Country boy who became a rear admiral




29-7-1928 - 15-11-2012


WITH Australia in the grip of World War II and himself just on 13, Bill Rourke made a decision that would shape his entire life. He decided to leave his home in Western Australia and join the Royal Australian Navy.

The year was 1942 and Rourke joined a troop train in Perth with his best mate and lifelong friend David Leach to head across the country for cadet college in Western Port. Challenged by soldiers upon boarding the train, he declared he "was troops" and the pair were duly admitted. The soon-to-be Cadet Midshipman Rourke spent that five-day journey sleeping in the luggage rack and listening to soldiers taking pot shots at rabbits along the Nullarbor to supplement rations. It was a journey he would make dozens of times during his cadetship.

Rourke was born in Pemberton, in the timber country of WA's south-west, the eldest of three children. His parents, Bill and Eva Rourke, were school teachers who moved often between small towns as they were transferred. Unsurprisingly, the young family embraced education and it was a value Rourke championed his entire life.

From the karri forests and wheat-belt towns of WA, that young midshipman went on to serve four decades in the RAN and became a rear admiral, a passionate engineer and an activist. An avid reader and lover of the arts, Rourke even tried his hand as a playwright. He embraced sailing, skiing and camping - all the adventures the outdoor life could offer. The Rourke household was often filled with close friends enjoying good wine, food and bonhomie.

After graduating as a midshipman, Rourke was posted to Britain, where he completed an engineering officer's course at Plymouth Royal Naval Engineering College. Returning to Australia, he joined the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney, serving as the flight-deck engineer during the Korean War and was mentioned in dispatches.

In 1953, Rourke joined the HMAS Sydney Coronation Contingent, a front-row witness to the ceremony. He noted in his diary that the next day at Buckingham Palace, after the contingent received their medals and prepared to march off, a four-year old Prince Charles shouted "ready, steady, go" from the balcony.

Rourke first set eyes on Jennifer Uren, a nurse from Hamilton, Victoria, when asked to make up the numbers at a senior officers dinner. They were married a year later on New Year's Eve 1956.

Jenny famously once swung out of a photography plane at the end of the Sydney-to-Hobart to admonish Rourke from the air for being too slow and to get a move on because the parties in Hobart had already started. The fact that he was in a boat the size of the Tom Thumb and had just crossed Bass Strait didn't deter her aerial reproaches.

Rourke returned to Britain in 1961 to take up postgraduate studies in nuclear engineering. Then on to the Admiralty Research Centre in Glasgow, where he worked with nuclear submarines and discovered a way to reduce the effects of a critical incident and the subsequent fission product release. He was granted a British patent for this work, although to his amusement as an Australian, he was never "formally" granted access to the highly classified patent papers.

After this, Rourke became a shipbuilder. He was transferred to Bay City, Michigan, in 1964 to supervise the building of the three guided-missile destroyers - HMAS Perth, Hobart and Brisbane. He was subsequently posted to the HMAS Brisbane as the commissioning engineer.

During the 1960s, Rourke started an economics degree, motivated by his irritation with Navy Office accountants. He noted in his diary that they didn't seem to be ready to listen to "uninformed reasoning of an engineering officer". After seven years of correspondence, Rourke was awarded his degree, although he noted: "I still found that the accountants wouldn't listen to me!" Not one to be thwarted, Rourke went on to take a masters degree in economics.

In 1976, the Chief of Navy offered Rourke the job of general manger of the Garden Island dockyard. When asked how he felt about taking the position with its recent history of industrial disputes, he responded that "it could hardly get worse and so that's a comfort". It was a testament to Rourke's negotiating skills that he brokered peace on a dockyard that was a melting pot of thousands of workers from dozens of different unions, racial backgrounds and skills. Demarcation became a thing of the past and productivity quickly improved.

On his promotion to rear admiral in 1979, Rourke was appointed as the Chief of Naval Materiel. Responsible for acquisitions, particularly ships, he was in his element. He was particularly keen to restore and develop a local naval shipbuilding industry. Working with the Fraser Liberal and Hawke Labor governments to achieve this goal, Rourke oversaw the production of 14 patrol boats built in Cairns, mine hunters built in Newcastle and the two last frigates, HMAS Melbourne and Newcastle. He was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia for this work and his stewardship of Garden Island.

Despite his love for the RAN, after 44 years' service he felt it was time to move on. He "retired" in 1985 to become chief executive of the Institution of Engineers, Australia. For seven years, he headed the institution, taking an active role in advising the government of the day. Rourke envisioned a better world for all, and dreamt that engineering and technology could deliver it. He was a proponent of sustainable development and in his own way became a greenie.

He became director of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations and pursued the belief that engineers had an obligation to train people so they could make a difference on their home turf; that engineering could improve living standards for the poor, and improve maternal and child health. Among his many projects was the establishment of a virtual library and the development of tsunami early-warning systems. He and Jenny made lifelong friends as they travelled the globe pursuing this mission.

Rourke spent the last few years of his life caring for Jenny through cancer and dementia. She died in 2011. Despite his own cancer after Jenny's death, he was forever gracious and gentlemanly.

He is survived by his sons Michael and Andrew, and grandchildren Georgia and Harrison.

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