It was a little like that last week when more than 300 people pressed into the Wonthaggi town hall to celebrate the life of Dr Peter Brooks. There was the same sense of deference, the same need to mark a significant event. Hundreds of people: family, friends, former patients, people from all over. There to celebrate the life of a good man and to reflect on its significance.
Peter Brooks was at home in his adopted Wonthaggi. The son of a miner, he’d grown up in a Welsh mining town. He knew about work and its value.
Like so many Wonthaggi people, he was a migrant. Arriving here in 1967 to start a new life with his Australian wife, Alison, they had to build the social connections on which a good life depends. Peter’s eulogies tell of the dinners and barbecues and good wine shared with friends, the organisations he joined and often led. Practices that made it possible, not just to survive but to put down roots.
His sons grew up feeling that the Wonthaggi Medical Group, including doctors, receptionists and nursing staff, were like members of an extended family. More than 30 years of medical care made their father a “walking genealogical reference” for the town’s families.
The son of an accomplished tenor and choir master, Peter was a choir boy at six and steeped in choral and classical music. At the same time, he wasn’t precious about his own public image. He’d never conducted but when asked to be musical director in the early years of the Wonthaggi Theatrical Group, his response was generous. “My view was that you had to be prepared to be a bit silly, to be prepared to cop egg on your face. You can’t be perfect but you can try to achieve the best you can.”
He could equally well forgive the untrained cast their missed notes. “Because you’d practised so often with less than satisfying results, you felt such relief and pleasure when it came off so well.” He cited the last note held by the cast in The Sorcerer. “I was really chuffed. Everyone had to sustain the note and stop as one man. And they did. It was quite exhilarating!”
His loyalties crossed social and cultural boundaries. He had an “extraordinary and enduring commitment” to the philanthropic Bass Coast Community Foundation of which he was the founder, attending its last board meeting a few days before he died. Valuing what the past can teach us about ourselves, he was a long-time member, and often president, of the Wonthaggi Historical Society. He was a member of the Bass Coast Chorale whose singing of “Lead Kindly Light” during his service was eloquent beyond words. He was a non-believer who, with his family, faithfully attended St George’s Anglican Church on Sundays.
Mark Brooks admits his father was a man of robust prejudices – against the Australian syntax, for instance, or Americans – although “they never applied to anyone he knew. And mostly it was tongue-in-cheek”.
The Chorale’s tribute was rich in meaning. The American conductor of the Bass Coast Chorale was also the composer of A Miners Requiem. In this moving tribute to Wonthaggi miners, “Lead Kindly Light” was sung as the prayer of the thirteen dead, those who couldn’t be saved. The multiple ironies would not have been lost on Peter.
Peter Brooks understood the value of work, friendship and aspiration. This mischievous man in his trademark bow tie valued quality. He believed in ritual and allegiance. He did things on his own terms.
Devoted to Alison and his family, his energies radiated out in ever-widening circles of loyalty, identifying people and places, events and times. Naming things that matter.
This was his gift to Wonthaggi. This is why we were there.