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Written by Luisa Mitchell
Rod Cole c. 1972. Photo supplied by Willo Ravenswood.
Curtin Guild’s student magazine, Grok, has a long history that we have been sharing with you now throughout the year.
In 1969 WAIT’s student newspaper was called Aspect; and then in 1972, it was re-born like a phoenix from the ashes as Grok, led by a student called Rod Ravenswood, née Rod Cole. He took the name from Robert A. Heinlein’s novel ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, in which ‘grok’ meant to understand something thoroughly, or intuitively.
When I reached out to Cole, I received a surprising response from his wife, Willo Ravenswood. She explained to me that, now an older man, her husband was unable to be interviewed due to his memory impairment problems, which he developed in his 50s.
She did, however, tell me more about the man who founded Grok as we know it today.
Cole was the Education Officer for the Student Guild from 1972 until 1976, during which time in 1974 he received his Bachelor of Applied Science. He was Grok’s Editor in the first couple of years of the ‘70s, but had already been involved in other activities from 1969, when for two years he was a member of the student’s Drama Society.
A passionate progressive and left-wing idealist, Cole was involved in student committees that protested and resisted the Vietnam War. He worked towards organising the WA section of the Long March to North West Cape to protest against American military bases in Australia. In one of his first editions of Grok, he and the Guild Welfare Committee Chairman, Paul Bridges, announced that the Guild would be providing accommodation for “draft dodgers”: men on the run from police for avoiding conscription to the war.
Cole was inspired to not just talk, but act on his political beliefs. He wanted to become the student paper’s editor due to his constant desire to “change the world for the better,” says Ravenswood.
His time spent at Curtin working for Grok, doggedly pursuing such values of hard work and morals of justice and equality, would see him go on to spend a life full of campaigning, mindfulness and careful love and appreciation for the world around him.
After he graduated, Cole gained his teaching certificate but was uncomfortable with the education system as he saw it, and didn’t last long as a teacher. While he was struggling to ‘find himself’ and what he wanted to do, he took odd jobs, the most prominent being the position of the first gardener at the WA Herbarium, which is the State Government’s Department of Parks and Wildlife, responsible for documenting the flora of Western Australia.
His being a passionate environmentalist also saw him co-founding the Campaign to Save Native Forests WA in 1975. He continued studying horticulture, but in 1979 it all came to an end when he gained a congenital eye condition which caused diminished vision.
Perhaps it was his physical ailments that led him to focus more on his inner eye, and psychology. Cole was heavily influenced by the work of Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who laid much of the groundwork for analytic psychology, which focuses heavily on the individual psyche and the individual pursuit for ‘wholeness’.
By the early 1980s, Cole had gained his qualifications to become a councillor for the Child Abuse Prevention Service in Sydney, where he had since moved. He also went on to facilitate a medium-term youth refuge in the inner-city suburbs, while maintaining his studies of Jung’s theories. He became President of the Sydney Jung Society, and took his experience there to pursue a career as a Jungian psychotherapist in the Blue Mountains, which he held for a couple of decades.
The spirit of the 70s never left Cole, and while living amongst the shrill bird calls and deep shaded hues of the mountains, he never abandoned his teachings of Jungian psychology and psychological astrology in community colleges and long-term ‘dream groups’. Alongside these classes he helped his wife Ravenswood in her work, helping rescue and rehabilitate injured and orphaned wild birds.
Ravenswood recollects fond memories of Cole climbing, with great ability and adeptness, great trees in the forests of the mountains. He would rise at dawn for “weeks on end” to feed the abandoned baby birds, which called forlornly from the treetops.
Yet the tranquillity of nature always came hand in hand with politics, at least for Cole. He was an active supporter of the Greens Party, and was a founding member of the Blue Mountains Australian’s for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTAR). He also helped run the Blue Mountains Free Tibet group, and supported a Tibetan refugee family for many years.
Now a retired man, Cole enjoys a simple, but enjoyably peaceful life in Tasmania. While Ravenswood says that his memory impairment was unexpected and a challenge, it hasn’t stopped him from continuing to “explore what life offers in the way of more intrinsic values, and having less of an overt conversation with the world.
Not remembering only really matters when your heart forgets,” says Ravenswood, and she thinks he is a long way from losing his passion and soulful zest for the things he cares about.
With clear emotion in her writing, Ravenswood describes her husband as a “kind, caring, intelligent and intuitive individual, who was not content with the way the world was and instinctively sought for change.”
Having to face generational issues such as conscription—it was a huge threat to peace-lovers like Cole, but an easy issue to face up to when his desire to affect positive change was felt with such a deep commitment as his. Fighting against the system was done in different ways by different people, but Ravenswood saw Cole as doing this on a more individual level, seeing great changes being achieved by the little acts of kindness and resolve given each and every day.
“When a single individual lives their own life with integrity and authenticity, the world is always the beneficiary,” says Ravenswood. “There are beings, both feathered and human or otherwise, who have had their lives radically changed because of Rod’s willingness to put his heart and soul into believing we can do better and be better. He has been appreciated and well-loved in return. That is achievement enough for anyone.”
While it is difficult for a now older Cole to look back and remember the tiny details of his time spent at the Guild, pictured as he is in the photograph above, Ravenswood tells me that his years spent there were of “deep and lasting importance to him.”
She says that, “Having such intimate proximity to people with differing concepts of how change must and would take place, was formative to his character and life choices. It was a time, not unlike now, when it was important to have the courage to stand up for what you believe in, and when not everyone was on the same page.”
Issues such as gender equality were even more pertinent than they continue to be today, and she remembers Cole fighting to make room for women in student politics—an uphill battle that not everyone agreed with.
Ravenswood talks about her husband with a respect and an adoration that is admirable. When speaking about their marriage, she tells me that despite the difficulties of Cole’s memory issues, “There is always gold to be mined no matter what life throws at you—and we have a valuable life together, if not an easy one.”
She signs off her letter with “warm regards, Willo and Rod.”