An Ode for a new generation

15 April 2021

A reminder of the cost of war, The Ode was first read to honour our ANZACs in 1921. But a fellow centenarian has penned an updated tribute for a new generation.

Dr John O’Hagan knows what a momentous achievement it is to turn 100.  

He celebrated his 100th birthday in December 2019 and, as The Ode will celebrate a century of being read in commemoration of wartime sacrifice this ANZAC Day*, it seems fitting that this centenarian has put pen to paper to write a poem that pays tribute to the original.  

Dr O’Hagan wanted to write a piece that spoke to the younger veteran community and he drew inspiration from the reverence and remembrance The Ode represents.  

“My mother was a poet, her father wrote poetry, and research of our Irish family heritage shows they were known for poetry, too. I felt inspired to write a poem that spoke to the positive contributions our younger veteran community make to our services,” he says.  

“It took me quite a while to get the wording right. I’d sit and scribble ideas and I felt that I had it all right except for the last line. 

“It was my friend Rose, who had acted as a sounding board from when I first started writing the poem, who said we don’t give love, we feel love. It’s true, so that clinched it. Everything else was rhyming from then on.”   

JOHN’S ODE 

We pause to honour, our valiant ones

who served their country, so beautiful and grand.

In silence we remember, its daughters and sons

who inspire us to feel, greater love for our land.

John O'Hagans Ode

An enquiring LIFE 

A lifelong spirit of curiosity has led Dr John O’Hagan down some interesting paths.  

From studying at the University of Queensland, to becoming Queensland’s first clinical biochemist, and even taking on the role of public relations spokesperson while at the CSIRO, his life after serving in the Australian Army has been rich and varied.  

Dr O’Hagan was studying as an evening student at the University of Queensland (UQ) in 1939 and working during the day as a cadet draftsman at the Queensland Department of Public Lands when he was called up for duty in the Army.

“After finishing my junior studies, which would be the equivalent of Year 10 today, I went into the public service, which was a real honour in those days,” he says.  

“I was called up for duty, enlisting in the Army, and served during the Coral Sea Battle, based in Townsville. It was around this time they asked for people who had an interest in physics and maths to apply for a secret project.

“There were two dozen or more that applied and I was the one who was given the post. They sent me to Sydney for a three-month course in radiolocation and ranging (RADAR) technology.”  

While it is technology that is widely used today, back then it was knowledge that was shared by only a few, and took Dr O’Hagan to Darwin’s 55th Australian Composite Anti-Aircraft Regiment in 1943.  

SAVED BY SCIENCE  

He reflects on this time and often believes there is truth to the possibility science saved his life. 

“It wasn’t until many years after I left the Army that I learnt that when I came back from Sydney was around the same time as my infantry battalion in Townsville boarded a ship to New Guinea,” he explains. 

“Quite a few of those chaps never came back. When I left for Sydney, I was a Corporal in the pioneer battalion and the pioneers were the first to go in. 

“So, the chances were high that I might not have come back. Somehow or other I’ve been sent to do all the other things I’ve done. I’ve been very lucky.”  

Dr O’Hagan finished his studies in 1947, earning a Bachelor of Science from UQ. He continued his studies with a Master of Science in 1950 and a PhD in 1959.  

“I was the first PhD graduate in biochemistry from a Queensland university,” he says.  

His career in science spanned work with the Queensland Department of Health, the Red Cross Blood Service, the Princess Alexandra Hospital pathology department, UQ and the CSIRO, contributing to more than 30 years of clinical and applied research that has helped progress medical knowledge globally. 

“Even as a young boy I knew I wanted to be a chemist and I would tinker with inventions and things under the house making crackers or roman candles,” he says. “My sisters used to joke that I was always trying to blow myself up under the house.”  

Dr O’Hagan was also part of the group who lobbied for the opening of the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium and founder of the Queensland Museum Society. 

In 2018, at the age of 99, Dr John Edward O'Hagan was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for his contribution to community and science education in Queensland. 

COMPANIONSHIP FROM COMMUNITY  

John, who is a member of the Stephens RSL Sub Branch in Brisbane, said seeing some of his unit for the first time in Townsville for the anniversary of the Coral Sea Battle gave him the nudge to join the RSL. 

“Being a member of my local RSL Sub Branch gives me companionship,” he says.  

“I was the first to be discharged from my unit in 1948 and I didn’t see them after that for a long time. So as a member for 11 years it’s been good to have involvement with fellow veterans of all ages.”  

Not content to spend his retirement sitting still, John has kept himself busy with research and fundraising projects including founding the Queensland Academy of Arts and Sciences when he was 80. 
 
“I’ve been able to stay connected with my community and continue to give back through raising money for prostate cancer and liver health research through my RSL Sub Branch,” he says.  

“We’ve just finished the research on prostate cancer so now it’s time to find out what we’ll focus on next.”  

And John isn’t planning on stopping, keeping his days busy with research and a keen interest in restoring furniture.   

“Like my son says, I’m not retired. You have to keep your mind active.”  

 

* 'For the Fallen' was first published in 1914, but the fourth stanza began to be used in commemorative services in Australia in 1921.