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The Conductor and the Premier :: A family history by Mark Tedeschi

The switch by the Italians to the Allied side in 1943 and the end of the war in 1945 resulted in many huge changes in Australia. By 1946 there was shiploads of Italian immigrants arriving on Italian ocean liners at the overseas terminal at Woolloomooloo, who were accepted as ‘new Australians’ to fill the great need for labour to build our infrastructure projects.

Rosina and Robert would often travel by public transport to visit these ships when they berthed, because it was the only place in Sydney — indeed in Australia — where one could get a cappuccino.

It was on one of these Italian liners that my grandmother, Rosina, solidified her connection with Robert Shaw, who also came to the ships for an opportunity to speak Italian with native-born speakers and to savour the Italian food and cappuccino. By now, he was the head of the Italian Department at Sydney University. Rosina reminded him of the work she had done coaching students in Turin.

Several weeks later, the owner of the local corner store near the family’s Bankstown farm brought Rosina a scrap of paper with a message on it that had been received on the store’s phone, as Rosina did not have the phone installed at her farm. The message, which I still have to this day, was to completely change her life and the life of my father. It said:

Mrs Tedeski [sic] — Mr Shaw wants you to ring him tonight after 7 PM, or tomorrow morning about 9 AM – if he has failed to contact you already.

When Rosina rang Mr Shaw, he asked her if she would privately coach a first year student, Andrew Clayton (later a solicitor), who had failed his Italian conversation exam at Sydney University and had been given a second chance in what was known as a ‘post’ — a supplementary exam after the summer holidays. She agreed to help. She did such an excellent job that her student passed his post with a distinction — something that was almost unheard of.

A few weeks later, Shaw asked Rosina to come to Sydney University to teach Italian conversation as a temporary, part-time tutor for just one term. Of course, she immediately agreed. The first term was an unqualified success and quickly turned into a second, and a third, and more. Within a few months, the farm had been sold and Rosina and Robert moved to a flat at 68 Anzac Parade, Kensington, to be closer to the university. Rosina was eventually appointed as a temporary lecturer at the University.

Her life — and my father’s — had metamorphosed. From displaced immigrant farmers they had been transformed into members of Sydney’s academic society. Although Robert was not formally part of the university, he joined in many of the extra-curricular activities that university life had on offer. In 1948, he met Ruth Curtis, a student in the German Department at the University who had fled Germany with her parents and siblings before the war, and in 1949 they were married. Robert and Ruth had a wonderful marriage for more than 53 years until Ruth passed away in 2003.

Twenty-five years after that life-defining telephone message, Rosina was still working as an academic at Sydney University — now as a ‘temporary’ senior lecturer — having taught Italian conversation to several generations of students. At the end of her career in 1971, just several months before she died, Rosina was awarded an MA (honoris causa) degree by the University of Sydney — the only tertiary qualification she ever had.

Rosina's graduation from the University of Sydney in 1971. Courtesy of Mark Tedeschi.
Rosina’s graduation from the University of Sydney in 1971. Courtesy of Mark Tedeschi.

My grandparents’ story is a quintessential Australian story. It vividly demonstrates how Australia was a land of opportunity for immigrants with a contribution to make. Australia provided a refuge for them which meant that they were able to avoid the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe.

Robert became a highly successful accountant, and he was still engaged in professional practice at the age of 88. He passed away at the age of 90 on 31 March 2013.

This article originally appeared in issue 18 of Inside History. Click here for more.

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