Tribute to my mentor

Last week a memorial gathering was held for Michael Travis, who was Chief Sub-Editor of The Canberra Times for 20 years. He was Chief Sub-Editor when I was appointed a cadet journalist in September 1972.

My eulogy follows:

I will try to be as succinct as a Travis-edited story in The Canberra Times. Because I know that every one of you who worked with Michael on the subeditors’ table over which he was Chief Sub-Editor between about 1969 and 1995 will have your metaphorical green pens out ready to pounce on any grammatical error or breach of Canberra Times style that I make. Mercifully this is not written so at least the green pen will not get me on any spelling mistakes.

I could say that Michael Travis was an icon; a larger-than-life figure; a legend. But I won’t.

You know why I won’t? Because Michael taught me not to. He abhorred cliches. Every time Lazarus reared his monotonous head to describe someone or a team winning from behind, Michael’s green pen was ready to put Lazarus out of his misery. Whoops, a cliché there.

Now, when I say “Michael” taught me. That is not quite right, because when a lot of us in this room today were cadets or recently graded journalists at The Canberra Times, it was not “Michael” who taught us, but “Mr Travis”. 

Judy Prisk, for example, openly admits that he was, is, and always will be “Mr Travis” to her.

It is important. It explains why all this Canberra Times lot have come here today to join the family in celebrating Michael’s life. The explanation boils down to the word: “respect”. And that “respect” was well-earned by Michael Travis. He taught us a lot. And certainly, among the journalists here we not only pay our respects, but we express our profound gratitude. And again, that gratitude was well-earned. 

And very importantly we also express our affection because he gave his teaching so willingly, if sometimes brusquely. Again, the affection was well earned.

Although Michael did not write a lot himself, usually reviews of dictionaries and style guides, you cannot underestimate the importance of his teaching on those of us who write, To the extent that our writing is cleaner, crisper more economical, effective, and richer in meaning, it is in a major part down to Michael Travis.

Much has been said about his insistence on correct grammar, punctuation, and word use. But his skill and teaching went beyond that. When Michael edited, he also looked for logicality, good sense, and good taste – or more correctly illogicality, silliness, and bad taste.

In his later years when he went part time, he was always my sub-editor of choice for anything that I wrote. I took the view that it was better to look a fool in front of Michael today than look a bigger fool in front of the whole readership tomorrow.

He saved many of us writers from blunders and we were grateful. And I hope you noticed the use of the objective case after the preposition in that sentence. If it had been in the subjective case, Michael would have corrected it. But also if it said something silly, Michael would not have let it go without questioning it.

And now to Barbara. If I might mix the titles of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, if Michael was Major Travis, Barbara was Saint Barbara.

Without her, Michael would not have been there on the endless, grim nightshifts putting up with the illiteracies of cadet journalists.

Thank you, Barbara.

To finish, it is time for three vales.

Vale “Travis”, our journalist colleague with whom we could share a beer and story-telling after work.

Vale “Mr Travis”, our mentor and teacher.

And Vale Michael, our friend for whom we hold deep affection.


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