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'A bit of Brenker' in every single class

Richard Brenker: a leader who understands that schools are very funny places

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’* If Richard Brenker has a deep familiarity with that past, after 40 years of service to Wesley, he has also significantly influenced its present and its future, as Paul Munn explains.

They do things differently in the past. In December 1980, the newly graduated and just-married Richard Brenker, about to go on his honeymoon in Noosa, walks unannounced into Reception at the St Kilda Road Campus in jeans and a t-shirt, hand-delivering a letter of application for a part-time Media Studies job. To his surprise, the secretary asks him if he’d have an interview with Principal David Prest then and there. As Richard tells it, ‘We chatted for about 40 minutes about all sorts of stuff, and then he said, “The job’s yours.”’

Forty years on, the look of delight on Richard’s face as he shares this anecdote says it all: he feels his Wesley life with a sense of immediacy that reaches back even to that seminal moment so long ago.

That thought is especially poignant right now, because this month he’s retiring after 40 years’ service to our school.

In that first decade – the burgeoning ’80s – Richard essentially watched the school transform from the old Wesley
to the modern school of today. With  the transition to coeducation, Principal David Prest oversaw a complete change in the culture and nature of the school.

It was growing quickly, and a sense of excitement was in the air.

Emerging from the depths of those early days was Richard’s noteworthy nickname: ‘The Whale.’ Newer members of the Wesley community would be mistaken in thinking it came from Richard’s impressive physical size. In fact, it  was inspired during a trip he made  with the Wesley scuba diving club to Wilson’s Prom. Says Richard, ‘According to the group looking on, my going off the back of the boat in a wetsuit was  like a whale breeching!’

Richard Brenker at the Glen Waverley Leadership Assembly: ‘If service is beneath you, leadership is beyond you’
‘A bit of Brenker’ in every single class

It’s fair to say the trim and long-haired young teacher also made an enormous splash on campus, for his part-time job teaching Media Studies and Geography had quickly become full time, and just two years after he started he was Head of Geography.

‘I was new, I was young, I was enthusiastic, I had lots of ideas,’ he says. As long-time Geography colleague Sara Liversidge puts it, ‘He was always a passionate teacher who loved his subject. People just loved being taught by him. You wouldn’t find a child to say a bad word about Richard.’

The result was that Geography grew rapidly. He started with seven students; by 1985 there were 65 students and three classes. Says Sara, ‘In the space of three or four years, Richard basically reinvented Geography at Wesley. He really is the father of Geography for the modern era. And it’s still a very important subject at Wesley; there’s “a bit of Brenker” in every single one of the classes I teach.’

That legacy was already firmly in place in the mid-1990s when he taught current St Kilda Road Physical Education teacher Gareth Briglia (OW1995): ‘Brenks wasn’t just an expert geographer but a passionate Melburnian. This came through especially when the topic of urban sprawl was raised. He would discuss the various strategies to avoid the degradation of land and deforestation, red-faced and jugular protruding. It seemed that any time a shovel was moved east of Warragul Road, Brenks would get quite pissy, marching into class with news clippings to back his frustration – and just you keep your glue stick at the ready!’

Get involved in everything you can

Richard’s activities as a young teacher in the ’80s really set the pattern for his essential approach to Wesley life across his 40 years: get involved in everything you can. He took students on a diverse array of extracurricular expeditions and all sorts of Geography field trips. They were freer times; Richard wryly notes those trips ‘would contravene all child safety and compliance rules now: give a letter to parents and book a bus – that was it!’

A former competitive swimmer, Richard became Teacher in Charge of Swimming, got involved backstage with the Adamson Theatre Company and became Teacher in Charge of Basketball. ‘You got to enjoy lots of different experiences and end up being a jack of all trades to a certain extent,’ he says. The experiences come thick and fast: a year on teacher exchange to King Edwards School in Surrey, England, in 1988 is followed by involvement in school partnership programs, taking students on exchanges to Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere.

At the same time, Richard is steadily building up his experiences in leadership roles. By the end of it all, he has been Head of Faculty, Head of Middle School, Head of Houses in the Senior School, Head of Senior School, Head of both St Kilda Road and Glen Waverley Campuses, Deputy Principal and Acting Principal. There aren’t many jobs he hasn’t done. As Principal Nick Evans (OW1985) observes, there are few who can match his length of service, and ‘very, very few who can match the breadth of Richard’s career… he has directly or indirectly impacted the lives of many thousands of Wesley College students.’

Richard Brenker, back row third from left, in 1994 with colleagues James Brown, Nick Evans and Sara Liversidge, and, front row, Jill Calder and Margaret Amble
A capacity for reinvention

The hardest time for Richard occurs in 2005 when the entire Junior-Middle-Senior School system is restructured and his role as Head of Middle School at St Kilda Road – a role he was enjoying immensely – essentially disappears.

It’s time for a reset. He re-establishes himself at Glen Waverley as Head of Houses, and enrols in a Masters in School Leadership at Monash.

Is this capacity for reinvention behind the success of all people who, like Richard, travel far in their chosen fields? Long-time colleague Dawson Hann puts it like this: ‘Schools need people like him, those you can be certain will be regularly recreating themselves in small ways so as never to abandon the basic importance of teaching well, and living honourably. Richard managed both effortlessly.’

The immense satisfaction he had in his work also derived from his knack for blending his professional passions with his personal ones. In 2009, he began working closely with then Principal Helen Drennen to develop the Yiramalay/Wesley Studio School program. Planning and leading early induction programs to Yiramalay, Richard was in his element. An enthusiastic and committed geographer and environmentalist, he was captivated by the beauty of the Kimberley and the profound impact Yiramalay had on students.

His skill set also found expression in his significant contribution to the management of Wesley building projects over this past decade. Variously involved in the revamp of Glen Waverley’s Junior School complex, the Performing Arts Building construction and Menzies Wing rebuild at St Kilda Road, The St Kilda Road Arts Precinct and Glen Waverley’s superb Drennen Centre, Richard’s viewpoint was as pragmatic and practical as it was educational. ‘My father was a stone mason and I understand building. As a geographer, I can read plans and visualise exactly what they’re going to look like. It’s been a great love to have an outlet for that practical side. And I’m a big believer that if you build beautiful facilities, people respond to them.’

A big heart

Likewise, it seems responding to people is also what energises him. ‘Schools are subjective places, that’s why they’re as much fun as they are,’ he says. ‘Of course it’s an emotional experience – if it’s not, it’s a factory.’ His Dutch genes probably account for his stubborn streak and even his capacity to yell if he felt the need, but that European ebullience found its expression far more often in laughter. Glen Waverley’s Head of Senior School Jill Caple, having now worked closely with Richard for years, says ‘Although Richard can be very loud, and often huffs and puffs, he has a big heart and often cannot say no.’

‘The Whale’ was Principal Nick Evans’ first faculty head, and they’ve been great friends and combatants across the years. Says Nick, ‘Richard understands that schools are very funny places, and has, on many occasions, taken delight in pointing out the absurd that is such a part of schools, to my great enjoyment and that of many others.’ Dawson puts it this way: ‘We were united by a common recognition that schools are not just places of interest, and for properly advancing the human condition, but often downright hilarious. Richard understood the wisdom in laughter, without ever ignoring the high responsibility of our calling as teachers.’

‘If service is beneath you, leadership is beyond you’

High responsibility indeed, and when it came to delivering a true education for our students, and ensuring the wellbeing of his colleagues, Richard was dead serious. In this, his favourite saying is instructive: ‘If service is beneath you, leadership is beyond you.’ His commitment to service is a common refrain amongst those who know him well. For friend and colleague David Steele, ‘Richard has purple and gold blood in his veins. He is a true servant of the College and it shows.’

His willingness to serve was fully tested when he took the helm at the College for Semester 1 in 2019 in the leadership hiatus between Helen’s departure and Nick’s arrival. Performing the combined roles of Acting Principal, Deputy Principal and Head of Glen Waverley ‘nearly killed me, to be perfectly honest,’ he says. Jill shares her view: ‘He has a great work ethic and loves his work, which is why he would have coped with the unrealistic workload.’ He’s justifiably proud of his part in achieving a smooth, trouble-free transition.

And he would be the first to acknowledge that he couldn’t have done any of it without the support of wife Lindy. With family clearly on his mind, he adds, ‘As a parent, I saw firsthand and continue to see what Jason (OW2007) and Madeleine (OW2009) gained from their Wesley education. I’m in awe of what the school has given them.’

It’s been an extraordinary Wesley College career, and Richard would be the first to acknowledge this as well. That initial look of delight returns: ‘I’ve had a really rich experience. People say, “How can you have spent 40 years at the school?”

I don’t know how I squeezed it all in to be perfectly honest. It’s gone so quickly.’

Paul Munn is the Editor of Lion and regular features writer.

* The interested reader may recognise this opening line in LP Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go Between.

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