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O'Hara, John Bernard (1944–2020)

by Trevor Barr and Richard Vines

John O’Hara was born in Colac, the son of John Bernard O’Hara and Mary Kearney. His early life was significantly shaped by his family’s commitment to education.

His parents were teachers; his father later becoming the director of the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) after a career move into the public service. His grandfather – a poet of identical name – is still remembered as an educational leader who joined the South Melbourne College on Beaconsfield Parade in Melbourne, first as headmaster and partner in 1889 and subsequently as sole proprietor (1894 to 1917). With such family influences, it was no accident that John developed a life-long love of learning.

John attended Marcellin College in Melbourne, topping the state with an exhibition in English literature on matriculation. On leaving school, he joined the Franciscan order as a novice, on the Mornington Peninsula and at Robertson, NSW (1963-68). After five years of training, he left the order to attend the University of Melbourne where he gained a first-class bachelor of arts (hons) degree in 1972.

While studying at Melbourne, John was awarded the university’s Gyles Turner Prize for an essay in Australian history and wrote an honour’s thesis on the contentious issues around the Australian anti-war demonstrations of the late 1960s. A version was subsequently published in the Melbourne Journal of Politics. This was despite his degree being in history and English, signalling John’s broad transdisciplinary approach to intellectual inquiry and scholarship.

During his student years, John worked with several Melbourne radio stations — 3AW, the ABC and 3RRR. At the ABC, he worked on the AM and PM programs, initially for a two-month trial and later full time. He possessed a strong social conscience, evidenced by his championing several important environmental causes in the late 1970s and early 1980s: for example, the protests to save the Gordon-Franklin world heritage river system and the prevention of toxic waste being dumped at Sandridge Beach in Port Melbourne.

In 1975, John was appointed as lecturer in arts and media studies at RMIT. He transferred in this role to Swinburne in 1982 where he was subsequently promoted to senior and later principal lecturer. He developed a unique course to prepare students for employment in commercial radio throughout Australia. This was achieved in close association with colleague Jim Barbour and members of the commercial radio industry and led in some years to as many as 90 per cent of the student cohort becoming fully employed in radio. In parallel with his work, John completed an MA in literary criticism at Monash University (1988) and ran a weekly ABC Radio media analysis program.

In 1989, he was appointed director of the Australian Film and Television School (AFTS), which became the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) under his leadership (1989-1996). He was especially proud of three significant achievements during this time. First, with key staff, he oversaw the development and implementation of a degree-based curriculum in film making; second, the necessary resources were secured from the federal Finance Department to provide funding for a major transition to digital technologies; and third, he oversaw the introduction of a successful post-graduate curriculum for a much greater number and variety of students than the 15-25 students taken in under the old scheme.

The 1991 AFTRS annual report, completed just two years into John’s leadership, provides an inventory of further creative initiatives and achievements by AFTRS staff at this time, indicative of the far-sighted reforms of the Hawke-Keating era. These included: graduate outcomes of 90 per cent of students in the full-time program obtaining full-time employment in the film industry; a significant increase in the number of applications for the BA and extension courses; graduate films being sold to eight countries around the world; AFTRS students winning best short film, best cinematography in a short film and best screenplay at the AFI Awards; and graduate films securing a record number of entries in overseas film festivals.

At this time, the AFTRS also made significant moves to broaden its scope: establishing courses in Asian film and cultural studies; distributing films, books, videos, and education and training packages to North America, Europe and Asia; strengthening its training relationship with Indonesia and Singapore; and hosting a national conference on the Representation of Australia’s Pluralistic Society on Screen. It also invested in the “recovery” of its own history, establishing an archival project examining and listing AFTRS records and resources, including interviews with those instrumental in the early days of the development of the national film school.

John was also elected to the executive committee of the International Association of Film and Television Schools (CILECT) and ensured AFTRS took over responsibility for publications and research for the association.

True to his firm belief that senior management should not “ossify” but be regularly renewed and refreshed, John moved on after seven years to become professor and head of the school of communications at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, NSW. This period (1996-2002) involved the development of close collaborations with industry in the broad domains of public relations, advertising and broadcast journalism, as John focused on building effective links and capabilities to support practical industry development. Journalism students were encouraged to practice their skills in real-life situations, producing and broadcasting a daily national news service for the community radio network through CSU’s 2MCEFM radio station.

Advertising studio (Kajulu) was established at the university to give students experience in working for business clients in media and advertising. John understood and nurtured the links between research, media production, public relations, journalism, and the creative edge of the industry in the theatre media course, within the communication degree. He supported links with the NSW Department of Education and Training that led to the development of an extensive teacher in-service for drama teachers, and this in turn resulted in a CSU master’s degree for many of those teachers.

John had the ability to synthesise the many forces that underlie the teaching and practice of the broad range of communication industries. This ability was a great aid and strength for the development of the staff and students within his care.

After six remarkable years in Bathurst, John made a bold career move and took up an equivalent position (dean) at the Dubai Women’s College in 2002, working internationally between 2002-2007. He took pride in establishing new programs in, for example, paramedicine and jewellery making, working across diverse cultural boundaries at a time when educational innovation was beginning to flourish in a newly developing nation state.

John was a man of many parts. He was a keen sailor and determined tennis player (five sets at a time on a 10-storey court above Dubai, with balls hit onto Sheikh Zayed Road). He enjoyed gardening, was an excellent cook and had passionate interests in architecture, art, film and music. He was a loyal friend to many. A voracious reader, he took whimsical delight in introducing his children to the joys of children’s and adult literature. He could deliver a substantive hour-long lecture at a university or a 30-minute critique at a film festival without notes, pause or stumble. He would frequently drop in a deft throw-away line, and a dry joke for good measure.

John brought broad conceptual frameworks to the study of a wide range of disciplines, both as a teacher and as a respected regular public commentator. He believed the challenge of understanding texts of all kinds was central to the pursuit of an intellectual life. This was immensely stimulating for his students, as they were never constrained to examine media texts merely within an individual film or a particular radio or television program. Instead, John added a layer of critical analysis of how the meaning was constructed from a diversity of social, literary and historical contexts and references.

John was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2008 shortly after his return to Australia from Dubai. It was inspiring to observe the extraordinary grace he exhibited during his long, cruel illness. To the very end, his wit and good humour were apparent.

John died peacefully in Bathurst. He is survived by his devoted wife and partner of 36 years, Robyn Vines, their children Megan and Robert and his eldest son, Tom, by his first marriage to Marguerite Austen. At his funeral, Robyn spoke of the mosaic of wonderful qualities she admired in him: “He was loving, caring, wickedly funny, gentle, kind, stimulating and always surprising.”

Together John and Robyn discussed what it meant to “live life well and to the full”. They always supported each other’s work which they knew well and were passionate about, while also relishing the closeness of their non-work lives with each other and their children. Their inspiration was infectious — those close to them felt there was always something unusual to look forward to.

John was a gifted public intellectual of a truly remarkable kind. A “towering figure” in many ways, he made a lasting impact on all who knew him.

Adieu, John — you were the best of men and you did our country proud.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Trevor Barr and Richard Vines, 'O'Hara, John Bernard (1944–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/ohara-john-bernard-31594/text39063, accessed 28 January 2022.

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