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A life's rich legacy will live on in Melbourne

7 Dec 2012 THE AGE



Dame Elisabeth blazed an inspiring, philanthropic path.

DAME Elisabeth Murdoch once mused that she did not expect a life after death, saying: "I think we leave something but nothing happens to us personally." She was certainly right on the first point. The matriarch of the Murdoch dynasty, who has died at her home on the Mornington Peninsular, aged 103, has left our community a legacy so generous and extensive that it is fair to say we might never see the likes of her again.

A person of rare and constant good humour, of grace, humility and spirited opinions, Dame Elisabeth gave Australia, and Victoria especially, a series of bequests that over many decades were more than financial in nature. She invested herself - her energy, her passion and her convictions - in a vast range of causes, and that is what made her one of the most remarkable philanthropists and community leaders this country has seen. In health and scientific research, the performing arts, literature, social welfare, the environment and more, generations to come will benefit from Dame Elisabeth's determination to make this world better.

She was an intrinsic part of Melbourne, of this community, and this city wears her like a brooch. Her name is on the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and Melbourne's Recital Hall, and in 2004 Langwarrin's secondary college was renamed in her honour. She was on the management committee of the Royal Children's Hospital for 32 years from 1933 and served as committee president for 11 years from 1954. She was a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria from 1968 until 1976, an instigator and for 20 years a board member of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, and a patron of the RSPCA.

So many Victorians, too, have revelled in the quiet delight of strolling through her expansive and carefully cultivated gardens at Cruden Farm, which she regularly opened for charity events. Once again on December 24, as it has done for years, Cruden Farm will open its gates for traditional Christmas carols.

The catalogue of Dame Elisabeth's public deeds is lengthy, but she also donated privately and confidentially to thousands of people, fostering scientific research projects or artistic endeavours that might otherwise not gain attention. She enhanced the donation by encouragement through personal and hand-written letters.

She did so because she cared. It was the mantra for her life, and one that she urged on her four children: Rupert, the billionaire chairman, chief executive and founder of the News Corporation publishing empire; Anne Kantor; Janet Calvert-Jones; and Helen Handbury (who died in 2004). Dame Elisabeth was born into privilege, and she married the influential and wealthy Melbourne newspaper publisher and journalist Keith Arthur Murdoch, who was 24 years her senior. Yet she eschewed materialism and ostentatious living, preferring a modest, comfortable life. She told her children to "think of other people before themselves".

"Caring is more difficult in this age," she said in 2009. "A lot of people are more inclined to be selfish." Again, she was right. On average, Australians donate just 0.4 per cent of their income to charitable causes, and of the estimated 13 million personal income tax returns filed each year only about one-third claim deductions for charitable donations. That is not to say Australians do not give their time - many people volunteer in the community rather than write cheques - but the US giving rate (at 4.7 per cent) is more than 10 times the rate here.

Would we to mirror even so much as the spirit and open-heartedness of giving that Dame Elisabeth demonstrated, this community would be so much better. Her quiet dignity and contribution will be missed by Australians from all walks of life. She once said: "I am just so grateful for the opportunities I have had to be a useful person." So are we. Vale, a great lady.