John Mitchell’s belief that “the shortest distance between poverty and wealth is education,” paired with immense gratitude for its supportive community, inspired his bequest to Burgmann College.
The Managing Director of historic Towong Hill Station (on the banks of the Murray River near Corryong, Victoria) says Burgmann and the Australian National University (ANU), together, have been “the biggest thing in my life”.
After growing up in an oppressive home environment, with a father who did not support his pursuit of higher education, then diagnosed with bipolar disorder, John experienced both some of his greatest challenges and greatest support while studying towards his Bachelor of Economics.
“My health was rocky while I was in Burgmann. I had three admissions to psychiatric hospital and struggled through my degree on and off for six years. Some semesters I was working back here on the farm,” he says.
John discovered the College by chance through school friends who were residing there while he jackarooed on farms in New South Wales for two years.
“I visited and stayed with them a few times.”
During this time, he also completed correspondence courses in farm animal breeding, management and economics, before deciding to pursue his economics degree and became a resident himself.
“It was a lucky pick. I don’t think the other colleges would have been as accommodating as Burgmann.”
Resident from 1975 to 1978, John was especially grateful for the support of then Burgmann master Trevor Wigney, who generously overlooked some of his more mischievous activities. This included experiments with explosives from the Shire Council, where he worked to support himself as a student by blowing up quarries—regularly parking his Holden ute at Burgmann with a tray full of nitropil and nitroglycerin.
“Mr Wigney deserved a medal for his patience with me and my erratic behaviour,” he jokes.
Other favourite memories include being part of a group of skydiving residents and parachuting into ANU’s South Oval.
But most of all, he remembers the camaraderie: the jokes, laughter and lively discussions around the Dining Hall and outdoor coffee area—where they decamped to after smoking was banned in the Dining Hall in 1978.
“There was intellectual debate at Burgmann that I’ve not had since. It’s been sadly missed in the 40 years since I left. That was a real feature of the College,” he says.
“I owe my success to the Faculty of Economics at the ANU, but if I’d lived in another hall of residence, I may not have got through. The support of the students and the support of the staff at Burgmann was amazing."
“I owe my success to the Faculty of Economics at the ANU, but if I’d lived in another hall of residence, I may not have got through. The support of the students and the support of the staff at Burgmann was amazing.
“Although some people may have considered me the village idiot, I was never abused. I made lifelong friends at Burgmann.”
Since completing his studies at ANU, John has worked for the past 40 years on the family farm, with what he describes as a “colourful career in rural Australia”, though he does not consider it amongst his natural talents.
“I love farms, but I don’t like working on them. Stockmen are born not made; plant operators are born, not made—I was neither, and I don’t have the skills of my grandfather, General [Harry] Chauvel, who could command a battalion. But I have gotten things done around the farm here.”
This includes overcoming the ravages of bushfire on multiple occasions—not least among them the 2020 blaze that left Towong’s nearly 120-year-old homestead (and his childhood home) a ruin, though fortunately left his current home untouched.
In the wake of the devastating 2020 fires, John was characteristically more concerned about the welfare of his rural neighbours, donating generously to mental health programs at Corryong Health.
It was this same passionate spirit of social concern that prompted his generosity to both Burgmann and ANU, including the creation of the John Mitchell Economics of Poverty Lab in ANU’s Research School of Economics and John Mitchell Fellowship, to to alleviate income inequality and poverty.
“I see myself as very lucky,” John says, “but a lot of people are not. I said to myself, those who went through on Whitlam’s free education have a duty to give back.”
John’s bequest to Burgmann is untied, giving the College freedom to decide how best to use it.
“If they want to refurbish rooms, create scholarships, etcetera, they can use it where it’s most needed. I’ve had always had confidence in the Burgmann staff and Board.”
John was awarded an honorary doctorate by ANU in 2017 for his exceptional contribution to the standing and reputation of the University, and the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2018 for his service to the community as a philanthropist.
To find out more about leaving a gift in your Will to Burgmann College, download a copy of the Gifts in Wills Booklet, or contact Director of Advancement Ms Amelia Zaraftis, ph: +61 (0)2 6125 6890, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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