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In Memory of Dr Ron Fitch FCILT (Life)

Published: 10/08/2015


Dr Ron Fitch  OBE, PhD, ME, FIEAust., CPEng., FCILT (Life)
8.6.1910 – 20.7.2015        
Aged 105 years

Ron Fitch was born nine years after the Federation of Australia, at a time when the only means of transport between Western Australia and the east coast was by sea.   Although West Australian, he was by a strange circumstance born in Victoria.  He recalled waving a Union Jack flag at age seven upon the opening of the East-West railway. His father, four uncles, three cousins and a brother-in-law all worked for major government railways in Australia.  

He was raised in Western Australia.  He was a champion athlete, gymnast and Australian Rules footballer as a teenager, and also won a Coombe Scholarship to Hale School, Perth.   In 1927, he was admitted to the University of Western Australia (after University Council permission to enrol under the minimum age) to study under a West Australian Government Railways engineering cadetship.  He became President of the Engineers’ Club, and graduated B.Eng. in 1932.  During this time, he played for Subiaco League Football Club.

He graduated during the Great Depression, and found himself living under canvas and working in remote areas in charge of large railway construction projects.  Many of those projects are in productive use to this day. He later described this as one of his most satisfying life experiences because of the spirit of the working men.  While travelling, he was surprised to find a beautiful and accomplished young woman in the small town of Williams.  After a courtship partly by remote correspondence, he married Doreen, who became his dearly-loved wife for over sixty years.  She was later to be described by one of his colleagues as a “dedicated railwayman’.

He spent time working in Kalgoorlie as an Assistant Engineer and for thirteen years thereafter in regional West Australia.  During World War Two his attempts to enlist in the AIF were unsuccessful because he was required to act as a railway district engineer in Kalgoorlie to maintain the logistic links between east and west coasts.  He  returned to Perth as engineer in charge of design work for Western Australian rail gauge standardisation.  In 1949, he gained his degree of Master of Engineering from the University of Western Australia.

That year, he relocated to Port Augusta in South Australia as Chief Civil Engineer in the Commonwealth Railways, with responsibilities in the Trans-Australian Railway, the Central Australian Railway and the Northern Australian Railway.   He was a member of the Royal Commission into the proposed standard gauge rail line from Port Augusta to Leigh Creek in 1951 and 1952.  

He resigned in 1954 to join the South Australian Railways, rising to the position of Deputy Commissioner and later Railways Commissioner from 1966 to 1973. At that time, the South Australian Railways was the state’s largest employer and included the state’s prestigious Islington engineering workshops.  During his tenure, the standard gauge project from Port Pirie to Broken Hill was completed.  One of his major interests was in rail standardisation to facilitate transport across Australia.  Federal Government backing for this was achieved, but a federal election and change of government prevented its implementation.  The opportunity was lost.

After ill-informed political decisions with which he disagreed, he retired in 1973. He then travelled widely, and also used his work experiences to write two books while nursing his wife at home until her death.   The third book  “Australian Railwayman” was written at the age of ninety-three, after her death.  These books were well received by rail enthusiasts and historians, and included stories of floods, washaways, and derailments.  His descriptions of railway construction using manual labour and large numbers of Clydesdale horses for excavation works detail heroic pioneering rail construction methods.  These experiences fostered his respect for the fellowship of railway workers and for their life and work under harsh conditions.  He described himself as a railwayman first and an engineer second.

At the age of ninety-two, he received a PhD from the University of New South Wales, qualifying him at that time for entry into the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest person to so graduate.  He was a life member of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the South Australian Division of Engineers Australia, was honoured by the National Railway Museum in having a main display pavilion named after him, and was Life Patron of the S.A. Retired Railway Employees Association.  Prior to his death, he was the oldest member of Engineers Australia with continuous membership for over eighty-two years.  He was also the oldest living West Australian league ex-footballer and ex-district cricketer.

He is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
He was widely loved, admired and respected both for his professional achievements and for his personal qualities.  His was a life well-lived.


R Fitch

 

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