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Historical perspective

Historical perspective


After a successful career in chemistry, marketing, and regional
development, Al McLean is about to become a historian. Here he tells Kevin McCarthy a thing or two about Geelong's economic and industrial past.


"My life at the moment is as a student," Al McLean begins. He is in
the final months of a PhD through the Faculty of Arts at Deakin
University. "I'm doing the history of regional development from a
national perspective, and I'm looking at the performance of the
Geelong Regional Commission from a local perspective.

"I decided a couple of years ago to devote my time to my research. My
whole focus these days is to become a competent historian so that I
can ply my trade once I have finished this qualification."

At 67, Al McLean possesses a level of physical fitness and an
inquiring mind that is the envy of many his junior. His enthusiasm
for a new career as a historian is every bit as intense as a young
under graduate embarking on his first professional appointment.

"My main love is industrial history," he continues, "and I've already
written the draft of a book on industrial development in Geelong in
the 19th century - a period which really formed the basis for the way
Geelong developed in the 20th century. What is not well understood is
that Geelong was a very vibrant manufacturing base back in the
1860's. It comes up very well in the diversification of its
manufacturing activity at the time, rivaling Sydney, Hobart and
Melbourne. In the 1870's, Geelong undertook a number of innovative
projects that were capital intensive and were hallmarks in advanced
manufacturing - like the woolen mills, rope and paper manufacture,
and engineering. We even manufactured a locomotive engine."

And Al McLean has his own historical connection to Geelong.

"My great-great-grandfather, Alexander McLean, arrived in Geelong
from the Island of Skye on the first of October 1852. He and his wife
Ann lived in Newcastle Street at the bottom of the Newtown Hill,
until his death in 1878. My great-grandfather, Alexander, my
grandfather, Alexander, and my father, Alexander, were all career
railway men and spent much of their time in country Victoria. I am an
only child, and in fact my father got into real strife with the
family because I wasn't christened Alexander. Instead they chose
Alwin, which is half their own christian names - Alexander and
Winifred. I am the only missing link in the chain because one of my
sons also has the name Alexander.

"I was born in Bendigo and lived there until I was four, but most of
my time thereafter was in Melbourne - in Albert Park. I can still
remember the American servicemen at the end of the war, being part of
our every day life. We had great advantages during the long boom that
followed because of our proximity to the Bay and to downtown
Melbourne - it was a great lifestyle.

"When I was young I didn't know what I wanted to do so we went along
to the vocational guidance organisation, which was the go in those
days. They advised me to become an architect or a chemist, and
because my artistic endeavours were not very good, I thought it would
be safer to go into chemistry.

"From there it was logical to look for a job close to home. I went to
the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, where I worked as a trainee
chemist. It taught me some very valuable lessons about the skills of
the people in manufacturing, and that you have to get your hands
dirty in order to understand the process, the people and the
manufacturing way of life.

"I remember I made a very conscious decision to move into marketing.
We were building the Sabre jet at the time, and the whole defence
industry was fairly fragile in terms of its long-term outlook.
Plastics were becoming the in word, a bit like IT today, so I made a
decision to move into the area of plastics. I joined Nylex as a
development chemist, and later moved to what became Dow Chemicals.
The move into marketing was through the technical services route, and
it wasn't until I moved overseas to Canada that I really got involved
with marketing."

McLean took up a position of market development representative with
Du Pont of Canada in 1967, and completed a Bachelor of Science
(Chemistry) at Canada's Waterloo University in 1969.

"Marketing was very, very different, but I found that whether you are
talking about regional development or marketing, unless you have a
half-good technical base you can't fully understand the ramifications
of the activity.

"I used to voice fairly firm ideas on the way I saw the world while I
was at the University of Waterloo, and I was accused by my fellow
students of being full of talk but not full of action. That's when I
began to think about ways I should be making a contribution to the
community I live in.

"My first move, which seems a bit unusual I suppose, was to get
involved with the Australian Army Reserve in 1970, an activity which
dominated my life for about 14 years. Gradually I started to think
that if my spare time activities involved something that I thought
was contributing, maybe I should look at the way I was making a
living as a way of contributing as well.

"It wasn't easy to make a transition from the technical side of
polymer chemistry into public service. I moved into Australia Post
looking after their marketing research and planning, and that gave me
the transition to move into regional development. I suppose it was
heightened when I moved to Geelong in 1981, as economic development
director at the Geelong Regional Commission. I was immediately taken
by the Geelong lifestyle and began to see that it was possible in a
community this size to really make a difference.

"There is little doubt that in the last decade, the fortunes of
Geelong have changed dramatically, and I get the feeling that some of
us have taken the foot off the accelerator. Because we are going
through a relatively good time, we mustn't forget that the economy is
cyclical. We should be using this period of time to prepare for the
future.

"The most significant activity to take place in recent times, in my
opinion, is G21. I believe it's a step in the right direction and
it's certainly coming to grips with the contemporary needs of the
regional community. But it needs to be sustainably resourced and it
must be given credence by the participating organisations -
orientating themselves to the strategies of G21, and more
importantly, not see it as a threat."

Al McLean has a long and distinguished record as an active
participant in local organisations - from the GRC to Victoria's
Golden Region, Geelong's Wool Industry Taskforce and Manufacturing
Taskforce, the Geelong Chamber of Commerce, and Unilink - a
commercial technology company of Deakin University.

"I also have an interest in things military, and I collect militaria.
The reason I got involved with a particular brand of early history
started when I was collecting some medals from the Australian Light
Horse, and I made a mistake. I bought some Imperial Light Horse
medals rather than Australian Light Horse, and I didn't discover the
mistake it until a couple of months later. Since I had made the
purchase, I decided I would carry out the research on the individual
- a private Lamb from Western Australia. I found that the regiment he
joined had been started by a chap who was a West Australian timber
merchant, and in fact half the unit comprised Australian expats who
were in South Africa in the gold mining areas. So I became very
involved with British history of the time and wrote my first thesis
on the Johannesburg Revolution of 1885, and that gave me a
springboard into other things.

"When it comes to history, Sir Keith Hancock was such a brilliant
inspiration with his work on the war economy in Britain. It stands as
a seminal work even today, and in fact I base a lot of my
methodological approaches on Hancock's approach. At a local level,
people like Roy Hay at Deakin University is a brilliant industrial
historian who had a great influence on my early work, and Philip
Brown who, through his work with the early pioneers, has set a
standard that many of us aspire to but few attain.

"And I suppose when I'm not engaged with writing history, my love is
track and field athletics. A few years ago I used to compete as a
veteran, but now I confine my activity to coaching. My specific area
of interest is hurdling."

McLean's interest in athletics dates back to his school days, and
continued to medal winning performances in the Australian Masters
Games, the Australian Veterans Championships, and the World Masters
Games. He set an Australian record (55-59 years) in the 90 metres
hurdles, and is an accredited Level 1 coach with the Australian Track
and Field Coaches Association.

With such a distinguished career, you might expect Al McLean to
contemplate retirement, or at least a slowing down.

"Look, I think that life is like a series of rooms," he confided,
"and what you have to do is enthusiastically and optimistically open
each door as you travel forward. Whatever opportunities are there, if
you feel comfortable with them, you grasp them. As far as I am
concerned, history is a natural evolution of my development - I'm
simply entering another room.

"My current studies are just preparing me for a role as a historian
over the next couple of decades. I'd like to follow in the footsteps
of people like Philip Brown, Ian Wynd, Gladys Seaton and Peter Alsop,
in documenting the history of Geelong with a particular emphasis on
its economic history and its industrial history.

"There are so many stories yet to be told and they need to be told.
If we don't know where we've come from, how can we possibly work out
where we're going?"