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June Factor (1936–2024)

by Gwenda Beed Davey and Judy McKinty

Dr June Factor, no date

Dr June Factor, no date

JUNE FACTOR September 16, 1936-April 12, 2024

June Factor was known to her many friends and colleagues for her powerful intellect, meticulous scholarship, warmth, humour and compassion.

A woman of energy and vision, June was respected internationally as an expert on children’s folklore, an eloquent speaker and author, a clear-eyed social historian, fearless advocate and dedicated humanitarian.

Born in Lodz, Poland, June came to Australia, aged 2, “as an infant in my mother’s arms” in January, 1939, one of the first cohorts of Jewish refugees from German fascism. Although never a believer, June’s Jewish heritage was a defining part of her identity. A member of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society from its inception, she was respected as a wise voice.

Her family language was Yiddish, and June had a great love of Yiddish literature and music. This love grew into a generalised appreciation of folk music of all nations. She regularly attended the National Folk Festival in Canberra, enjoying live music and seeing friends at the Folklore Conference.

Her dedication to folklore, particularly that of children, became a critical part of her identity. She considered the joint founding of the Australian Children’s Folklore Collection in 1979 as one of her greatest achievements. June and Gwenda Beed Davey established the Collection to document children’s traditional playground lore. Started in a filing cabinet at the Institute of Early Childhood Development (IECD) in Kew, the Collection grew to encompass a significant body of research and a remarkable collection of children’s playthings. Donated to Museum Victoria in 1999, the Collection was placed on the UNESCO Australia Memory of the World Register in 2004, as part of the nation’s most significant documentary heritage.

June’s relationship with the museum began in the 1980s. She was a foundation board member of the Children’s Museum, and a specialist adviser in the planning of ground-breaking exhibitions of children’s play, including the Children’s Museum’s You’re IT! and Tops, Tales and Granny’s False Teeth at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne. In 2002, she was appointed an honorary associate at Museum Victoria.

June took part in the Inquiry into Folklife in Australia in the mid-1980s. She was a member of the Australian and Victorian Folklife Associations and on the organising committee for the first international folklore conference in Australia, in Melbourne, 2001.

June received international recognition for her work on children’s folklore, winning the American Folklore Society’s prestigious Opie Prize in 1989 for her book Captain Cook Chased a Chook: children’s folklore in Australia, still the authoritative text on the subject. In 1992, she was appointed a member of the International Folklore Fellows, based in Finland. June was also a founding co-editor of the International Journal of Play, and an engaging speaker at conferences, seminars and in school classrooms.

Schooling, activism and advocacy

As a child, June lived in the inner-Melbourne suburbs of Carlton and Brunswick. In April 1940, she was the first refugee child accepted into Lady Gowrie Kindergarten. June attended Princes Hill School during her primary and early secondary years, then transferred to University High. She was an excellent student with “a keen eager mind”.

While at University High, June told the school magazine that she saw her future as an “activist”. As a university student, she joined the Labor Club and anti-fascist organisations. She was deeply affected by the horrors of fascism and the Holocaust, and once remarked that the only things she hated were “injustice and cruelty”.

June’s adult life became a succession of voluntary activities involving different kinds of service to the community. She championed many humanitarian causes and had an innate sense of the most important issues of life and the need for change. An incurable optimist, she managed to find funding sources for her projects through persistence and persuasion, often quoting the Yiddish saying, A bissel un a bissel macht a fulle schissel. (A little and a little makes a full bowl).

One of June’s enduring concerns was the plight of asylum seekers, especially the welfare of child refugees held in detention. She invited a group of friends to discuss the situation around her kitchen table. From this meeting came Befriend a Child in Detention, a community project founded to actively support the welfare of children held in detention, and lobby for change.

Broad networks within the group produced donations of new books and toys, which were delivered to children detained on Nauru. A schools-based letter-writing campaign supplied colourful, hand-written letters of friendship, which were tucked inside the cover of each book. One of the group observed: “We fundraised, we worked hard, and June was at the helm.”

A firm believer in free speech, June was a founding member of the Victorian Free Speech Committee and past president of both Australian and Victorian Council of Civil Liberties, (now Liberty Victoria). In 2016, she became an honorary life member of Liberty Victoria.

A life-long supporter of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, June wrote several children’s programs for the ABC early in her career. Recognising the lack of radio programs for children after the Argonauts’ Club ceased in 1972, June continued to advocate for new children’s programs.

She became president of the Victorian Friends of the ABC at a time when substantial funding cuts were being threatened. ABC Friends engaged in extensive lobbying with federal parliament to safeguard funding for the national broadcaster. A fellow member commented: “June’s work in leading the opposition to the proposed 1996 cuts was extraordinary.” In 2022, June received honorary life membership of ABC Friends.

Academic career and mentoring

At the age of 20, while still a student, June married Dr Percy Rogers. They had three children, Naomi, Ian and Sylvie but divorced in 1970. Her children and friends were June’s touchstones in life. A wonderful host, her New Year’s Day parties in her large back garden were legendary, with hundreds attending from mid-afternoon onwards. A friend recalls: “I remember those parties so fondly – connecting with diverse interesting people who had strong opinions about everything.” Special celebrations also meant yum cha in Little Bourke Street.

June graduated from Melbourne University with first-class honours in history and English and began her career as a freelance writer, producing short stories, radio and television scripts and books for children, while caring for her young family.

In 1965, June became a part-time teacher of English and history at Princes Hill and McLeod High schools, before becoming senior lecturer in English at the Melbourne Kindergarten Training College (later IECD). She taught for 18 years before leaving to become a senior research fellow at the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne, and an associate in the University’s School of Early Childhood Studies.

June’s reputation as an innovative teacher began at the Kindergarten Training College. A former colleague recalls: “Among other things, I was impressed that June, as well as teaching more “usual” units, had introduced a unit on Black American Writers; and that later, when a fourth year was added to the course, she built up a unit on Australian Aboriginal literature.”

While at IECD, June undertook her master’s degree in children’s literature at the University of London, and then gained her doctorate from her alma mater, Melbourne University. June’s doctoral thesis grew from her seminal work Captain Cook Chased a Chook.

June was both teacher and mentor to her students, and later to the young scholars she encouraged throughout her life. Welcoming and generous with her time and knowledge, she showed deep empathy and remarkable generosity towards others. A former student’s tribute recalls how June provided her with jobs around her home to help pay her cost of living while studying.

As a supervisor, June set high standards of inquiry, and even higher standards of writing. She was a fearless editor and honest critic, but her responses were always caring, thoughtful, substantial and encouraging. June continued to mentor young scholars in her final years. She was an academic who lived a full life of her own choosing.

June’s publications list is long and encompasses the many facets of her life. She is best known for her compilations of children’s rhymes, riddles and jokes, starting with Far Out Brussel Sprout!, first published in 1983 and reprinted 39 times. Her final book, Soldiers and Aliens: Men in the Australian Army’s Employment Companies during World War II, published in 2022, won the inaugural Anzac Memorial Trustees military history prize at the 2023 NSW Premier’s History Awards.

June was inducted to the first Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2001 and appeared in the inaugural edition of Who’s Who in Victoria in 2008. Her final recognition came in January 2024, when she was made a Member of the Order of Australia “for significant service to literature, to history and to the community”.

June Factor was a small woman who has left behind a huge footprint. She will not be quickly forgotten.

I sit on an odd outside ledge: a mixture of folklorist and historian. And, occasionally, I publish other sorts of writing, too. If I was a dog, I would definitely not be a pure breed!
(June Factor, March 18, 2022)

 

Original publication

Citation details

Gwenda Beed Davey and Judy McKinty, 'Factor, June (1936–2024)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/factor-june-34472/text43286, accessed 23 June 2024.

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