Lang – Donald Wilson 1933-2019

2013 at Langs Beach

Born 3/3/1933. Died 14/5/2019 (video of funeral service is here)

Born at Langs beach 3-3-33, which number he loved.  The family had a farm there right on the beach which ran sheep and cattle, with a house cow.  

He was the youngest of six children, Margaret (who died in infancy), Hector, Anne, Mary, Ian and Donald.  So they roamed all over the farm, barefooted, even on the rocks at the beach.  Aged 5 he followed his siblings to the nearby Waipu cove school, a small country one where the Lang children were a significant fraction of the enrolment.  That school was amalgamated into one at Waipu. His sister complained he was always reading, and he loved numbers and maths

At the end of primary school he won a scholarship to Kings College Auckland for secondary education.  

Kings fostered his maths science bent, and he did very well in the scholarship exams and came dux of the school.  University came next, where he achieved an honours degree in mathematics, followed by one in Physics.

From there he went to the ANU in Canberra, and graduated with a  PhD in theoretical physics. He spent a year back in Auckland lecturing to First year students, followed by  a post graduate position at the Bartol research institute in Swarthmore Pennsylvania. He moved on to Argonne National Lab in Chicago, still in theoretical physics.

Next came meeting up with Jean, an interim year teaching first year physics in Kansas, followed by a wedding in Lafayette Indiana and a move to Harwell Research Establishment in England.  They did not renew the one year appointment, so he found a teaching job in Kansas at their other university and their family of three went back to the USA. After a happy 2 years there, they moved back to Swarthmore, where he taught first year physics at Penn State university and added the second child.  

Next step was a position at the Lucas heights Research Establishment in Sydney.  They were both very happy to be so much closer to home. Don and Jean bought their first house, and added the third child. Jan and Bruce McAdam were also in Sydney for a touch of home.

He became involved with the Sutherland Light opera company, and Kirinari, and the P @ C because children were in school by now.  As he always did, he threw himself into them all.

One more house move to gain more space saw Don and Jean living in Kirrawee for 36 years, followed by a move up to St Leonards to be closer to Jennifer and a bonus of being closer to their McAdam friends. They enjoyed the view, the different lifestyle, and the closeness to grandchildren. The distance was too great to keep up with his various societies, and gradually it became internet access.  He was very happy watching the rains, planes, building activities and reading the paper.

Jennifer Lang’s eulogy

Dad was someone who connected with many people, in so many different ways. That’s something we’ve always known but we’ve realised even more strongly as so many people have reached out to us to share memories of him, and are here today.

He was the glue of many of our community organisations and was passionate about education. He volunteered as  a maths tutor at the aboriginal hostel at Kirinari for country kids to come to the city to go to high school. He used to say that his experience of having a great education at a city boarding school, while kids who were much smarter than him were left behind in the country, made him realise what a difference education can make to someone’s life. And so he quietly, humbly, tried to make that difference for other children. For many years, until recently in fact, he was a part of the P&C of Kirrawee High school, even though I only went there for three years. He was their mascot, was thrilled to have a life membership, and was the parent contributor to the review of the maths syllabus in NSW.

While he was brought up as a Presbyterian, he was a bit of a religious sceptic most of his life. But he did love to talk to people about religion! Unlike many of us who shy away from a controversial conversation, he loved to connect with anyone who tried to convert him. I still remember one hour-long discussion he had with a Jehovah’s witness on the doorstep, quoting bible passages back and forth, as the Jehovah’s witness tried but failed to convert him (and completely failed to counter his arguments).

In his later years it was wonderful to see him share his interests with my children, his grandchildren. He and Callum spent a lot of time talking about physics, maths, and nuclear reactors.  And with Declan he shared his love of history; and particularly military history. Dad seemed to know everything there was to know about both World Wars and he and Declan particularly loved to talk about World War I.

For many years he and mum have come to dinner with us every Friday night and he has shared his connections with New Zealand, with our family history and the stories of Langs Beach and Waipu and the fascinating pioneering people who were our ancestors. He was our connection with the past, with the continuity of history, and the memories that we all treasured.

We had two lovely parties for him in recent years – an 80th birthday party here in Sydney, and an 85th birthday party at Auckland University. So many people picked up conversations with him as if he had seen them yesterday – from his oldest friend who had started school with him when they were aged 5, his friends from university and caving days who picked up where they had left off. And of course, all of the New Zealand clan. Dad was a part of so many people’s lives.

Above all Dad was interested in people. Wherever he went and whatever group he was in, he loved to talk to people and keep in touch with them. He started with his letters to his family – from the age of 12, when he went to Boarding school, he wrote a letter every week to his mother. Later on, he would copy those letters to his siblings and other parts of the family. And his annual Christmas letter and poem was something to look forward to every year. He has connected many of us together, and we are the richer for it.

He was a force, which pulled and bound so many people together. To honour his memory – don’t let his absence allow us to drift apart.

He remembered all of us, and so many others, and it now falls to us to remember him and keep him in our hearts.

Bob Lang’s Eulogy

Dad was born a mathematician and a scientist. I don’t know if that is where he would have ended up anyway, but being born on the 3rd of the 3rd 33 cemented a love and fascination with numbers and patterns that did last a lifetime. I haven’t found any other interesting relationships, but at a minimum the day and month he died adds up to the year. Sadly only the month was prime… so not that interesting a set of numbers otherwise – something that no doubt would have disappointed him

Maths and science took him round the world. But while he did travel he remained firmly connected to where he had come from. His life journey ended up with him married to an Englishwoman from New Zealand who he met and married in the US – his children were all born in different countries (UK, US and Australia), but when you look at the details home was always NZ. He was introduced to Mum by a pair of fellow NZ scientists in the US. He ensured his children all had NZ citizenship and he settled in Australia only because it was more or less the closest place to NZ that he could work as a nuclear physicist. We, his kids, tried to push him to take up Australian citizenship (he did vote here, so we figured it was only fair) but he wouldn’t have a bar of it and was solidly triumphant when he discovered he couldn’t apply for it anymore because he was over 75.

Indeed, he would dearly have loved to have retired to NZ, but the lure of grandchildren kept him here. That certainly didn’t stop him visiting though and one of the last times I was with him in person was on his last visit to Lang’s beach where he grew up last December. In death he will return as well because we will scatter his ashes at the beach and cemetery where most of the rest of his family is buried.

I was at a wedding a few years ago where the priest in his sermon talked about 3 places that were key to a successful marriage, the front doorstep of the house, the dinner table and the bed. I am not going to talk about the bed you will be relieved to hear and Jennifer has already covered the Jehovahs witnesses on the front doorstep but I will talk about the dinner table. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of the dinner table, because it was almost always a site of lively debate about politics, language, science, religion, morality and history. It was also a spot for word games, or thought puzzles or offers to buy his Melbourne Cup sweep ticket after the race (amazingly, including when he had won). I guess many families have a similar experience but Dad’s knowledge and wisdom formed my character and I know I will miss that next week, next year, next decade,…

But the good thing about missing his advice and his wisdom in the years to come as well as missing that, at random moments I am likely to finally get a joke of his from a week ago, a month ago, a decade ago… He was in fine form til the end. In fact the last time I spoke to him he cracked an obscure time reference, which took me a little bit to get, but when I did I told him it most likely meant he was ready to go home. He didn’t really answer and I suppose I should have realized then that he felt that time was nearly up.

That last call was me in my pyjamas on a Sunday morning in Madrid chatting with Mum and Dad along with my wife and my daughters. Dad had a lot of fun when he was visiting us in person (or vice versa) reading and singing with both Julia and Eva.

The Sound of Music is probably a terrible finale, but I think Dad did enjoy Julia singing “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen goodbye… “ as we finished that call. She meant it innocently in the moment, but it did give me pause and it turned out to be the last time they saw him. The last thing I said on that call was to say I love you, to both Mum and Dad, and I do. I didn’t say I would miss him when he was gone, but I will… I already do.

I’d like to finish this up with some of his words that he stuck in his funeral instructions – that he wrote some 30 years ago. Typical of him it is a ringing declaration of love, that he prefaces by baldly stating that it is not – he never liked to be direct. The instructions and the words are specifically directed at mum, but applies to all of you as well:

And now I imagine myself reading over my own shoulder. What next? Is it time for a ringing declaration of undying love? It is not my style. I have loved you. I have loved life. I have loved the surrounding throng. The occasion of this note is that I am bound some day to be leaving you, this world, all my special friends, all my relations and acquaintances. It seems a bit premature right now to put a cover all farewell into words. Today I love you specially. I think I will just promise to love you one day at a time until you get this to read. I hope somewhere in the interim to find and to say the right words on all occasions.

And he did. I hope he felt we did too.

Andrew Lang’s Eulogy

My father was a civilised man. By that I don’t mean that he was non-violent, or well-educated, although he was definitely both of those things. I mean that he believed in civilisation and he was prepared to work to make sure everyone got to enjoy it. I grew up with him going out in the evenings to teach mathematics to disadvantaged people. He spent hours reading physics textbooks for the blind. Not content with the sound quality of the microphone setup for his listener, he improved it by rigging up some soundproofing with old padding. I was regularly given messages to be delivered to people in the Parents & Citizens group via their kids or their offices … and most of the time I remembered to hand those letters over. He did a lot of work on the maths syllabus committee; not because it gave him glory or riches but because it was necessary, it needed to be done well and he was able to contribute.

Dad had a gentle sense of humor and loved a good pun. In his university days, a fictitious character called Clem Cadiddlepopper would sometimes sit for undergraduate exams that Dad was supervising. Dad would fill in the right answers but with spurious or non-existent reasoning designed to tweak the sensibilities of the markers.

When I was in year 5, my class was given a poster project to do. Dad took an interest in it and an extra submission from Clem Cadiddlepopper duly appeared on the teacher’s desk on a nonsense topic featuring a great many puns. The teacher was a bit nonplussed but I thought it was hilarious.

When Dad was young he and his brothers were often mistaken for each other, even by relatives close enough to make the family feel they really should have known better. He loved to tell the story of being greeted with, “Now, you’re Ian, aren’t you Donald?” At university, Ian and Don took to answering that they were brothers, each claiming the other was six months younger. By the time of their sister Anne’s wedding, the family had invented a fourth brother, Andrew Wallace Lang, with initials that stood for Absent Without Leave. This supposed brother Andrew had a rather vague postal address that might have been in Australia and he regularly sent wedding telegrams from places where none of them lived. He was never around to speak to but could well have been the person you saw yesterday. When I was born, Dad had an obvious opening to have a real A.W.L. in the family. So my first name is Andrew, my middle name is William after my grandfather and my initials keep alive a splendid piece of harmless mischief.

Dad was always very calm and measured in his actions. When I was learning to reverse park I misjudged the position of the car and tried to occupy the same spot as a van, resulting in a minor but expensive ding. I went home despondent. If Dad was angry or upset he didn’t show it. Instead he grabbed some boxes and bits of wood and took me up to a spot within sight of the van. The boxes and wood became a fake car to park behind and he had me practice until I had it right.

As children we regularly spent the summer holidays in New Zealand, visiting friends and relatives scattered all over the North Island. A highlight would be spending a few weeks at Lang’s Beach, visiting more of Dad’s extended family. Dad shared with us the landscape of his childhood – fishing off the same point; swimming in the same surf; trying to dam the same ever-changing lagoon; walking the same hills and coastline. I think we have all inherited a connection to Lang’s Beach far greater than can be explained by the mere time we actually spent there.

Dad was a man who wanted his kids to really understand things. When I was studying physics in High School, Dad was much less immediately valuable as a source of help than I had hoped. This was because I wanted him to tell me the answers and he wanted me to understand the physics. Today is a day to remember that he knew what he was doing.

Like a lot of people I went through a phase in my teenage years when I didn’t want anyone to know I had parents. But I can remember going to a public meeting with him a little while after I’d finished high school. The ‘then’ education minister was defending big changes he wanted to make to the high school system and Dad had strong opinions on some of those changes. Near the door we met one of his P&C colleagues, who looked at me and said to Dad, “This must be your son.”  It was such a simple comment but it made me realise that being recognized as his son made me very happy because I was proud of him.

I’m still proud of him. I miss him, and the world would be a better place if people thought more like him.

Jan McAdam’s Eulogy

In this gathering my husband Bruce and I are probably those who knew Don the longest – for over 66 years.  We both met him at University, and we have enjoyed an enduring friendship

My first encounter with Don was in  March 1953 at an informal dance – part of the welcome for new students at Auckland University College.

As a third-year student, Don was presumably checking out the talent.

We spent much of that evening in animated conversation and when we parted he said he would see me on Monday. It was only then that he revealed that he was my Maths tutor … This was clearly a relationship that could only improve. 

Coming from the country, Don lived at the University hostel, O’Rorke Hall. He was soon immersed in University life. He was on the student council at O’Rorke, an executive of the Students’ Association, and even a member of the Student Christian Movement.  

(At one Evangelical rally he appeared dressed as a Devil’s advocate.)

He also belong to the SII, the short-lived “Society of Independent Intellectuals” founded by one of our Physics Department colleagues.

As a proud Scot, he occasionally wore his kilt and he called in one day to show it off to my parents.  Another friend was there and I recall with some delight Don being cornered by her in our living room, trying to avoid the investigation of what a Scotsman wore under the kilt.

After completing a master’s degree in Maths, Don decided to do one in Physics. We had adjacent rooms in the Department and often ate a gourmet lunch together – Sao crackers and the newly developed New Zealand blue vein cheese.

We shared many confidences during those Honours years – no names, no pack drill – and occasionally provided waterproof shoulders for each other.

After Don left Auckland for Canberra we met intermittently – briefly in Sydney when I was on my way to England, and later when I had married and was settled here.  We corresponded for years – it was a relief when he invested in a typewriter and we didn’t have to struggle with his “inimitable” hand-writing. 

In 1970 when he and his growing family had relocated to the USA from England we finally met Jean in person – although of course we were already aware of her.

After the Lang’s arrival in Australia in 1971 our shared family lives became much closer.

Don and I are Godparents to each other’s third child and I like to think that the influences have been mutually beneficial. Family trips between Kirrawee and Roseville would take place over a weekend, with seven children bedded down while the adults ate, drank, laughed and talked until far too late. 

A visit to Alice Springs and Uluru by the four of us in 2015, when Don was still active, remains a wonderful memory.

Don was always thoughtful and kind. He did a lot of behind-the-scenes work that few people would know about.  In particular, in the early ‘90’s, he used to make a point of visiting us to see my Mother on his way to Macquarie University.  Being very deaf she said after one of these calls “I can’t hear a word he says but it’s so nice of him to bother …” and indeed it was.

It is hard to say goodbye to Don. We will miss his humanity as well as his sense of humour, his acute intelligence, his ready smile and, of course, his genuine friendship.

4 comments on Lang – Donald Wilson 1933-2019

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *