Vinnies' revolutionary president


Syd TuttonSyd Tutton, national president of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia, died in the early hours of Sunday 12 December 2010.

Syd lived, and died, as a fighter for social justice. This, for him, was what it meant to be a man of faith. Following the example of Jesus of Nazareth, Syd believed passionately in taking the side of the marginalised even if this meant challenging the powerful.

For Syd, a person of deep prayer and real compassion, this was at the heart of the Gospel. He made it his goal to bring social justice back to the centre of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia. In this respect he was fond of quoting the gentle Francis of Assisi who was remembered as saying to his followers: 'Preach the gospel and sometimes use words'.

Syd was diagnosed with cancer of the liver and the stomach just three weeks prior to his death. Everyone who visited him during this time was struck by his incredible serenity and his strong sense of being ready to go to God. Not to mention his sense of humour!

Born on 22 May 1937 in working class Richmond, Syd savoured the lessons of his childhood and threw himself into the rough-and-tumble of life in all its aspects: social, economic, intellectual, cultural, political and personal. This included overseas service with the Royal Australian Navy as a Reservist and National Serviceman, a time he remembered with great fondness and humour.

In 1958, he founded one of the first credit unions to provide low interest rates for the people of working class Richmond. A strong believer in mutuality he also served as vice-chairman of the board of the Catholic based Hospital Benefits Association.

Syd was incapable of sitting still. He had a remarkable ability to enthuse and energise those around him. His interests and activities were diverse, to say the least. He played a leading role in the Young Christian Workers, including their Cricket Association, Umpires Appointment Board and Football Association Tribunal.

He was also involved in the founding of the 'Loyola Musical Society', where he met and fell in love with Josephine Reay. They married in 1966 and together they had six children and ten grandchildren. At the time of his death another grandchild was on the way. Wherever he was and whatever he did, Syd's family was always close to his heart.

He loved both politics and religion and was not afraid to talk about either of them. Whatever Syd committed himself to meant a substantial commitment of time and personal energy. He was incapable of being a bystander. He always had a hands-on involvement with the church, serving variously as Parish Council member, Lector and Special Minister.

He was involved in the establishment of the Catholic Retirement Village, served as Chairperson of the Inter-Church Social Justice Group and, more recently, served as a co-patron of the St Mary's House of Welcome (Daughters of Charity) Building Appeal. He was also personally involved in both the ALP and the DLP, even standing at one stage as a candidate for the State Seat of Richmond.

Moving on from what he saw as the narrow vision associated with 'The Movement' he was grateful for the first-hand experience of political life, citing, for example, the deep mutual respect and friendship he even enjoyed with a local Communist activist.

Syd had a deep appreciation of literature, the arts, theology, political and economic theory, and history. He would often astonish us with his encyclopedic knowledge of everything from Australian Prime Ministers to the Napoleonic Wars. His favourite poet was the Scottish George Mackay Brown, whom he had the pleasure of meeting on Stromness in the Orkney Islands. More recently he  developed a love for the earthy Christianity-from-the-fringe of the Aotearoa poet James K. Baxter.

He was a voracious reader, collected paintings wherever he went, and loved to have Elgar or Tchaikovsky blaring in the background while you were trying to talk with him over the phone. He was consistently asking taxi drivers to change the radio station to ABC Classic FM.

It was not that unusual for him to burst into a little Gilbert and Sullivan from time to time, or to recite some Browning or Tennyson as the mood took him. He could sweep people into his mood, lifting spirits, regaling with tales, leaving everyone in fits of laughter.

Syd applied himself assiduously to further studies and was always a great champion of the centrality of education. He earned a Diploma of Business Studies from Monash University and undertook Post Graduate Studies in Management at the University of New South Wales. He became a Certified Public Accountant, a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management and a Member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

While appreciating theory he was pre-eminently a man of action. Syd spent 51 years in Electricity Supply Industry, retiring in 2002. He served as Manager and Company Secretary of the Electricity Supply Association of Australia, was Secretary of the Australian National Committee of the World Energy Council and member of the Executive Assembly representing Australia.

He was later Secretary of the Australian Committee of the Counseil International des Grands Reseaux Electriques (International Council on large Electric System), the Paris-based organisation for the interchange of technical information on transmission of high voltage electricity, and was appointed a Distinguished Member in Paris in 2000.

All of this regularly took him overseas, especially to London and Paris. He won the respect of his European colleagues despite their Eurocentric prejudices against the Antipodes, even becoming the first non-European Chairperson of the International Representatives Meeting at Palais de Congress in Paris, 2002.

Syd was a member of the St Vincent de Paul Society for more than 40 years. He served as the Victorian State President from 2001 to 2006. He then served as National Secretary from June 2006 prior to being elected as National President in March, 2008.

Syd was also a member of the Board of the St Vincent de Paul Society's International Council General, based in Paris, and was highly respected and loved by Vincentians across the globe, representing Australia and making a significant contribution to reform and renewal of the International Confederation of the Society. He also touched people in a profoundly personal way. Syd was the living embodiment of human solidarity.

'I cannot forget his smiling face', wrote Prakasham, the National Project Officer for the Society in India, where Syd was a driving force behind the Asia-Pacific Congress held in September this year.

'His total focus on the needs of the marginalised, his willingness to battle for them — at great cost to himself and his health — is something I will always treasure. Of all the prophetic people I have ever met, he is from the very top drawer,' wrote highly respected Social Anthropologist Fr Gerald Arbuckle.

'Those who have met and known Brother Syd have been privileged to experience his warmth and big heartedness especially in helping the poor and marginalized,' wrote Thomas Tan, the coordinator for the South-East Asian region of the St Vincent de Paul Society.

Syd gave himself completely to the cause of people who are pushed to the margins of society, both globally and locally. He continued to call for a revolutionary approach to social justice and social change, unafraid of the criticisms he sometimes incurred for this courageous stand.

His practical achievements as Victorian state president, national secretary and national president are far too numerous to list here. As far as he was concerned, he was completely uninterested in personal recognition, making light, for example, of the Papal Knighthood he deservedly received in 2009, threatening to ask the Vatican for a horse to go with the title!

For Syd, his work for the St Vincent de Paul Society was simply a matter of seeking, and finding, God, in the people who are oppressed by structures of injustice and inequality. He went into bat for absolutely any group in society who were degraded and despised and he did this on a personal level as well as in the political arena.

He believed in a social democratic approach to the organization of the economy and society, arguing that Government must do what markets cannot, especially regarding the equitable distribution of essentials such as housing. He often denounced the persistence of homelessness in prosperous Australia as a national scandal.

Whilst he was, to all who knew him, a loyal son of the church, his view of the church became increasingly radical and critical of the polarization between hierarchical structures and the simple revolutionary message of the Gospel.

At the Opening of Kennedy House, a homelessness service in Goulburn, earlier this year for example, he said:

'When people think of Christianity the first image that often comes to mind is the church building. They might think of a humble parish church or they might be reminded of the pomp and glory of St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

I would like to put it you that the Christianity that has its basis in the simple gospel of Jesus of Nazareth is in many ways better exemplified by the building we are opening here today.

Kennedy House, and the St Vincent de Paul Society for that matter, represents the simple, very human, and therefore very sacred, presence of Jesus on the margins of society.

The people that Kennedy House exists for are, for us, the presence of Christ.

I don't say these things to be sanctimonious. I say them because they need to be said at a time when, on the one hand many people in the world see the church as having become distant from the Gospel, and on the other hand we have a world that is fixated on the accumulation of unnecessary wealth, even when it comes at the price of accumulated misery and poverty for so many.'

Syd was deeply worried about the exclusion experienced by people living with a mental illness in society. He was also angered by the injustices to people doing it tough, whether at the bottom end of the labour market or on its fringes. He was scathing in his criticism of policies that reflected prejudice and meanness towards asylum seekers.

He also slammed the blanket imposition of compulsory income management on people on social security benefits, currently supported by both sides of politics, using words that are probably best left unprinted here to describe how out of touch our legislators and policy-makers are if this is what they believe will address the causes of poverty and inequality.

Syd fought hard for renewal within the St Vincent de Paul Society, even taking on the unenviable task of suspending and reforming the NSW State Council. He was always looking towards the future, especially with an eye on increasing the number of young people in leadership positions. He was also committed to addressing the gender imbalance in the leadership of the Society and made significant progress in this area, observing that the church would do well to do likewise!

Syd comfortably straddled the macro and the micro, paying the same degree of detailed attention to the successful move of the National Office from Sydney to Canberra as he would to a home visit to a struggling family.

Syd was uncompromising in his insistence that the St Vincent de Paul Society is a volunteer organization and that it should never go down the path of adopting a corporate culture or structure. He argued that the Society is a spiritual organization but that the spirituality must flow from the praxis of solidarity and compassion rather than merely being a show of religiosity.

He loved to foster critical thinking and reflection among the Society's members, taking a personal role in editing the Society's national magazine, The Record, encouraging the publication of controversial and thought-provoking pieces while always welcoming and publishing the letters that were often sent berating either the authors or the editor!

He commissioned a number of books, including a forthcoming history of the St Vincent de Paul Society's National Council which he insisted should be 'warts and all', and inaugurating the annual Gerald Ward lecture on Social Justice in Canberra.

He facilitated and supported an unequivocal advocacy role for the Society, never bowing to the voices that wished the Society to be silent. To these critics he liked to quote Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the young activist-academic who founded the St Vincent de Paul Society in 19th century Paris: 'Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is the role of justice to prevent the attack!'

He had a deep love of the life and teaching of Ozanam, saying even on his death bed the Society must never be afraid to be revolutionary in its defence of the poor and its struggle for social justice.

But he would have wanted the last word to go to his beloved Inigo de Loyola, the soldier-saint who founded the Jesuits, whose motto, 'Ad maiorem Dei gloriam' (All things for the greater glory of God) he made his own.

Syd is survived and lovingly remembered by his wife Josephine, his children Carmel, Bernadette, Claire, Denise, Geraldine and Stewart and grandchildren Emily, Lauren, Jane, Timothy, Connor, Ryan, Noah, Hamish, Alva, and Hans. 

John FalzonDr John Falzon is a sociologist, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia, and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board. He has written and spoken widely on the structural causes of marginalisation and inequality in Australia and has long been involved in advocacy campaigns for a fairer and more equitable society. 

Topic tags: John Falzon, Syd Tutton, St Vincent de Paul Society



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Existing comments

An inspiring eulogy. It's good to hear about good people.
Stephen Kellett | 17 December 2010

What a man of the Gospel. I hope the Catholic Church in this country can study Syd's life, learn from it and promote him as a model of Christian faith and self-investment in the mystery of the Incarnation.
David Timbs | 17 December 2010

Wonderful! Please send it to the national metropolitan dailies. Given the many negative stories, it would be great for secular society to read such a positive one.
Bill Frilay | 20 December 2010

Go with God, Syd Tutton. You did indeed preach the Gospel, sometimes using words. May your life continue to inspire all of us to become more and more truly the Body of Christ alive in the world.
Joan Seymour. | 14 March 2011


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