BRUCE CARLYLE RUXTON AM, OBE
PROBABLY no one in recent Victorian history with the possible exception of Jeff Kennett so polarised opinion as Bruce Ruxton, who has died in a Queensland nursing home, aged 85.
Ruxton single-mindedly led the Victorian branch of the Returned & Services League for 23 years, and had an opinion usually reactionary on just about any topic. He was also deeply admired within the veteran community and beyond.
The public Ruxton could be loud, bombastic and "colourful" the other side, not often seen in political or media skirmishes, was compassionate and complex.
Ruxton's leadership of the RSL spanned an era that began with Anzac Day reviled by some as an excuse for gatherings of old soldiers to drink themselves into oblivion, and ended with unprecedented interest from young Australians in the nation's military history.
His friend Peter Isaacson, a decorated war hero and former newspaper publisher, wrote: "Bruce Ruxton is primarily a kind man, humane and tolerant. But in his endeavours to be all things to all men and all women, he sometimes lapses into intolerances that were manifest in Australia during his formative years."
Personable enough in close encounters, Ruxton played the media like a rasping fiddle, ever the curmudgeon, quick with a quotable one-liner but always with the best interests of his RSL members in mind.
Many within and outside the RSL found his views objectionable. But there were also plenty of old soldiers, widows and families who knew and respected Ruxton as a considerate and tireless campaigner for their welfare.
One story he liked to tell was of the veteran who rang him at 2.45am. When Ruxton asked if he knew what time it was, the veteran replied: "Oh, it's 2.45, but it's all right. I've got a rug around me and I've got the radiator on."
Ruxton grew up in Kew. The family enjoyed relative prosperity, at least until the Depression. His father, a bootmaker by trade, had interests in shops, which were lost when the economy soured. Young Ruxton attended state schools in Kew before being accepted at Melbourne High School as a 13-year-old in 1939.
His first form master was Bill Woodfull, captain and opening batsman in the legendary 1932-33 Bodyline Test cricket series. A contemporary was Keith Miller, later a World War II Spitfire pilot and then champion Test cricketer and footballer. Ruxton played inter-house cricket, but excelled at swimming and debating.
After a shaky start at Melbourne High he was remembered as the rambunctious class clown he performed solidly, contributed to school publications, was on the student representative council and was an active Boy Scout. He drilled with the reserves in Kew, and soon after his 18th birthday, in February 1944, he joined the army.
There is some dispute about Ruxton's military service. One story had it that he entered the army as a 16-year-old another held that his entire service was as a cook. As detailed by his biographer, Private Ruxton VX94379 was assigned as a reinforcement to the 2/25th Battalion. He trained in Queensland, and was then attached to the 2nd Australian Field Survey Company.
In April 1945, Ruxton was sent ahead of the rest of the 2/25th to the island of Morotai in the Dutch East Indies, where he found spiders "as big as pineapples". From Morotai, he went to Balikpapan, an oil port in Borneo. There he saw action as a rifleman for almost two months before the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945. He also came face to face with evidence of Japanese atrocities committed during the the war, including the killing of civilians and infants. These scenes would haunt him.
Ruxton volunteered to serve in Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, and he was assigned to guard duty. It was in Japan that he trained and worked for a time as a cook. He was promoted to lance-corporal, but a minor indiscretion saw his rank reduced again to private.
In total, Ruxton served in the army for just under five years and was discharged in January 1949. On his return, he worked with the Bureau of Meteorology and served briefly as a relieving lighthouse keeper at Wilson's Promontory in 1950. He then spent 18 months in Europe with his girlfriend, Ruth Proud. They married in Fremantle in June 1952, and settled in Melbourne.
Ruxton, who became a partner in his father's stationery business, General Stationers, in South Melbourne, had joined the RSL while still serving in 1948. By 1962, he had secured a place on the state council. By 1968 he was state vice-president and was senior vice-president in 1974.
He came to national prominence during the first of many campaigns to buy back Victoria Cross medals won by Australians that were being sold at auctions overseas.
In July 1979, Ruxton was elected to the honorary position of Victorian RSL president. He approached the task as a full-time job, to the detriment of his own business, which within six years had gone into receivership.
Ruxton pursued governments, departments and agencies tirelessly on behalf of ex-service personnel. He helped in some ways to bridge the gap between World War II veterans and those who fought in Vietnam, although his efforts were not always obvious. There were some bitter political fights within the RSL during his tenure, especially over the integration of the Heidelberg repatriation hospital into the state health system in the early 1990s.
Ruxton was politically well connected. An old friend was Don Chipp, once a Liberal minister and founding leader of the Australian Democrats. Ruxton had joined the Liberal Party in the 1950s, but he also collected unexpected friends, such as feminist Germaine Greer. He helped find proper care and accommodation for her
ex-serviceman father in his declining years.
Ruxton's forays into politics beyond veterans' affairs matters were marked by extremes. In the 1980s, he became the voice of bigoted Australia on the issue of Asian immigration. He was a staunch anti-communist. Other issues such as land rights and republicanism would later occupy his thoughts. His views on homosexuality in the armed forces led to the famous quote: "I don't remember one single poofter in World War II."
A persistent stirrer he once took on Dick Smith for adding Anzac biscuits to his Aussie tucker range his final significant public fray was during the republican debates of the late 1990s. As a monarchist, Ruxton was a natural stalwart of the "no" cause.
It was almost inevitable that he should fall out with the author of his authorised biography, Dr Anne Blair, whom he selected after he reviewed her earlier biography of counter-insurgency expert, Brigadier Ted Serong.
Blair had been given exclusive access to Ruxton's papers for five years and conducted extensive interviews in preparing the book, which was titled simply Ruxton.
Following publication, Ruxton thundered: "I found the woman objectionable." He said she had spoken to "just about everyone who didn't like me". This was despite the fact that the two communicated extensively over the manuscript, with Ruxton making corrections before publication.
The harshest suggestions in the book are that Ruxton contributed, through his absences, to his first wife's various disabilities and through his public opinions to an assault she sustained at their home just weeks before her death.
Awarded an MBE in 1974 for services to the retired services community, Ruxton was elevated to the OBE in 1981. He was awarded an AM in 1997.
In 2000, Ruxton contracted viral pneumonia during a visit to Boer War sites in South Africa. The illness, which he dubbed "Tutu's blessing" (an infra dig reference to South African archbishop Desmond Tutu), was to trigger his retirement as RSL state president and affect his health thereafter. He also struggled with diabetes and prostate cancer.
His first wife, Ruth, died in December 1988. He married Jill McMahon, widow of a former soldier and farmer, in 1996.
Ruxton retired from the league presidency in 2002, and the couple moved to Tewantin, near Noosa, in Queensland, the following year and he largely retreated from public life.
Ruxton is survived by his wife Jill and a son, Ian, from his first marriage.