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(FREDERICK) JOHN RICHARDS OAM November 1, 1935-April 28, 2023

Rural Australia lost one of its finest champions following the death of (Frederick) John Richards in his 87th year.

Although John grew up in Melbourne and was educated at Malvern Grammar School, he developed a passion for rural living and agriculture. During his last years of secondary school, John studied agricultural science one afternoon a week at the Burnley Agricultural College. On finishing school, he got a job at the Newmarket sale yards before moving to Gerogery, NSW, to work as a jackaroo. John then registered for national service and spent time in the armed corps driving a tank.

Having completed national service, John returned to agriculture and managed a property near Ballarat. During this time, he sustained a serious back injury which required him to take a break from manual work. John turned to a friend who had a recruiting business, for advice about what he could pursue next in his career. This led to a successful career in superannuation and investment and time spent working in Melbourne and Sydney.

John constantly sought out new challenges and these included dabbling in real estate and attending night school to obtain his real estate licence. Eventually, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a newsagent in Sydney Road, Brunswick. After a few years, the opportunity to run a news agency in Yarrawonga arose. John grabbed the chance to move and to pursue his interests in rural affairs and agriculture.

John Richards: passion for rural health.

In Yarrawonga, John settled into a busy life, filled with work, life-long learning, caring, service to others and his community, and philanthropy. During his working life John not only worked full-time in his news agency, he also had side businesses, and participated in professional and community activities, travel, farming, and fishing. John’s advice for a fulfilled life was to “be busy – keep your mind active and always find something to do of a positive nature, rather than just filling in time for the sake of it”.

John was a lifelong learner, but he did not follow the standard means of broadening his education. Instead, he learnt about life, work, and people, by plunging headlong into living and taking everyday opportunities for learning. As John engaged in everyday work, community, and social activities, he would say to himself: “Oh, am I interested in that? Is there any future in that for me? Not from a selfish point of view, but for learning and improving my own capacity.”

John enjoyed travelling and frequently used this to further his knowledge. In his own words, he did not travel “just to look at pretty pictures or buildings. I went to meet people and meet contacts from all around the world as part of my business and community activities”.

Throughout his life, John displayed commitment to improving the lives of rural people through community service. He served as chair of the Central Murray Development Corporation during a time which saw the establishment of the natural gas pipeline to Yarrawonga. To illustrate his diversity, he served as state vice-president of the News Agency Association; managed the Yarrawonga team in the Sun cycling tour; and was involved with Landcare.

One of John’s great passions was rural health. He served on the board of Yarrawonga District Health for 28 years and was also president of the board. John was very effective in his role with Moira Healthcare Alliance. As part of this role, he was instrumental in facilitating the building of a new hospital at Yarrawonga and expanding its aged-care services. In 2007, John Richards was a recipient of the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for service to the community of the Moira Shire, particularly as a contributor to health sector development, and to the newsagency industry through the Victorian Authorised Newsagents Association.

John was the epitome of positive ageing. In his 70s, when most people would have been enjoying, or planning on, retirement, he embarked on a new adventure. Building on his interest in health and aged care, he developed the idea of a research centre to improve the lives of rural older people. In 2007, he donated funding and using his sharp business acumen, obtained matching funding from La Trobe University and the Victorian Department of Health to set up the John Richards Initiative for research into ageing in rural communities at the Albury-Wodonga campus. In 2015, John was awarded doctor of science (honoris causa) from La Trobe University.

John was a very generous man, yet very humble when praised for his big-heartedness. His philosophy about community and philanthropy was “if you get something out of it, you’ve got to contribute something back to it, other than just paying your taxes”.

John was always modest about his achievement as a pioneer in rural ageing and aged care research landscape in Australia. The John Richards Centre for Rural Ageing Research celebrated its 15th year anniversary in November 2022. During an interview to celebrate this event John outlined his hopes for the future: “JRC is expanding in the direction of helping professionals provide excellent care. In 50 years hence, I hope the JRC is still considering their purpose in life and expanding to accommodate the changes that have taken place.”

Following a lifetime of service to the community and vision backed up by his own philanthropy, John leaves behind a remarkable legacy. He conceded last month that this was the end of his journey and time for him “to stand back and let the younger ones take over”. Staff and students at the John Richards Centre are proud to carry on his legacy towards better health and wellbeing of rural Australians.

John is survived by his sister Margaret and brothers Rick, Glen and David.

Professor Irene Blackberry is chair and director John Richards Centre for Rural Ageing Research at La Trobe Rural Health School, La Trobe University. Dr Sean MacDermott is deputy director John Richards Centre for Rural Ageing.

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