Long-time ASAL members and enthusiasts of Australian Literature will be sad to learn that Dr. Robert Sellick – “Rob” or “Bob” to his friends – passed away in the early hours of 24 July 2014. He had been ill for some time and was living nearby his sister and her family in Dora Creek.
Rob was present at the first ASAL conference at Monash University in 1978 and served as the South Australian Representative on the Executive of the association for some years after that. With his then colleague Russell McDougall he helped found the Adelaide Centre for Australian Studies (ACAS), later the Centre for Australian Studies at the University of Adelaide (CASUA), which led to the foundation of the multi-campus network South Australian Centre for Australian Studies (SACAS) in 1992. While he was not a prolific publisher – the AustLit database lists 27 publications, on a wide range of topics (prose, poetry and drama) –he was a wonderful teacher, mentor, colleague and friend. Among his friends he counted a number of his favourite authors, including Gwen Harwood and Shirley Hazzard, on whom he also published. He was a great entertainer, a generous host and a fine cook; and many visiting writers and academics wined and dined at his home in Adelaide and toured the vineyards in his company.
Rob’s first academic appointment was as a tutor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Adelaide in 1970, while completing his PhD, the first serious study of Australian explorer literature. The fact that Australian explorer literature is now a meaningful object of literary study owes a great deal to its first explorer, who stands at the head of a line of now very distinguished scholars including Robert Dixon, Ross Gibson and Paul Carter. Rob’s thesis supervisor, Brian Robinson Elliott, had been one of the founding fathers of university studies in Australian Literature. Rob was appointed to a permanent appointment as Lecturer in Australian Literature in 1974, succeeding Elliott upon his retirement the following year.
Rob always fancied himself as a contender for the Frank Moorhouse Perpetual Ballroom Dancing trophy. It took him seven years to win, partnered by his dear friend from the University of Aarhus (Denmark), Anna Rutherford, an Australian revered in Europe for her energetic promotion of Australian and other postcolonial literatures. The stakes were high. Anna insisted that Rob hire a dress suit for the occasion; and he pinned a twenty-dollar note to the back of her dress as an enticement to the judges, one of whom raced onto the floor and took it!
Before his academic career, Rob was first employed at the University of Adelaide in an administrative role in the Office of the Registrar. Later he served as Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, as Dean of the Faculty of Arts (1990-1994) and, in that capacity, as the Head of French and German also. Phil Butterss, who arrived in the Department at the beginning of Rob’s term as Dean, and who effectively replaced him as a lecturer in Australian Literature, has provided the following statement: “Today [Rob] is remembered fondly by his colleagues in English “as a warm and generous man — too kind for the modern university, really. He was always cultured, gracious and delightful company. He was a great teacher of Australian literature—his legendary Honours course on ‘The Centre and the Australian Imagination’ is still spoken of.”
At the time of his retirement Rob was working on a biography of the German explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt. He had begun translating Leichhardt’s diaries, ably assisted by his good friend, Dr Marie Louise Matilde (Marlis) Thiersch, co-founder with Philip Parsons of the Australasian Drama Studies Association (1977). Rob shared their interest in theatre, and was friends with Parsons and his wife, Katherine Brisbane, who together founded the specialist performing arts publisher, Currency Press. At one time Rob even appeared on stage in a university production of Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla in Adelaide (26 October 1976). Marliss’s death in 1992, combined with Rob’s duties as Dean, interrupted his work on Leichardt. After his retirement, he moved to Sydney, in part to be closer to the Leichhardt material in the Mitchell Library. But his research was again delayed by his appointment as lecturer and crewmember on a series of nautical adventures around the South Pacific with a luxury small-ship cruise line. Unfortunately, his biography of Leichhardt remained unfinished at the time of his death. But there are plans to deposit his many research notes and papers on the subject, as well as his translations with Marlis Thiersch, in the Mitchell Library.
From the Burke and Wills “dig tree” to the celebrated Bong Tree of the Edward Lear’s Dong with the Luminous Nose, Rob loved to travel. He is remembered all over Europe by friends and colleagues for his energetic and dedicated promotion and teaching of Australian Literature (especially in Denmark and Belgium, where he spent prolonged periods of time lecturing). His last published work, in a festschrift for Professor Helen Tiffin, was on Edward Lear’s birds. Rob was funny, occasionally grumpy, sometimes stubborn, but also wonderfully generous, courteous and faithful –a very good friend – to his subject, to his colleagues and his comrades.
Rob supervised my Masters thesis on Xavier Herbert; and later we taught Australian Literature together at Adelaide. This was a wonderful and memorable experience, for which I am truly grateful. At that time, our colleagues Robin Eaden and George Turner were working with Frances Devlin-Glass and Louis Hoffmann on The annotated Such is Life: being certain extracts from the diary of Tom Collins by Joseph Furphy (published by OUP in 1991). We spent many enjoyable lunch hours laughing and learning together. The title of Furphy’s novel quotes the alleged last words spoken by Ned Kelly. But it is the opening sentence of this wonderfully tall tale of a nomadic life – not unlike Rob Sellick’s in many ways: full of good humour, mischief, lightly-worn learning and self-deprecating irony – that I close with in dedication to his memory: “Unemployed at last!”
Professor Russell McDougall, School of Arts, University of New England