He created the conditions essential for Melbourne’s evolution into a leading global university in the next generation. Later, he chaired Melbourne Water (1982-1992) and Museum Victoria (1988-1994) and in retirement formed the Victorian Jazz Archive (1996), now the Australian Jazz Museum. Carrying a heavy workload across diverse meetings, networks and contacts, he was a people person who generated a remarkable level of warmth, affection and trust.
Ray was raised in Kew and attended Melbourne High, becoming school captain in 1941. His father Arthur, who returned from the Western front in World War I to spend his working life with Melbourne Tramways, passed onto to his sons a love of books and a deep antipathy to war. His mother Billie had a song in her heart and a knack of making people happy. Ray was close to his brother Max, later a University of Melbourne biochemist, who died in 2004.
Though already an omnivorous reader over a wide range of subjects, Ray failed half the first-year commerce course at Melbourne University, though (as he was later fond of pointing out) he excelled in the informal jazz appreciation program. It was a sharp lesson: never again did he put himself in jeopardy. Rebalancing, without abandoning his extra-curricular interests, he graduated with a B Com (1945) and a diploma in public administration (1948).
The years at the university were decisive in Ray’s friendships, ideas and loyalties. In 1947, he married Betty Reilly, who like him was active in the labour-left milieu that dominated Melbourne student politics at the end of World War II. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights had opened prospects of a better world, and Ray and Betty were drawn to the Chifley Labor government’s post-war reconstruction agenda. Ray’s first job was in the office of federal Transport Minister Eddie Ward in 1946. Ray and Betty believed that government and shared public institutions such as universities should foster conditions and resources in which people could make their own lives. Though tempered by time and practicality the ideal always motivated them. They readily supported feminism, gay rights and indigenous Australians, and environmentalism. Betty became mayor of the City of Hawthorn in 1976.
The Menzies Coalition government took power in 1949, post-war reconstruction ebbed, the Transport Department was stripped back, and Ray’s career stalled. He transferred to the Australian Post Office. Moving to the outer suburbs, the Marginsons raised a family, with five children born between 1951 and 1963, though the second died just a few days after birth. Ray began to rise rapidly, becoming Post Office Controller of Finance in 1963. The top jobs in the Commonwealth public service beckoned. However, the career ladders were mostly in Canberra. When the University of Melbourne advertised the new position of vice-principal in 1966 Ray seized the opportunity to return to hallowed ground.
The university: crisis and relief
Ray knew little about the financial crisis that had triggered the creation of his post. When he saw the state Auditor-General’s damning report on the university, he almost rescinded his resignation from the Post Office. Melbourne had an impossible annual deficit, and there was clear evidence of malpractice. A Royal Commission was looming. With allies on the council and professoriate like R. Douglas «Pansy» Wright, Ray worked furiously to reorganise the administrative systems, establish full operational control, develop a registry, begin site planning and made inroads into the financial problem. He was helped by his capacity to work across political divides, honed in the public service. David Derham, vice-chancellor from 1968, reinforced the new centralisation while devolving financial responsibility to more accountable faculty deans. They were not natural allies but saw each other’s strengths and worked together.
Once the worst of the crisis had passed Ray could spend more time on planning, staff development, buildings and grounds, the Howard Florey Institute for medical research, and the arts. Internal traffic was curtailed; courts and spaces were created; botanical plantings lifted the site. Meanwhile, the arts provided «some personal relief», as Ray put it later, amid the financial dramas.
Many of the university’s vast holdings of paintings, ceramics and sculptures had been lost, misplaced or damaged. His secretary, Robyn Patton, retrieved a Rembrandt etching from under the stage in the conservatorium. The next steps were a comprehensive catalogue, a herculean effort, and later the University Gallery. Ray trawled the bequests for potential arts funding, stroked donors, pumped up acquisitions, ran complex individual collections like those of Russell Grimwade and the anthropologist Donald Thomson (Ray chaired the Thomson Committee for 40 years, stepping down when he was 91), populated the grounds with statues and installed a successful artist in residence program. Bronze sculptor Michael Meszaros said in 2013: «His appreciation of many different artists’ work was broad and inclusive, encouraging each artist to work in the way that suited each one best and not trying to impose preconceptions on them.»
Ray Marginson was also deputy chair of the Melbourne Theatre Company for 20 years and fostered Melbourne University Press, the Grainger Museum, literary magazine Meanjin, the Australia Centre and the university archives. In 2014, he called his university time «the most rewarding of my professional life». Summarising in 1988, deputy vice-chancellor and historian John Poynter stated that «the range and depth of these contributions, made over 22 years by a senior executive, may be without parallel in the history of the university».
The state: water and science
When retiring as vice-principal Ray told The Herald newspaper that he was just a «management person». It was a rare management talent that could turn to such a range of transformative tasks, and this put Ray on the radar of the state Labor government, especially with his friend Evan Walker at the planning ministry. From 1982 to 1992 Ray chaired the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) for two days a week, a decade in which MMBW became Melbourne Water, the city survived the severe drought of 1982-83, the Thomson dam was opened, significantly expanding total storage, and the first campaigns against water waste began (under the previous pricing structure the MMBW had a vested interest in maximising consumption).
After stepping down in 1992, Ray led several parks and waterways committees including Point Cook and the Werribee Park Historic Mansion.
Ray’s work at Museum Victoria began when he retired from the university. His central achievement was the construction of Scienceworks at Spotswood on the site of an old Melbourne Water Pumping Station, completed on time and under its $19 million budget. However, to Ray’s intense disappointment, plans for the new main Melbourne museum on Southbank were torn up by the newly elected Kennett Liberal government with stage 1 well underway. The site was handed over to a commercial exhibition centre.
After the museum Ray continued work on university arts, dined at his city clubs, the Athenaeum, the Beefsteaks and the Boobooks, and found the money and building for the Australian Jazz Museum, which preserves the recordings, history, photographs, original instruments and other paraphernalia of jazz music in Australia. Some were donated by Ray himself. He also had more time for his 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Ray was increasingly active in the kitchen and around the house after Betty began to lose mobility. When she entered care, he was by her bedside every afternoon. Betty died in December 2015. In July 2018 a fall and a faltering heart sent Ray to Maldon. It was the body that eventually gave out. His mind seemed to have no limit.
Ever driven, with little time to spare in the years of high public productivity, in his final decades Ray’s vast, lifelong capacity to give and receive affection became more exclusively focused on his family. He was a constant emotional centre. He is greatly missed.
Simon Marginson is the oldest of Ray’s children and Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford in the UK.