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Lewty, Mark (1957–2014)

by Your ‘78 class mates and colleagues

Mark Lewty, by John Huth, 2003

Mark Lewty, by John Huth, 2003

Mark was born in 1957 in Inglewood, Queensland. He attended school there before completing high school in ‘the big smoke’ of Toowoomba. There he obtained a highly sought after and contested State Cadetship with the Queensland Forestry Department. He undertook first year Science at the University of Queensland in 1975 before moving to Canberra’s ANU to study forestry and was one of the top three students each year.

Kevin “Kev” Harding got to know Mark well at Garran Hall in 1977 and 1978. “Lewts was renowned for having a fridge full of offal (beef heart particularly) which he was fond of cooking up, much to the disgust of a couple of hippie-vegetarians who shared a nearby cooking space!” He was generous with his time and Kev and many other students benefited from help with some of the more difficult subjects such as mensuration.

While a keen student, Mark also knew how to enjoy himself. As the Forestry Log notes he was “the little green gnome from Inglewood”. This was in reference to a G-themed party he attended at Rod Meynink’s place in Downer. As Val Chambers recalls, “Mark turned up in a quilted green jump suit (something which would now be called a ‘onesie’) with green shoes and green socks carrying a case of beer”. He stayed in character the whole night and won one of the highly sought after awards for the best outfit—several copies of out-of-date Womens’ Weeklys. As Mark said at the time, “I am very happy to receive such a fabulous prize—thank you everybody”. The party was attended by many who would finish ‘Forestry’ as the class of ’78—but if you think you remember the G-party, you probably were not there.

Mark did a concurrent honours degree working with the late Professor Eric Bachelard on a tree physiology project. Even with the additional work load, he had the time and patience to help others. Mark was highly regarded by Eric and all the senior academic staff in the Forestry Department and this high regard was mutual.

Being a scholarship holder Mark was guaranteed a position in the Queensland Forestry Department. He started in Monto where he worked in general forestry management. More importantly, it was here he met Robyn.

In 1981 he transferred to the Forest Research Centre at Gympie where he commenced his interest in silvicultural research, specializing in weed control. Mark was always keen on expanding his knowledge, and he won support to undertake a PhD program at the University of Queensland. He was the second of the class of ‘78 to undertake such studies. He achieved his PhD with innovative work on the physiology of pine seedlings titled “Response to soil flooding of two Pinus species and their hybrid”. This was a busy period for Mark as, in 1986, he was awarded the Max Jacobs Award for travel and work associated with his PhD subject.

He continued in physiology when he returned to Gympie in early 1989 as leader of Silviculture Research (plantation establishment and nurseries). Mark and John Huth particularly enjoyed the early morning pre-dawn ‘patrols’ as they called them, collecting critical tree physiology data on exotic pine seedlings. As John recalls, “Mark loved to start the day with a dose of The Courier Mail, which we both enjoyed over an early morning fire cooking damper and a cuppa.” Turning to his diary, John noted, “some memorable pre-dawn Toolara trips commencing at 3:30 am and finishing at 5:00 pm, with the usual Courier Mail/damper bush-breakfasts to add to the interest.” In these studies, Mark used a number of new physiological assessment techniques and tools including relative water content, pressure bomb and the osmometer.

Mark was meticulous and methodical in everything he did. This was a feature of the detailed tree physiology assessments undertaken to measure water use in effluent re-use eucalypt plantations at Hervey Bay. Mark was an early user of canopy-shadow as an index of leaf area and the use of sap-flow meters to measure water use. As a result of Mark’s work here, and that of others, in 1992 the Queensland Forest Service received a Banksia Award for Pollution Control Technology.

Robyn and Mark enjoyed the social side of forestry as ever-reliable hosts at Gympie for a BBQ and inevitable beers—another of Mark’s pleasures. This was more often than not with Mark in one of his favourite Hawaiian shirts, an apron, a stubbie-in-cooler and a serious BBQ tong beating a rhythm to whatever discussion he was enjoying at the time. It’s here that colleagues, staff and friends became one with the simple goal of enjoying each other’s company and discussing the issues of the time.

Mark was adaptable, with work stints in Indonesia and Vietnam. Many will know the Indonesian pulp sector is not a place for those seeking ‘an easier life’. However, this is where Mark headed in 1994.

David Boden was one who knew what Indonesia could be like for expat-foresters. He interviewed Mark in Canberra and explained the difficulties of working for companies like APRIL in Sumatra. Mark and Robyn travelled to North Sumatra to meet the people and see for themselves the environment in which they would be working. As fate would have it there were serious floods in the week prior to their visit and a key bridge was washed away on the road to the mill site in North Sumatra. David arranged for a vehicle from the mill to meet them on the other side of the washed away bridge. After ‘surviving’ a harrowing road trip from Medan, they walked across the gorge using a narrow temporary ‘Indo-style’ walk-way and found to their surprise a waiting-vehicle—this was well before mobile phones made such arrangement ‘easy’—nothing was easy in Sumatra at that time. Robyn and Mark clearly enjoyed the trip which continued to the mill and plantations surrounding the dramatic scenery of Lake Toba. After the interviews and getting to know the place, the trip was reversed and David fully expected Mark and Robyn to conclude that this sort of life style was not for them and their family of four young children. Four months later, six Lewtys returned initially to Lake Toba and then to Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP) mill in Kerinci in Riau Province. As Research Manager, he headed R&D for a very large acacia plantation project that needed to ‘feed’ a pulpmill using over 20 000 tonnes of wood—that’s per day.

Life in a company promoting competition between expat-groups was never going to be easy. However, Mark could be relied on for an honest appraisal of a forestry issue and a sound appreciation of both management and R&D, regardless of the consequences. He made significant contributions to the emerging company with a combination of academic research excellence combined with down to earth hard work and an amiable engagement with his colleagues and staff. In his own way, Mark also made significant contributions to science, as many of the issues he and the company faced in Indonesia had not been previously addressed in plantation forestry anywhere. Not surprisingly, his abilities were widely recognised in Indonesia.

Russell Haines worked periodically with Mark during this period. As Russell said, “I was impressed by the speed with which Mark came to grips with the significant problems faced by RAPP in establishing acacia plantations that would meet productivity targets, and by Mark’s dedication to helping them to achieve these targets.”

Visitors were treasured and Mark treated his guests to fine food. As Russell attested, “A particular specialty was BBQ’d giant river prawns …” I suspect washed down with a good measure of fine Indonesian beer.

Rod Meynink, also from the class of ‘78, met Mark at the end of his tenure (or more correctly end of his tether) in Kerinci. As Rod recalls, “He had just come too close to a bullet fired by a pistol-packing pulpmill manager who liked Mark to accompany him on ‘hunting’ trips through the plantations.”

Enough was enough.

On his return from Indonesia in 1997, Mark was recruited once again by the Queensland Forestry Research Institute (QFRI) at Gympie. As the Leader of the Silviculture Program, he made a large contribution as he was a skilled and highly adaptable research leader. When funding became available for a hardwoods’ research program, Mark enthusiastically took on the leadership of the program. This involved a large team of researchers, covering genetics, silviculture, soils and sustainability, entomology, pathology, wood science and timber processing. His leadership of this diverse research program was exemplary. He made an excellent contribution both to operational forestry and to scientific knowledge during this period. The practical implications of his work were always a major focus.

In 2002 the QFRI team lead by Mark received two highly commended awards in the 2002 Premier’s Awards for Excellence in Public Sector Management.

As Russell Haines summarised, “Mark was an excellent scientist who was fearless in putting forward an opinion, regardless of who was present. This made him a valuable colleague—if he thought you were making a mistake, he would let you know—and he was often right.”

After this QFRI post ended in 2003, Mark moved to the forest policy unit within the broader Department and made a significant contribution there for several years.

This was followed by some solo-project work back in Indonesia at RAPP from 2007 until mid-2010 and consulting work in Vietnam from mid-2010 until mid-2012.

Mark returned to Australia and he and Robyn moved to Darwin in mid-2012. Here he was responsible for rehabilitation activities at Energy Resources Australia’s (ERA’s) Ranger uranium mine. This was cut short by his diagnosis in 2013. Not surprisingly, Mark left detailed planting plans for the successful revegetation of the mine site, provided they followed his specifications. Mark was very proud of his work here and was frustrated that he was not able to see it to completion.

Mark and all of his family have much to be proud of from a distinguished career and the many firm friendships he forged through each stage of his career. His and Robyn’s ability to deal with adversity was especially marked during his last turbulent months when during any call to Mark he was able to talk so clearly about where he was and what lay ahead. In this respect, as David Boden so eloquently stated, “He is a man among men and a role model for us all in how to face the realities of life with logic, humour and, strange as it might seem, even a dose of gratitude.”

As Robyn said so well on the last day, “Let’s remember the good times”.

So, let’s remember Mark on his deck in Gympie or Sumatra standing beside his well-used BBQ in an apron with a beer in one hand and cooking instrument in the other as he waxed lyrical on the great joys of good meat, good prawns, good beer and good friends ... adding, “I should have run my own restaurant … but then I would have personally consumed the profits”, and “I’d like to try all the beers in the world”. By some accounts he had made good progress.

For those in the class of ‘78, let’s remember Mark as a very talented student prepared to share all aspects of university life while humbly achieving the highest of academic standards—even if he ‘turned out’ in a quilted green onesie. It was only the once!

For those who worked with him, let’s remember a highly intelligent and loyal work colleague, always prepared to honestly and directly speak his mind, regardless of who was present.

For others, let’s remember a team builder, a team leader and a team player who motivated others by his hard and disciplined work especially in developing and disseminating his deep understanding of Queensland eucalypt growth.

Finally, let’s remember Mark as being highly respected amongst his peers and truly loved by his family.

So, with Robyn and family, we do and will remember the many good times and the valuable friendships we had with Mark.

Original publication

  • Forester, October 2014, pp 9-10

Additional Resources

Citation details

Your ‘78 class mates and colleagues, 'Lewty, Mark (1957–2014)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/lewty-mark-19431/text30842, accessed 20 September 2017.

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