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Coombs, Herbert Cole (Nugget) (1906–1997)

by Henry Nix

Following his term as the Chancellor of ANU, Dr Herbert Cole Coombs concluded that a Visiting Fellowship could provide the necessary home base and stimulating intellectual environment for the next phase of his life's work. After discussions with Professor Frank Fenner, the founding Director of the newly established Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies (CRES), Dr Coombs was formally appointed a Visiting Fellow there in May, 1976.

Nugget, as he was universally and affectionately known, became a vital and valued member of the CRES community, from the time it moved into its quarters in the new Life Sciences Library (now Hancock) Building in late 1976 until late 1995 when a stroke prevented his return to Canberra for the summer.

The Institute of Advanced Studies in ANU, to which CRES belongs, has well established policies on the appointment of retired persons as Visiting Fellows. Only in exceptional circumstances, where the appointee is engaged in academic work of particular note, may the period of appointment be extended from an initial two years, to a further two years and then a final fifth year. Then, if the Research School or Centre is satisfied that there would be continuing academic benefit of a high order in continuing the appointment for a further year, it must seek the approval of the Vice Chancellor for the extension. This was the basis for the continuing extension of Nugget's Visiting Fellowship from 1976 through to 1996.

Let me emphasise that this was never a sinecure or a reward for his previous distinguished contributions to Australian society. The long continued sequence of annual reappointments was always based on his current intellectual, cultural and social contributions to CRES and ANU.

Nugget maintained a high level of productivity right up until his disabling stroke in late 1995. Even then, plans were in place for his return to CRES after recovery. Regrettably this was not to be. Hopes were high that he would be well enough to travel from Sydney to Canberra for a combined 90th birthday celebration and presentation, by the Vice-Chancellor, of his Distinguished 50th Anniversary Fellowship Award, on the 12th March, 1996. Unfortunately these hopes were dashed when his condition failed to improve.

This is not the place to detail Nugget's academic contributions, but the flow of books, essays, keynote addresses and key reports to government continued unabated right up to the last few months of 1995. Perhaps even more important were his contributions through undocumented, behind-the-scenes advice to key figures in Australian public life, from Prime Ministers, Cabinet Ministers, captains of industry, bankers and media-barons through to leaders of his cherished cultural, indigenous people and conservation associations.

Despite his well-earned image as a controlled, low-key, sagacious servant of the people, Nugget was passionate in his concern for natural justice and the welfare of the individual. This extended beyond the aboriginal causes for which he is best known. His anger at the social impacts of ill-informed and misguided political decisions rarely, if ever, descended to personal vilification. He never spoke ill of individuals whatever the provocation. This high level of emotional self-control could be, and was, breached on occasion: a great catch in a cricket test match or the first swirl of a sensuous Margaret River red on the palate, for instance.

Nugget genuinely loved people and mixed with ease among all levels of Australian society. He travelled light — and often. During his years in CRES his advocacy of aboriginal rights took him to the remotest parts of northern and inland Australia. These travels took him often to Darwin where he availed himself of the accommodation and excellent support facilities at the Northern Australian Research Unit (NARU) — an outpost of the Research School of Asian and Pacific Studies at ANU. Towards the end of the 1980s, Nugget began to find the Canberra winters more difficult to cope with because of a bronchial condition. I urged him to organise his work year so that he could spend the winter half-year in Darwin. In 1991 the arrangement was formalised so that his Visiting Fellowship was held jointly with CRES and NARU in the RSPAS. Nugget travelled north for the winter and returned south for the summer. This ideal arrangement favoured Nugget's health and well-being and proved to be highly productive.

The most enduring memory of Nugget is his humanity. His concern for the underdog and the disadvantaged never wavered. He remained unassuming and kept a low profile whatever the occasion. CRES staff and students profited greatly from his wit and wisdom at morning and afternoon tea in the CREStaurant on the fifth floor of the Hancock building. He played squash into his early 80s and starred in CRES cricket matches well beyond that.

He loved good food and wine and was a very fine cook. On one occasion, while dining with friends in his flat in Moore Street he had tabled one of his favourite Margaret River reds. The superb meal which Nugget had prepared and cooked, fine conversation and the outstanding Gnangara Shiraz led to the inevitable query from Nugget as to whether he should open another bottle.

The ladies demurred, but Nugget, with a flourish, uncorked another Gnangara and quoth "moderation in all things"- and with a pause and a twinkle in his eye — "especially moderation".

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Citation details

Henry Nix, 'Coombs, Herbert Cole (Nugget) (1906–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/coombs-herbert-cole-nugget-246/text247, accessed 17 September 2014.

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