BRENDA DUCHEN: 1936-2020
When the Manly Sea Eagles ran on to the ground at the Sunshine Coast Stadium a couple of weekends ago, the black armbands they wore were an unusual mark of respect for one of their most loyal and fervent fans, one Brenda Duchen.
Coach Des Hasler, in heartfelt remarks at a press conference the day before, referred to her "advocacy … her great sympathy for her fellow human being; her work in justice … in individuals' rights, is legendary."
Hasler's comments hint at the story behind this unique woman. While Brenda may have been most recently known as the Sea Eagles' No 1 fan, many of the team and the legion of supporters who will gather at a special tribute for her at Manly's Brookvale Oval this weekend will not have known much about the rest of her extraordinary life.
Sport, and sport philanthropy, were in her blood. Her father, George Blumberg, was regarded as the unofficial father of South African golf. He was a much-loved character in the golfing world, a mentor to one of golf's first superstars, Gary Player, and an honorary board member of the sports management agency, IMG, through his close connection with founder Mark McCormack.
Unsurprisingly, golf was part of Brenda's earlier life and she managed to reach an impressive handicap of five. A true polymath, she was also the South African junior equestrian champion and met her husband David who would go on to captain the South African squash team – then a popular and high-profile international game. Two of their three children were national-level Australian swimmers. In those early morning hours on the pool deck, Brenda must have mulled over how to spend her time more productively, because she turned her talents to coaching swimmers, including a future member of Australia's famous "mean machine".
Brenda had a difficult childhood growing up in apartheid South Africa. With her parents divorced and her mother struggling to cope, Brenda walked the miles to school each day as a small child. After she met and married David Duchen, the young family emigrated to Australia in 1965 with two children aged under five, after David had toured there for squash a year earlier.
They arrived with little more than the clothes in their suitcases and they each worked multiple jobs to survive financially in those early years in Sydney. Finding a home in Roseville, they began a lifelong love of the Sea Eagles, based nearby.
While her two younger children, Tessa and Paul, were still at school, Brenda sat the Higher School Certificate and enrolled in a law degree. She trailed her eldest son Steven through law school, who contended graciously with her presence one year behind him. After a short stint at prestigious law firm Freehills, she set up in private practice, doing mostly legal aid work with some conveyancing on the side to fund her true love, criminal law.
There, according to a colleague, former NSW public defender John Stratton SC, she became a "formidable defender of the underdog". Among her early cases was acting for the Chelmsford Victims Action Group in the late 1980s, a group of around 200 victims of the Chelmsford hospital scandal, in which patients were heavily drugged and subjected to electro-convulsive shock treatment while in a comatose state. In a line which would come to epitomise Brenda's criminal practice, journalist Janet Fife-Yeomans, covering the case, observed that "Mrs Duchen is not being paid because the group has no money and, without leave to appear before the commission, it cannot get legal aid."
She appeared for the accused in some notorious murder cases; her work exposed her to some of the nastier elements of the criminal underworld and her car was torched outside her house in the early 1990s, to the quiet consternation of her very private family.
Undaunted, she pursued her vocation of defending some of society's poorest, most disadvantaged, unhappiest citizens. Her work bemused, sometimes amused, and often worried, her family. Her husband David was gently tolerant. But she was beloved of her clients. They were frequently "misunderstood", had "terrible lives" and were invariably "lovely people" who'd taken wrong turns. Many of her clients were Indigenous; she represented members of a large family all accused of armed robbery, securing what Mr Stratton termed "a remarkable run of acquittals". He recounts one of Brenda's trials involving half a dozen men caught escaping from Long Bay prison. When a ferocious scuffle broke out in court between the men and the guards, most of the lawyers, mainly young men, fled. Brenda stood her ground, more protective of her clients' welfare than her own.
Some clients she represented from Children's Court through to adulthood; from her experience in their early lives she was acutely aware of the factors that led to their later crimes. Fellow criminal lawyer Veronica Love remembers her as a trailblazer for women lawyers in court, a fierce defender of the downtrodden who had no qualms about arguing vigorously with magistrates — she "got in the trenches" and "fought to the death" for her clients' welfare. She was very reluctant to allow her barristers to meet her clients without her, suspecting (accurately) that the barristers would attempt to persuade the clients to plead guilty.
As far as Brenda was concerned, they were all innocent. Stratton observed that she was "completely disinterested in making money. She was, in my view, a secular saint." She spent every weekend in one or more of the various prisons around NSW, seeking detailed instructions from her many clients in custody. In a world where legal aid lawyers are overworked, underpaid and time-poor, this devotion was a priceless gift to her clients. She did draw a line on occasion – some of the cruellest, most warped offenders were refused assistance. But for the rest, she gave unreservedly. Other lawyers tended to screen calls from their imprisoned clients; Brenda gave them reverse-charge privileges so they could telephone her day and night with their grievances and problems — which they frequently did, at unsociable hours, and often in the middle of the family dinner.
In her rare leisure time, she devoted herself to the Manly club. She could regularly be heard on the airwaves peppering 2GB's Ray Hadley with questions and opinions on the weekend's games. She was the "81-year old grandmother" whose support for the club, and players, found her on the front pages of several newspapers bedecked in full Manly regalia a few years ago.
She developed a decade-long friendship with former Manly five-eighth Keiran Foran, who was openly bereaved by the loss of her friendship and mentorship. As she wound down her professional life, retiring just a year ago and well into her eighties, she dedicated more time to this favourite pursuit of hers. As the "Silvertails" Manly supporter's forum noted, she "always enjoyed travelling to watch her beloved Sea Eagles play, be it locally, interstate, or overseas". Behind this simple observation was the rather more complicated reality that Brenda had to conquer her phobia of flying before she could travel to follow her team. Which, of course, she did.
For the past forty years Brenda lived in Sydney's eastern suburbs, with her children, now grown up with their own families, living close by. She was an early Twitter adopter, joining in her 70s in 2010 and describing herself as a "Sports junkie and above all fanatical Manly supporter. LBJ, 76ers, Jason Day & Tiger too. Then there are my 8 angels."
In the last few weeks of her life, she gave away all her Manly paraphernalia to her Twitter followers – a final act of generosity. She is survived by her husband David, children Steven, Tessa and Paul, their spouses, and her "eight angels" – her grandchildren.