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Paul McKeown (1923–2010)

by John Farquharson

Paul McKeown, who has died of heart failure, aged 86, was an inspirational headmaster, an honoured and respected Australian educator who, for 27 years poured his "considerable energy, talents and unflinching loyalty into Canberra Grammar school, its community and the developing city".

Not only was he the school's longest serving headmaster, he also transformed it. When he arrived there in 1959 there were 300 students, when he left there were 1350. He built up the school until it enjoyed an enviable Australia-wide reputation for academic excellence. He lived and breathed education in all its forms from preschool through to matriculation and beyond. The humanities, the sciences, the performing arts, sport and the Australian bush all played important and complimentary parts in his passion for teaching. It was his ability to unlock an individual's capabilities and to encourage lives that were fulfilling on a personal level, while contributing to the wider community that made him such an outstanding educator. This was recognised in 1975 when he was elected to a two-year term as chairman of the Headmasters Conference of the Independent Schools of Australia and in 1979 was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his "services to Australian education". He was also president of the Arts Council of Australia (1968-71), chairman of the ACT Chapter of the Australian College of Education (1970) and president of the Australian Association of Religious Educators (1978).

Paul McKeown was born in Tumut, NSW, on November 1, 1923, the second of three children, and the only son, of Canon Kenneth Leslie McKeown and his wife Florence Nita (nee Whitaker). His education was initially at the Young primary school, before his father was appointed a Canon and Vice-Dean of St Saviour's Cathedral, Goulburn. The last three years of his schooling was as a boarder at Canberra Grammar School. There he excelled at sport and set many records, some of which he held for 30 years. McKeown knew early in life that he wanted to teach and he never wavered from his vocation. While waiting to gain entry to Sydney University, World War II broke out. Being too young to enlist in his own right, he sought his parents' permission. They were opposed to killing people, so permission was given, provided he was not in a direct combat role. He joined the medical corps, serving throughout the war in New Guinea and Borneo. Obtaining a veteran's grant to enter Sydney University, he joined St Paul's college, He played cricket, rugby and athletics for St Paul's and graduated with an arts degree.

From there he did two terms as senior English teacher at the Hamilton and Western District College, in Victoria, before going on to Oxford. At Hamilton, he met his future wife, Wilma David, who was a music teacher at Hamilton College. They married in 1951 in England, where McKeown had gone in 1950 to do his Dip.Ed. at Oxford. He then spent a year (1951-52) as a master at the Dragon School, a top Oxford preparatory school. Having heard about the Outward Bound Movement, which was just getting going in Gordonstoun, Scotland, he went up to investigate. He was appointed as one of the early instructors at the Outward Bound Mountain School, which was just being established at Eskland, in the Lake District, of England. There he met Eric Shipton, who became warden of the school. Shipton selected the route that Sir Edmund Hilary took to reach the summit of Everest in 1953. McKeown later met Hilary when he, on returning to England, went to Eskdale to personally thank Eric Shipton. In 1954-55 McKeown became deputy superintendent at the Northampton Remand Home, an experience he found very encouraging, where he learnt a lot about human nature. There he was in charge of education and outdoor activities and saw the positive responses of difficult individuals to new challenges.

In 1954 McKeown applied for a position in Australia as a teacher. He was interviewed in London and was appointed. His appointment was as an English master at Timbertop, an outdoor annexe of Geelong Grammar School. Taking over the schools outdoor activities, he established the Outward Bound principles of mountaineering, rock climbing, swimming, and hiking there. And in that first year John Landy came as an assistant master. At the beginning of 1959, he was appointed headmaster of his old school, Canberra Grammar School - at 35 the youngest to be offered the post. It was his headmastership of this school that defined the man. He poured himself out for the school. When he arrived the dormitories for the boarders were above the classrooms. He built new houses for the boarders, and used their old quarters as classrooms. The junior school was greatly enlarged and the North Canberra infants school was built. As the school continued to expand, new houses for day boys and boarders were added. He was also instrumental in getting Radford College, the successful co-ed Anglican school on Canberra's northside started. McKeown was always looking ahead, getting the best architects and builders for new projects. But his greatest love and achievement was the school chapel, which has lots of special features, with a specially designed altar front and stained glass windows. The alter front was designed by Elaine Haxton and the stained glass windows by Roger Kemp, a winner of the Blake Prize for Religious Art.

In 1966 McKeown was in the first round of Churchill Fellows. He went to the United States and England to study the development of independent schools. When he got his first sabbatical in 1971, he went to Russia to see what they were doing in education. There he met the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

He retired in 1985, but continued to work in education. He accepted two positions as interim headmaster at the Cathedral School in Townsville in 1986 and then the Southport School in 1987. Later he often travelled to Darwin to assist Kormilda College become independent. Then in Alice Springs he assisted in the development of St Phillips College, which was transferred to the Uniting Church. Living on the south coast, he was involved in the early development of St Peters Anglican School at Broulee, as well as taking part in the University of the Third Age.

At a dinner to mark his retirement at the end of 1985, it was said that he had brought a "sense of dedication to the school and his job. He shouldn't go without it being said he was a superb headmaster".

He is survived by Wilma, sons Christopher and Jonathan, daughters Deirdre, Elizabeth and Penelope, sister Theodora and their families. Sister Lesley predeceased him. Paul John McKeown, born Tumut November 1, 1923; died Lilli Pilli May 14, 2010.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'McKeown, Paul (1923–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 November, 1923
Tumut, New South Wales, Australia


14 May, 2010 (aged 86)
Lilli Pilli, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
Key Organisations