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News > Alumni Stories > Kevin Fagan Memorial Dedication Ceremony

Kevin Fagan Memorial Dedication Ceremony

St John's College celebrates the installation of a memorial to one of its own: Major (Dr) Kevin Fagan AO

Sunday 28 August 2022 proved an agreeable day to hold the dedication ceremony of the Kevin Fagan Memorial.  The heavens obliged by keeping the rain at bay to give way to an unseasonably warm, sunny afternoon.  The day was very much a family affair with many members of the Fagan family, some with young children in tow, coming to show their support.  The event was hosted by Council Chair Mr John Coorey and also received support from Major General (Dr) Charles New OAM and Lt Col Nicholas de Bont, while Ms Mary-Jean O'Doherty lent her ethereal voice to a moving rendition of Abide with Me.

The memorial sculpture is the work of artist Louis Pratt who explains his inspiration:

This memorial sculpture brings together symbolic elements that commemorate the life of Dr Kevin Fagan AO. The materials are bronze and 24-karat gold leaf surrounded by white stones of a Japanese peace garden.

The railway track formation is a level crossing, embodying both Dr Fagan’s faith and the railway that the POWs laboured to build. The cross is a healing force for all those who suffered in the construction of this railway track. A railway spike, sourced from the Burma railway, acts as a coat hanger from which hangs a doctor’s jacket. Embroidered above the pocket is his name, Dr Kevin Fagan.

On the other side of the track is an Australian Army Medical Corps officer’s hat. This hat would have identified Dr Fagan’s rank as a Major in the Second World War. At the base of the cross are five eggs gilded with 24-karat gold. This element epitomises Dr Fagan’s generosity and sacrifice, as detailed in the many stories of his character, one of which tells of how he gifted five eggs to a fellow soldier when starvation was all around.

All these elements rise from a Japanese peace stone garden, putting to rest the turmoil of the Second World War.

The spike from the Burma railway was graciously gifted by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for this memorial.

Mr Pratt presented this spike at the ceremony to Mr Coorey for the custodianship of St John’s College.

Major (Dr) Kevin Fagan AO was a high achiever from an early age, earning accolades at his old stomping ground of St Ignatius College Riverview before similarly excelling at St John’s College from 1927 until 1932.  He completed his degree in Medicine at the University of Sydney where he graduated with first class honours. He began his career at Hobart Medical Hospital before moving on to Sydney’s Prince Henry Hospital.

The outbreak of the Second World War saw Fagan enlist with the Australian Army Medical Corps; the Fall of Singapore in 1942 saw him become a prisoner of war first at Changi, and later the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway where tens of thousands of prisoners of war perished under oppressive, inhumane conditions.  During these difficult years, Dr Fagan showed remarkable compassion towards his fellow prisoners of war in looking after both their physical and emotional welfare, often to his own detriment.  He went on to re-carve a successful medical career for himself after the war where he earned the respect of many through his talented surgical skills, unshakeable work ethics and unparalleled care for his patients.

Rector Dr Mark Schembri spoke of Dr Fagan’s precious legacy to the College:

With his needle he stitched back together what man had torn apart.  And at the tip of his scalpel, death gave way to life.  He was a light in the world and a purer virtue in the face of unimaginable adversity.  While I hope that none of our students will have to face the horrors of war, it would be naive to think that they are now immune from its shadow. 

What we can hope, and work, and pray for is that St John’s College, our students, will be formed into men and women who will, like Dr Fagan, shine in the darkness. 

I’m honoured to stand here in the presence of a memorial which, like its namesake, will enjoy a permanent place in the history of our College.

The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson AO was a guest speaker at the event.  The former federal Leader of the Opposition and Director of the Australian War Memorial, and current president of Boeing Australia spoke eloquently of the power of art in telling a story, and of the lessons that can be learned from the past to help us navigate towards a better future:

A sense of history, a sense of those who gave us what we have and made us who we are is essential to any understanding of the future.  When little else in the world makes sense, drawing on those whom we honour from our past reminds us of where in our best selves we need to go.

Dr Nelson spoke of character transcending rank, power and influence.  He spoke of integrity, of moral and physical courage and endurance, and of sacrifice whilst referencing Dr Fagan’s personal journey: While Australian prisoners of war worked a gruelling average of 15 hours a day on the railway, Dr Fagan worked for 18.  When food was already desperately scarce, he gave his portion to those who needed it more.  And while everyone struggled with the heat and back-breaking work, he hoisted exhausted comrades’ bags on his own weary back. 

Dr Nelson concluded his speech with a reminder to all of us: “This sculptural work, Kevin Fagan, his life, will remind us every day to dedicate ourselves to be a people that continues to be worthy of these sacrifices.

His Grace Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP provided his own spiritual interpretation by speaking of the good life and humanity’s never-ending quest for wisdom, echoing Dr Nelson’s words about sacrifice and the paradox we have inherited from Christ Himself: “To save your life, you must first lose it.”  Give everything you have, and you will get it back many times over.

Archbishop Fisher reminded us that Dr Fagan was accorded many blessings, having been an exceptionally gifted scholar, athlete and medical professional prior to the war.  But he gave himself unreservedly to serve the needs of his fellows, so much so that “some thought he was more angel than man.

“If ever there was a good life for our young women and men to emulate, this was surely one.

It’s easy to lose the man behind the legend, especially one who has received so much public recognition over the years – but Kevin Fagan was also someone’s son, husband, father and brother.  It was fitting that the last word of the day came from one of his own, daughter Dr Patricia Fagan.  Dr Fagan began by graciously thanking the College and speakers for their tributes to her father, conceding that the man himself could never have imagined such an honour.  Through her we were given a more private portrait of a loving father, a family man of simple tastes, a humble man who played down his heroism and who had an amazing capacity for forgiveness.

He was not broken by his experience, didn’t become cynical by humanity…he was a patient, even-tempered and gentle fellow.  A practical man with a good sense of humour.

Dr Fagan recalls the quote she’d read from her father – a simple yet eloquent expression of how one man can survive an experience that would swallow most of us whole:

You know, when it comes to the end, the only thing that matters are the people whom you love and those who love you.

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