• Beth MacLaren Smallwood – making a difference

    For all of our fifty years, Taralye has relied on the support of volunteers, everyday donors and significant philanthropists to carry out our work. As is often the case, government funding supports our core work providing Early Intervention therapy to support children who are deaf to listen, learn and speak to their full potential. However, in order to deliver leading best practice services, we fundraise 35% of our annual costs.

    One key partner over the past five years has been the Beth MacLaren Smallwood Foundation. Their philanthropic investment from Beth’s vision to establish a fund that would support children who are deaf has enabled Taralye to support countless children funding positions that would otherwise be unfunded such as our Librarian and the Library, Kindergarten Inclusion Aids, Speech Pathologists and Enrolment & Assessment staff to ensure families are supported through the NDIS planning process and that children are annually assessed using globally recognised standards.

    Taralye is delighted to celebrate the Beth MacLaren Smallwood Foundation’s magnanimous giving and with permission of the Foundation’s directors, Strathcona and author Cathy Gowdie, we have re-published a wonderful article which sheds some light on Beth, her life and determination to help so many people.

    Beth MacLaren Smallwood – making a difference

    Picture a Melbourne morning in the autumn of 1929 and a two-seater coupe pulling up outside a family home in Surrey Hills. The driver toots, the front door opens and out comes Charles Maclaren, a man of about 40, not long since moved from Launceston.  He’s dressed for the office; beside him is a little girl aged no more than five or six.  His wife. Bessie, waves goodbye from the doorstep as Charles lifts their child into the single tiny ‘dicky seat’ at the back of the car before climbing in next to his colleague. The trio set off for Canterbury, where the men drop their small passenger at a Victorian house with wide verandahs – a new grammar school for girls, established just five years earlier – before continuing on to their day’s work in the city.

    The school, of course, is Strathcona. The little girl would grow into a woman whose extraordinary strength of character, resilience and determination to make a difference would come to change many lives for the better.

    None of this is anything former Strathcona principal Ruth Bunyan could have predicted on the day a rather abrupt woman with an awkward gait and gaberdine coat appeared at Scott Street with an appointment to see ‘the new headmistress’.  It was the early 1990s and as far as  anyone knew, Beth Smallwood – who was by then in her late sixties – had scarcely set foot on Strathcona’s grounds since completing Primary School. One of an early cohort who held reservations about the School’s purchase in the early 1940s by the Baptist Church, Beth had maintained minimal contact with her School and former classmates. At Strathcona, and later, during her secondary schooling at PLC, her forthright nature and lack of tact sometimes left her on the outer with other girls, a pattern that would continue into her adult life.

    Yet something about Mrs Bunyan’s arrival at Strathcona – perhaps that she was the first female principal after many years of men at the helm – piqued Beth’s curiosity. By sheer coincidence, a book Beth picked up in the School foyer while waiting to see Mrs Bunyan contained a picture of a Tasmanian bridge designed by her maternal grandfather, a pioneering engineer. Mrs Bunyan offered to lend her the book, a gesture that sparked an unexpected friendship.  In time, it led to the founding of the Beth Maclaren Smallwood Scholarship at Strathcona – and ultimately, much more.

    Today, if you go looking, you’ll find that for a woman of means Beth Smallwood has a surprisingly small online footprint. As Australian libraries rapidly digitise their newspaper collections, database searches for women of her era and class typically produce anything from engagement notices to black-and- white photographs from parties and receptions. But Beth’s parents, Bessie and Charles Maclaren, were not showy people. Nor was their daughter and so there is little to see.  Beth grew up profoundly conscious of the impact of the Great Depression and remained frugal all her life. The photographs we have of her are not from newspaper accounts of society balls but from a handful now in the Strathcona archive. They show a pale, dark-haired young woman with neat features: in one she wears triple-strand pearls, furs, and a hesitant smile; in another she looks directly at the camera, eyes clear and expression sceptical; then she’s older, casually dressed for golf; or laughing at her wedding to Melbourne businessman Ian Smallwood. There were indeed engagements – to Ian, whom she married in 1968, aged 45 – but also one to a much earlier beau. That young man was gassed in World War II. On his return, badly injured, Beth nursed him until he died. The tragedy shadowed what remained of her youth.

    Ruth Bunyan has Beth’s journals for the post-war period in which she sailed from Melbourne to Britain, a time at which she might otherwise have been at home preparing wedding invitation lists or attending fittings for her bridal gown. A shipboard photograph shows Beth trim and active in a sundress, perhaps playing deck quoits or something similar. She wears sunglasses so we can’t read her expression.  We do know London was exciting:  Beth went to tea at Buckingham Palace and saved the invitation card until her dying day. Her journal entries for that trip, in tidy cursive script, are mostly pragmatic: they record journeys made, places visited and people met. Except for one entry, of just three poignant words: ‘My wedding day’.

    After her young fiancé’s death, Beth spent much of her adult life caring for Charles and Bessie. They had not become parents until their thirties; by the norms of their time they were old. Beth was an only child and her sense of duty was powerful. Respite and delight came from games of bridge and golf (much later, even while in a nursing home, diminished by dementia, she became animated when imagining herself on the course).

    Another life-changing personal blow came when Beth was in her forties: she lost her hearing.  It may have been because of a viral infection, although it is hard to know.  It was not something she was willing to talk about. Even the gentlest inquiries were met with the terse statement: ‘I just went deaf.’  It seems, though, that it was fairly sudden. She retained about 5 per cent hearing in one ear and nothing at all in the other. It would be an extraordinary misfortune for anyone.  For Beth, however, it would help her find purpose.

    Beth became an early recipient of a cochlear implant, leading to a noteworthy meeting with bionic ear pioneer Professor Graeme Clark.  In 1994, she made a significant bequest to the University of Melbourne for the establishment of a foundation chair in audiology and speech science within the medical school’s Department of Otolaryngology. According to the university, it was the first full chair in this discipline in Australia. (The chair is now named for Professor Clark; a stickler for protocol, Beth withdrew future support after taking umbrage at the university’s tardiness in inviting her to a reception for the Queen during a royal visit.)

    Mrs Bunyan remembers being surprised to learn Beth had made such a substantial gift to the university. Since their initial meeting, Beth had become a more frequent visitor to Strathcona, attending alumna lunches in the Hall and helping in the junior school library.  She spoke to students about her own years at Strathcona.  Recalling her  car-rides to School in the ‘dicky seat’ behind her father, after-school tennis and prize presentations with the girls ‘all dressed in white dresses and white stockings’; favourite memories included a beach excursion during which  she  made everyone  laugh when she donned her mother’s old- fashioned neck-to-knee swimming costume after being unable to find  her own bathers. Beth told her young audience that as she grew older, she was sometimes allowed to catch a  bus home from the corner of Bryson Street and Maling Road – but not always because ‘it cost tuppence and my parents thought it was healthy to walk’. The bus was only registered for six passengers but ‘if you hung back you could ride on the step at the back (you still paid)’. The girls loved Beth’s directness and humour; she held strong opinions and enjoyed sharing them.

    Despite these stories – recorded in notes Beth made for her talks to the girls – there had been no hint that she was an exceptionally wealthy woman. If anything, Mrs Bunyan had assumed the opposite; Beth lived so modestly.

    Much later, when Beth celebrated her eightieth birthday with a dinner party at Tay Creggan – it was, she said, the first time she’d ever had a proper birthday cake with candles – she questioned minor catering expenses. Even small extravagances were not her style.

    The university bequest showed Beth in a different and surprising light.

    She began to talk to Mrs Bunyan of funding something that would help girls with hearing impairment attend Strathcona.  It took time to refine the details: Beth was a canny investor (she often said the best advice she’d ever received was from her grandfather, never to sell a BHP share) and her requirements for the taxation status of her contribution were specific. Moreover, she had uncompromising views about how her money could be used: she was adamant that her donation could not go towards hardware, nor to teaching signing, and that the scholarship should be means-tested.

    Finally, in the late 1990s, Strathcona was able to offer a scholarship for girls with hearing impairment. In the years since, numerous girls have been awarded these scholarships. Strathcona,  as a School,  has become increasingly committed to and adept at bringing girls with hearing impairment into our School community. Beth, we hope and believe, would be pleased; she often felt more isolated in her later years, and integration was her passion.

    The Beth Maclaren Smallwood story doesn’t end there.  In the early years of the new century, conscious that she was becoming frail and would eventually require nursing-home care, she began to prepare for the future. Independent and scrupulously fair- minded, she had kept her financial affairs largely separate from those of her husband and adult stepchildren. Her money was hers to disperse as she wished. There was a lot of it, thanks in large part to an inheritance from her Tasmanian engineer grandfather, decades of expert financial management and her own thrifty habits. She had grand plans and she set them out meticulously.

    Beth approached Ruth Bunyan to be an executor of her will. By that time Mrs Bunyan, who had retired as Strathcona’s principal in 2001, knew that Beth’s estate would be sizeable. She felt hesitant but with her fellow executor, former Strathcona treasurer Robert Evans, she agreed to take on the task.  After Beth’s death in 2012, they followed her wishes in establishing the Beth Maclaren Smallwood Foundation.

    Beth’s estate generates a substantial income, enabling the Foundation to provide scholarships and programs for students with hearing impairment at carefully selected schools with departments dedicated to the education of children with hearing impairment across Victoria. Some are independent schools – others are government schools or specialist organisations such as Taralye, which offers family-centred support for children who are deaf. Mrs Bunyan, along with Robert Evans, spends many volunteer hours of her retirement administering the Foundation and ensuring that the funds are dispersed in a way that honours Beth’s determination to make a difference, through education, for the better. It is a happy ending to the story of a woman who confronted adversity with grit, fortitude and ultimately, generosity – a story that began almost 90 years ago at Strathcona.

    Republished by Taralye with permission and sincere gratitude: Author Cathy Gowdie, originally published in the Strathcourier, Winter 2018 edition – Jul 17, 2018.

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