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Dexter, David St Alban (1917–1992)

by J. A. C. Mackie and Ian Ross

David St Alban Dexter David Dexter, for 11 formative years (1968-78) the University's Registrar (Property and Plans), died on 15 March, aged 75.

Just a few months before he had seen the publication of his book, The ANU Campus, which brings together in accessible form the convoluted history, from the earliest days, of the site on which the University stands and which it holds in trust for generations to come.

David Dexter was born in the English cathedral city for which he was named, but came to Australia as an infant. He was brought up near Geelong, where his father was the vicar of a rural parish and also of Geelong Grammar where the young Dexter was educated. He took a history degree at Melbourne, and was teaching at Grimwade House in the early years of the war when he enlisted for army service.

His military career was remarkable. He was one of the handful of officers of the 2/2nd Independent Company on Timor, which defied the Japanese throughout 1942, the darkest year of World War II, despite lack of radio contact with Darwin for most of that time.

Later he was nearly killed in another perilous commando operation up the Ramu Valley in New Guinea, far into Japanese territory again, for which he was mentioned in despatches. By the end of the war he was a Major, commanding the 2/4th Independent Company at the Tarakan landing in Kalimantan. He was wounded five times. This was an impressive record for a man who joined up as private and was one of the first volunteers for Col Spencer Chapman's embryonic (and seemingly bizarre, at the time) commando unit on Wilson's Promontory in early 1941.

After the war he became a diplomat in the newly established Department of External Affairs, working closely with H V Evatt at the United Nations. He later served in the Australian High Commissions in Colombo and in Delhi, and then as head of the foreign aid division of DEA during its formative years. He took time out also to write Part VI of the Official War History, The New Guinea Offensives, a splendid readable and authoritative account.

In 1960 he became Secretary of the Australian Universities Commission in its earliest years, and he was heavily involved in the work that went into preparation of the influential Martin Report of 1964, which he virtually wrote on the Commission's behalf.

When eventually (1967) he wanted to resign from the AUC, he was quickly and deftly recruited by the ANU. Shortly after he was designated as Registrar responsible for the University's estate and fabric and for the preparation of its triennial submissions to the Commission he had just left.

The Dexter years in Buildings and Grounds saw a major development program which included RSBS; the Mathematical Sciences, Leonard Huxley, A D Hope, John Dedman and Biochemistry buildings; Melville Hall; the Coombs Theatre; the Union; Graduate House and Toad Hall; and two ovals. To start, a new site plan was commissioned, with Dusseldorp of Lend Lease, as the Chairman of the B&G Committee, eager to apply public sector practices in an academic milieu. The conflicting backgrounds of key players made for interesting watching: Dexter seemed unperturbed. The tempo of activity increased; the strong and representative B&G committee, now under John Yencken, gained in experience.

But the success of the complex program was due primarily to Dexter's sensitivity to people's needs and aspirations, combined with huge administrative competence, a card index mind, close attention to detail, and Puckish energy. Especially notable was the way he extracted maximum value out of lump-sum triennial provisions for cost escalation by having his priority project tenders signed up on almost the first day of each new triennium.

Off duty, David Dexter was warm and companionable (and quite often thirsty), and at his nearby home in Turner he and Freda - they married during the war, in 1944 - raised a loving family. Their tributes to him were delivered movingly and eloquently at his lay funeral - while a son of the church, his life experiences had led him away from formal religions.

The stresses of a notable life caught up with him in 1978, when he was medically retired from 1 May. That formal date of retirement was unmarked by any immediate change in his work style or habits. It just meant that every manifesto and file note written for some weeks thereafter bore the date 1/5/78.

A little later, the Vice-Chancellor of the day, Anthony Low, wrote to him to put on record his 'central responsibility for the development of this remarkable campus', and as one historian to another to invite him to set down the story of the site and of our often tortuous relations with government authorities.

David Dexter worked on this task for years. Its completion, ISBN 0731512162, was his final gift to the University.

Original publication

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Citation details

J. A. C. Mackie and Ian Ross, 'Dexter, David St Alban (1917–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/dexter-david-st-alban-307/text308, accessed 24 November 2017.

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