Inaugural William Cooper scholarship recipients meet descendants

John Nagyivan and Jaya Blandthorn (far left and far right) are the inaugural recipients of the Uncle William Cooper Scholarship, which was established by John and Pauline Gandel at Monash University to honour the legacy of the legendary Aboriginal human rights activist.

The William Cooper Scholars are encouraged to learn about Uncle Cooper’s story, his activism and his legacy, and become advocates for sharing that knowledge (more on his legacy below).

Recently John and Jaya travelled to Shepparton, Uncle Cooper’s home town. There they visited the Queen’s Gardens to see the statue erected in Uncle Cooper’s honour.

The students also had a unique opportunity to meet Uncle Cooper’s direct descendants, Uncle Boydie Turner and Leonie Drummond.  

Through conversations with Leonie and later on Uncle Boydie, it transpired that both students share distant family ties to William Cooper! Uncle Boydie, who joined the students later on, had an engaging, moving and inspirational time with John and Jaya, and shared his stories and memories of William Cooper.

Strong personal relationships were formed that day, bound to last well into the future, with the students vowing to continue learning about Uncle Cooper and spreading his message of compassion and activism.

Uncle William Cooper’s statue in the Queen’s Gardens in Shepparton

The story of the Indigenous Elder William Cooper may not be widely known, but it is a story of courage, humanity and inspiration.

William Cooper (1860 – 1941) was a Yorta Yorta man, an Aboriginal activist and a human rights advocate. He was the founder of the Australian Aborigines League and also known as the Father of the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC), an annual event that is celebrated to this day.

But it wasn’t just his own people that Uncle William was concerned for. His actions in the lead-up to the Second World War hold a very special place in the collective memory of the Jewish community in Australia.

In late 1938 an infamous event, Kristallnacht, took place in Germany (“The Night of Broken Glass”), when German Jews were attacked, arrested and taken to Nazi concentration camps. After learning about it, William Cooper petitioned the German Consulate in Melbourne, protesting at the appalling treatment of Jews at the hands of the Nazi Party and demanding that they stop such persecution. The Consulate did not accept the petition.

The original petition read: “On behalf of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, we wish to have it registered and on record that we protest wholeheartedly at the cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government in Germany. We plead that you would make it known to your government and its military leaders that this cruel persecution of their fellow citizens must be brought to an end.”

In March 2018, a statue of William Cooper was unveiled at the Queen’s Gardens in Shepparton, his home town. The statue depicts Uncle Cooper marching to the German Consulate, holding the petition in his hand.

Gandel Foundation was one of the supporters of the appeal to ensure this lasting memorial to Uncle William can be erected.