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Geoffrey George Rossiter (1916–2004)

by Bill Packard

Geoffrey George Rossiter was born in East Maitland, NSW, the second son of Dr J.L. Rossiter, headmaster of a number of private schools. He was educated at two of them: Thornburgh College, Queensland (1923–29) and Wesley College, Perth (1930–34), where he finished his secondary schooling with an outstanding record—captain of school, dux, captain of cricket and of football, champion swimmer and boxer—plus receiving University Exhibitions in English and in history (1934). As a student at the University of Western Australia (1935–38) he gained his BA in 1937, and then first-class honours in Latin in 1938, in addition to representing his state nationally in rugby union and athletics (high jump).

The year 1939 saw Geoffrey off to Oxford as a private student, his older brother Roger having preceded him there to Merton in 1935 as Western Australia’s Rhodes Scholar for that year. Geoffrey began a BA in history at Merton, but on the outbreak of war enlisted in the RAAF in 1940, and returned to Western Australia for training as a pilot. On completion he returned to the United Kingdom to No. 10 Squadron Coastal Command, earning the DFC in 1944. His DFC citation read:

Flight Lieutenant Rossiter throughout a long and arduous tour of duty has displayed unstinted devotion to duty and has inspired other members of the squadron. This officer has delivered five attacks on enemy submarines, on one occasion destroying a U-boat. On another flight he sighted a dingy containing survivors of an aircraft. To rescue them he made a skilful landing on the open sea under difficult conditions. Since completing his operational tour of duty Flight Lieutenant Rossiter has been responsible for training many members of aircrews for future anti-submarine operations.

Later in 1944 he piloted the first of six Sunderland flying-boats from Britain to Australia to form No. 40 Squadron in Townsville. He became Commanding Officer of that Squadron in 1945. Characteristically reticent and modest, and like so many other servicemen, he said very little in later years about his time in the forces, but his integrity, courage, leadership of and care for his men were recalled with admiration by a relative of one of his comrades at his memorial service. A duty of care continued long after he left the RAAF, and for many years in Canberra he put much voluntary time into Legacy, quietly and privately helping war widows and Legacy children in innumerable ways.

When back in Perth in 1940 Geoffrey married Margaret Menzies, a union that stayed central to the lives of both until his death. After the war, Geoffrey applied for and won the 1946 Rhodes Scholarship for Western Australia, and was thus able to return to Merton, complete his BA with a second in modern history and begin a BLitt. Before he had finished his BLitt, however, Margaret and he returned to Perth, in 1950. He briefly lectured in history at the university there before being appointed Executive Secretary to the newly created United States Educational Foundation in Australia—better recognised as the Fulbright Program. This position he was to hold for the next 15 years, based in Canberra but becoming a familiar figure in universities throughout the country as he helped sort out and settle down those awardees to Australian university life, conditions and expectations. When changes to and downsizing of the Fulbright Program occurred, Geoffrey became a natural for appointment in 1965 as foundation Warden of Burton Hall, The Australian National University’s second hall of residence. In this position he remained until retirement 15 years later in 1981.

The University’s philosophy was to appoint academics as heads of its residences, expecting them, and giving them the opportunity, to be part of normal academic teaching and research life. Geoffrey therefore acquired some responsibilities as a tutor in history in the then School of General Studies. Taking up this task after a 15-year break implied and imposed an additional burden to his new warden duties, but a happy and fruitful association with Dr Hector Kinloch and hard work produced an effective albeit somewhat formal tutor in American history

With his background of firm leadership (and, it must be said, obedience) derived from the war, and not under question or challenge subsequently in the less personal contact work of the Fulbright Foundation, Geoffrey faced some 250 residential charges in the late 1960s and 1970s. Many of these were unwilling to accept his expectations of dress and other behavioural standards as other than excessively conservative or derived from an in loco parentis approach with which they would have no truck. Nonetheless, Geoffrey’s firmness and fairness won the respect of most, and though seen as basically inflexible, he was equally recognised as being good and kind. It must be said that his warden tasks were made no easier since the adjacent Garran Hall, to which Burton was irreversibly twinned by having the same kitchen, had a warden with a very different approach to such matters.

Swimming against such a tide of social change, Geoffrey was never able to be fully at ease. However, his unquestioned fairness produced community rapport most of the time. He attracted and kept an excellent Senior Common Room, and together with these tutors, he worked hard to provide residents with much more than just a place to reside. Increasing financial pressures often meant, though, that members were reluctant to pay what they saw as unnecessary costs.

Throughout his 30 working years in Canberra, Geoffrey and his wife established many friendships and links throughout the community. A keen golfer at Royal Canberra, he was always challenging himself to better that handicap! In his earlier years he had followed his other great sporting loves, tennis and cricket, playing regular social tennis and cricket for the Wanderers. He served on the fellowship committee of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust from its inception for 15 years (1965–80), and for this outstanding service was made a life member at the end of that period.

On his retirement from the ANU, Geoffrey accepted the job of Honorary Treasurer of the Association of Rhodes Scholars in Australia, in which he also worked for the next 15 years.

When his great friend and colleague Hector Kinloch took up local politics, standing for the Residents Rally in the ACT, Geoffrey became a staunch supporter and party worker. He was a volunteer worker in the National Gallery for some years. An enlarging interest in family history combined with his increasing mastery of the computer led to many hours of rewarding genealogical research, and also to wartime history study through the internet. Only his wife’s increasing ill-health and her need for more and more assistance slowed down his other interests. When he was unable to care for her at home anymore and she had to go into a nursing home to ensure her physical needs were met, he went every single day to be with her.

Geoffrey is survived by his wife, Margaret, their two daughters, Judy Rieck and Fran Ballard, and five grandchildren. Their only son, Rev. David Rossiter, tragically died at the end of 2003.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Bill Packard, 'Rossiter, Geoffrey George (1916–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/rossiter-geoffrey-george-32933/text41021, accessed 25 June 2024.

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