Vale School legend – Col Dudgeon (1932-2021)

Colin Dudgeon 1932-2021In November last year the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering sadly farewelled one of our legendary founding staff, ex Water Research Laboratory Director (1987-1993), Colin (Col) Dudgeon - a gifted scholar and engineer, a mentor, an inventor, an adventurer, a storyteller, and a wonderful colleague.

Colin Raymond Dudgeon was born in Lismore on 21 December 1932. He was the third of four boys born to Fred (a carpenter) and Allison Dudgeon (nee Duncan). Both sets of grandparents lived on farms, and many happy holidays were spent with them. Colin was academically gifted and graduated in 1949 as Dux of Lismore High School. In his final year he was school Vice-Captain, Vice-Captain of the rugby firsts team, and a lieutenant in the cadets. Colin was awarded a scholarship to study engineering down in Sydney at the recently established New South Wales University of Technology (now UNSW).

Colin graduated with First Class Honours and was top of his year in Civil Engineering in 1954. At that time all classes were held at Sydney Technical College campus in Ultimo where the Civil Engineering degree had started in 1948. 

Early engineering and other adventures 

After graduating, Colin commenced his career in Civil Engineering with the Water Resources Commission. With practical skills honed from his early years growing up in semi-rural Northern Rivers, he was ideally suited to roaming regional New South Wales, with the Land Rover bursting with the requisite survey and hydrometric equipment alongside his carefully packed Cadet’s 22 rifle. Pre-takeaway days, a young engineer’s gourmet food source might include an unlucky wood duck or rabbit.

In search of adventure Col joined the crew on a yacht delivery run across the Indian Ocean to the United Kingdom, departing Sydney in April 1956. Beyond Brisbane and Thursday Island, they sailed to Dili, East Timor then to Koepang, West Timor, but soon after the crew thought the skipper to be going mad. They decided to sail directly across the Indian Ocean for the British colony of Mauritius where they finally abandoned both skipper and yacht. They spent about six months stuck in Madagascar, trekking, camping out and sleeping in villages. Eventually they met and befriended the British honorary consul, a Frenchman who organised for them to join the French Foreign Legion as the members of a battalion returning to Marseilles from Indo-China. They were on the last ship to transit the Suez Canal before the first Suez crisis.  After deserting in Marseilles, they finally made their way to the UK.

Col found himself a job with an engineering consultant on a somewhat grim posting at a UK defense facility located in the windswept heath country lying along the English / Scottish border. Here he met and married Agnes. Colin returned to Sydney with his new bride in 1958, and in 1959, re-joined UNSW as a young academic in Civil Engineering. 

Colin is present in the 1959 Civil Engineering staff photo taken at Ultimo campus, back row third from right. (The School was still based at Ultimo until its brand new building opened in 1966 on the Kensington campus).Life at the early School

Based at the very recently established Water Research Laboratory (WRL) at Manly Vale – Col was one of the ‘WRL originals’ – working with School and water industry legends Crawford Munro and Rupert Vallentine.

Project investigations for government and industry had already commenced at the School in 1957 with a flood model study commissioned by the Launceston Flood Protection Authority. 

The establishment of Unisearch Limited and WRL by UNSW in the same year, 1959, led to ongoing vigorous interaction with Australian industry, a mutually beneficial relationship that has continued throughout the decades, with WRL maintaining its cutting-edge real-world reputation in the areas established by Colin and the early staff in hydraulics, coastal engineering, groundwater, and estuarine engineering.

In the early years at WRL, little water engineering research had been undertaken in the Australian context - academic staff like Colin led Australian and international approaches and carved out new methods suitable for the unique character of the Australian continent - Colin in particular led the Australian research in groundwater through the 1970s and 1980s. 

Between building his own house on a ‘bush block’ in French’s Forest, completing a ME in 1965, and work, Colin managed to find time to sail out of the Cruising Yacht Club of Sydney with his university mate and Indian Ocean sailing buddy Graham Shields. These were not just leisurely Sunday afternoon sails around the harbour but involved overnight races up and down the coast with lighthouses and coastal landmarks used to aid navigation. All this while sitting aboard Tartan, a 22 ft backyard-built glorified plywood dinghy with timber spars, canvas sails, no electronics and very little in the way of floatation devices. Everyone survived.

Colin as a teacher and groundwater researcher 

Ron Cox and Peter Huyakorn joined Colin’s groundwater research team in 1970. In a country dominated by long droughts interspersed with floods, groundwater is a key water reserve: Protected from evaporative loss but subject to contamination and potential overexploitation. Capturing key field information is critical to an adequate understanding of groundwater movement and its coupling to surface waters. The development of large-scale geophysical techniques to ‘see’ beneath the ground surface is also a key aspect of groundwater assessment.

Field work in the early 1970s – Colin centre with Ron Cox and Peter Huyakorn.Under Col’s mentorship the WRL groundwater team carried out field data collection still used by researchers worldwide, designed and constructed large scale groundwater research facilities at WRL and developed innovative computer models for complex groundwater flow simulation – in this area Peter Huyakorn is one of the recognised world leaders with a successful groundwater consulting company in the USA.

In 1985 Colin completed his PhD on the topic of non-Darcy flow of groundwater, supervised by another School legend Tom Chapman. In 1987, now an Associate Professor, Colin became the 4th Director of WRL following the retirement of Doug Foster. He remained Director until his semi-retirement in 1993 – when Ron Cox became Director. Under Colin’s leadership WRL continued with its strong interaction between theoretical and practical problem solving; fundamental understanding yielding new practical solutions, contemporary problems spawning new research and engineering training.

Ron Cox has very fond memories of working with Colin - he recalled the designing and construction of the groundwater well tank – dubbed the ‘bomb shelter’ for the level of steel reinforcing; Colin planning and then carrying out many field trips to Mt Larcom for monitoring mine dewatering impacts – meeting snakes, bogs, flat tyres and ‘interesting’ locals along the way. Colin ‘instructing in good humour’ junior staff as to the need to carry out ‘2 peg tests’ on survey level instruments prior to taking them into the field; more seriously Colin’s expert opinion for an international dispute between Libya and Brazil. Colin went to Libya to visit the Great Man-Made water supply project (an adventure by taxi from Cairo) and then also spent 3 weeks in Paris at the court - Colin won for Libya.

So-called ‘retirement’

Colin’s career at UNSW spanned over 30 years in a full-time capacity and another 10 years in semi-retirement. Alumni recall him as an excellent teacher. “Colin had significant impact on all staff and students that he interacted with” says Ron Cox, “he was a mentor to many – supportive to all and respected by all – he will be missed by many.”

Col and Agnes at WRL’s 10th anniversary in 1969 – the WRL family culture was established early.‘Retirement’ for Colin involved continuing with supervising his remaining post-graduate students, part-time engineering consulting through Unisearch, designing and building an extension onto the Frenchs Forest home, and generally triangulating around NSW between the house in Sydney, the weekender at Wybong where he kept bees and a vineyard, and a house in Ballina which he had built in the early 1980’s. There were also several trips overseas. 

His son Bruce recalled, “One day someone asked Mum what she did to keep herself busy with Heather and I no longer at home and Dad retired. Her answer was ‘pack the car to the next destination’.” There were no idle moments associated with Colin’s retirement.

“Dad was always an inventor and a builder and to quote a passage from The Castle, an ‘ideas man’. Nothing went to waste and very little was thrown out. Some would say a hoarder, but I prefer the term ‘a collector of useful stuff’.”

Sadly, Colin was diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease nearly 10 years ago. Although knowing it was likely to get him in the long run, he continued unabated with his building, gardening, inventing, travelling and telling tales. The past few years were difficult as the disease took a firmer hold. Although his body let him down, his mind was ever whirring.  

Bruce recalled, “He enjoyed the times I would discuss the technical matters of the jobs I was working on. On one recent occasion I was showing him some drawing and photos of a dam we were constructing out at Broken Hill. He remained silent for a long time with his eyes closed and I naturally assumed was having a little nap. After 10 minutes or so he looked up with eyes open to ask the question ‘what was the particle size of the sand in the 0.8m wide internal filter drain we placed in the embankment wall?’ I had to look at the drawings to tell him the answer.”

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