray was a founding member of the Geological Society of Australia and was always particularly proud of his distinguished membership of the Petroleum Exploration Society of Australia (PESA), awarded in March 1980 for exceptional and meritorious service rendered to the petroleum industry of Australia, and was a WA Past President.
After becoming a geologist, and travelling to the remote northern reaches of Western Australia, the closet was the only safe place to be. Years later Murray rued the missed opportunities as he later discovered that some of his male colleagues were also closeted gays. “Not till my late 30s did I discover beats. I met a few people and went from there. I was still living with my parents. Not till I came to Sydney did I actually feel more free about my orientation”.
When his parents & others asked about girls on the horizon, Murray found a unique out. As a result of achondroplasia, he was only 137 cm tall. “Being so short I fobbed people off by saying I didn’t want to take the chance of having offspring so short”.
When Murray moved to Sydney in 1983, he finally got a taste of sexual freedom. Murray’s mother, Elva, was a lovely lady with a lot of grace and a wicked sense of humour who had absolute faith in her son and was very proud of his achievements. At the same time, she could be a bit domineering. “I couldn’t have any friends over at my mother’s, let alone gay friends. After my father died, my life was really serving her, till I was well over 50.” Only then did Murray track down some local steam baths. “I found King Steam the nicest. I got to know a group of men there, and we went out to plays together.”
On Thursday, the 26th September 1985, Richard had his 43rd birthday, and decided to treat himself to a Saturday night at King Steam a week later. So, on the 5th October, he was lying on a cubicle bed when a tall, older, and heavily intoxicated guy came in. Richard gestured for him to go, and then a clone of the first guy came in, equally intoxicated. After getting rid of the second guy, Richard decided to stop anyone older than himself from entering. However, Murray came along. He was 14 years older than Richard. “He was so cute and he got to my vitals so quickly that resistance was useless. We had a fantastic time, and went back to Murray’s unit in Willoughby. The next morning, he made me these unbelievable strawberry and banana milkshakes using real fruit and no artificial flavouring. After that I was his.” The two started seeing each other every few weeks but didn’t intend to become partners initially.
Richard had a first class honours degree in Pure Mathematics from Sydney University, and had returned there to do a Computer Science course. He was writing up a Ph.D. Thesis. But his father and Murray convinced him to postpone this and “get a job in the cold, hard, real world and make some money”. So he became a computer consultant specialising in software development using the latest techniques, the training of employees in these, and analyst/programming. Mid 1986, he obtained a contract to help build a fully-automated slab yard for BHP in Port Kembla. So, some weekends Murray would drive up to Richard’s unit in Wollongong, and others, Richard would drive down to Willoughby.
In December 1986, they celebrated with a “honeymoon” by going to a gay nudist camping resort in Grafton.
It was a wet and miserable Christmas, but they had heaps of fun, and the gay owners of the resort even invited Murray and Richard into their home to enjoy a Christmas dinner and listen to their forerunner of mobile phones and wireless internet.
Murray not only had an encyclopaedic knowledge of WA oil geology, he had an equally impressive repertoire of naughty jokes, poems, limericks and stories—both gay & straight. Being a good little actor, Murray didn’t need much encouragement to perform, much to the amusement of anyone who heard him, and Richard was a good audience.
In October 1997, they bought a house together.
Before Murray retired, he had been very much in the closet. This was a reflection of the extremely conservative WA ethos prevailing at that time: you can be as gay as you like, just don’t tell your boss, your colleagues, your friends, or your family.
But Richard insisted that they be open & frank about their relationship, and Murray agreed albeit with some trepidation.
Richard’s stepsister, Eva Cox, suggested she could “break the news” to Henry, Richard’s father. That worked well and indeed Murray became Henry’s best friend. When Henry, who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, could no longer do his own accounts, Murray took over this task from Richard, and with Murray’s perfect copperplate handwriting, did a handsome job. Later when Henry moved to a retirement village in Cherrybrook, Murray did all of Henry’s washing—frequently even collecting it twice a day!
In 1989, Elva’s ophthalmologist warned her that she was losing her frontal vision. Almost immediately, she, at 90, took a plane trip to Sydney with a friend half her age and stayed with Murray & Richard for a fortnight. She managed to see all the places she had visited as a child. She was very much au fay with Murray and Richard’s being a couple. Indeed, when Murray went to Calgary in Canada for a geology conference, he asked Richard to phone Elva on his behalf. When he did, Elva confided to Richard that she was very happy Murray and he were together as she felt she could now die in peace knowing there was someone to look after her son.
Murray and Richard came out to their friends & colleagues in many ways but particularly by sending out Christmas cards with letters that made the situation abundantly clear. Murray’s original fear of not being accepted, was in the main, not realised.
The coming out had been a success!
Richard and Murray joined MAG in 1994. By 1997, they were President and Secretary. During this period, they developed a new style of newsletter, called MAGazine, edited jointly by Murray and Richard; created & populated a sophisticated database of over 600 guys at the time they retired from the executive in 2001; and organised a number of issues-based talks such as David Marr’s talk on his book “The High Price of Heaven”, indigenous gays talking about the double hurdles they had faced, Clover Moore et al talking about Gay recognised relationships, and Justice Michael Kirby talking about discrimination and his own experiences in combating it.
Additionally on two occasions, Murray and Richard both represented MAG in panels training new gay & lesbian liaison police officers when the system was in its infancy; spoke jointly to PFLAG of their experiences of discrimination; represented MAG on the panel for the Liverpool Regional Museum “Edges” Exhibition and made a 21-page submission on their own behalf and a shorter submission for MAG to the NSW Legislative Council Standing Committee’s Inquiry into De Facto Relationships Legislation.
More recently, they both appeared in each of the two episodes of the critically acclaimed documentary “The Sexual Life of Us” aired on SBS TV on numerous occasions in the last couple of years. Murray’s interviews will be screened as part of the Memorial Service for him to be held in two days time.
Murray and Richard also belonged to a gay nudist group called “Sydney Sunboys” but they were less than happy with its plethora of rules and regulations and so convened a meeting in November 1999 at their place which founded a new group “Gay Sydney Nudists” (GSN). GSN took off like a rocket and now has over 650 participants in its database, which Richard & Murray developed. GSN honoured them by making them honorary life members.
Murray & Richard were also involved with the Sydney Bisexual Network, and were regular supporters of Queerscreen’s Mardi Gras Festival and Queer Docs.
In the 1990s and at the turn of the century, Murray and Richard were active members of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee whose aims were to stop the wholesale incarceration of indigenous people, to prevent deaths in custody, and to fight for justice for those who had died in custody.
In addition, they were both active in the fight for a more independent Australia. Murray and Richard had even taken part in street theatre as late as 2009 for the “Spirit of Australia” group opposing the Australian Building and Construction Commission and its anti-worker activities.
Murray’s family background did NOT include classical music. At 12, he had seen Fantasia and was curious to find out more about the music in it. Thus began a lifelong obsession with opera, and through Richard, with the music of Schubert. From August 1997, Murray and Richard had been joint secretaries of the Sydney Schubert Society.
They were also active opera goers and on the committee of the Northside Opera Study Group until Murray’s sickness forced retirement from that. In addition, they were active in the Australian Musicians Academy, the Amateur Chamber Music Society, supporters of Trio Slav and the Macquarie Trio, and organised the Kate Buchdahl Memorial Concerts to raise funds for the Histology Department of Royal North Shore Hospital.
At one time they were involved with no fewer than 20 musical associations.
Murray had more than his fair share of illness. One day after his 82nd birthday this year, he entered the Acute Cardiology ward of Westmead Hospital and four silent heart attacks later, was found to have terminal congestive heart failure. After six months on Oxygen, having great difficulty breathing, he died of cardiac arrest in “The Grange” Extra Services Facility of Courtlands nursing home just before noon on Tuesday, the 14th September. On the weekend & Monday, he & Richard had listened together to classical music especially Schubert’s piano trios & lieder, which he loved.
When Murray’s chief doctor in Westmead Hospital asked him if, after cardiac arrest, he wanted extraordinary measures taken to revive him, with the likely outcome of becoming a vegetable, he said “No way. I’ve had a rich & varied life, a productive career and a loving partnership. I’m ready to go.”
Murray was stoic throughout his life and rarely complained. He had a scientific world-view and always tried to help to make the world a better place. In keeping with this philosophy, he donated his body to the Sydney University Body Donation Programme to further medical research and student training in the Department of Anatomy/Histology.
Instead of a funeral, there is a Memorial Service at St David’s Uniting Church, corner of Pacific Highway and Provincial Road, Lindfield in two days, Saturday the 13th November, starting 2pm. All in the GLBTIQ community are most welcome.
by Richard Buckdale, Murray’s partner of 24 years (less three weeks)
PESA news Dec/Jan 2000/2001, p 21-24
Official Program 1994 AAPG International Conference, p 21-22
Wapet Journal, 1975, p9
“Partners in Life”, Outrage Dec 1999 p46