A legacy born of love, wanderlust and the search for meaning
A scholar of global repute and a gentleman of cherished memory, Professor Roger Layton AM has left a legacy that will play out in the hearts and minds of students, teachers, researchers – and music-lovers, the world over.
When the late Emeritus Professor Roger Layton, AM, passed away in 2021, he left behind him the imprint of a life characterised by passion, curiosity, and the relentless pursuit of meaning.
His partner through it all was Dr Merrilyn Layton, his treasured wife and constant companion. In a reflective paper on his life’s work, published in the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing in 2017, Roger wrote of the day he first took Merrilyn for a drive.
“…as I fiddled with gears and hand brakes, our hands touched, and never came apart again. From that day on, she was my beloved partner in every step we took, often knowing me better than I did myself. She passed away in 2012 and I miss her every day.”
In his own will, Roger chose to remember two institutions that were an integral part of their story together: the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) that had given them comfort and support during Merrilyn’s battle against Alzheimer’s, and the Australian Ensemble, a source of exquisite joy over many, many years.
Roger’s storied career had its start in the late 1950s. After completing an honours degree in Economics (supported by a cadetship from the Bureau of Statistics and Economics), Roger was offered a position in Newcastle with BHP’s fledgling ‘operations research’ group: a young team of economists and statisticians tasked with applying a relatively new, mathematically-informed problem-solving approach to operational challenges in areas including shipping queues and railway delays.
Roger had been fascinated by accounts of the emerging field of ‘operations research’, first developed by the military strategists of World War II. He was keen to join the team, but even more keen to base himself in the city he knew to be Merrilyn’s hometown, having met the young woman some years earlier.
A few months after he’d settled in, Roger was asked by Newcastle College, a local offshoot of the University of New South Wales, to teach a final year course in econometrics. It was a move which Roger said: “nudged open the door to an academic career”. Before the year was out, Roger had won the heart of his beloved, and changed course on his career, heading to Sydney to become a full-time lecturer in the UNSW Faculty of Commerce.
It was the start of what would become a lifetime’s association with the University. Roger’s interest in economics and statistics, underpinned by an intense curiosity about systems, evolved into pioneering work on marketing as a social discipline, capable of making significant contributions to social and economic policy. He was appointed Head of the School of Marketing in 1967, a position he held for twenty five years before a decade-long stint as Dean of the Faculty of Commerce and Economics.
Throughout his career, Roger travelled extensively, typically with Merrilyn and their three daughters by his side. He took up opportunities to study and work at Purdue University and Ohio State University, and ventured further afield to Mexico, Nepal, Tibet, Greece, Thailand, Malaysia, Tunisia and Russia.
In 1967, he was part of a UN-led initiative to support the fragile economy of the newly formed independent republic of Singapore. In 1973, both he and Merrilyn were involved in the review of an Australian proposal to establish a free-trade zone on the southern coast of Java in Indonesia. In 1978, he travelled with Merrilyn to China where they established the relationships that would ultimately lead to significant collaborations between UNSW and the universities of Guangzhou in the 1990s. He was also among the first to foresee the importance of Australia’s relationship with Japan, launching the UNSW Centre for Japanese Studies.
Recognition for Roger’s work came not only from academia, but from industry and government, too. In the late 1990s, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to marketing, research and teaching, and honoured in a speech by former Prime Minister Bob Hawke at a dinner celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the University. He also won the inaugural Distinguished Marketing Educator award from the Australian and New Zealand Marketing Academy (ANZMAC).
‘‘Professor Layton has been a leader in developing marketing in the South Pacific since its infancy,” read the ANZMAC citation. “For decades he has contributed to major international journals and served on their editorial boards, turned Ph.D. students into productive scholars, published textbooks, and developed leading academic programs. Roger has done much, for many, over a long period of time…”.
Then, ten years into his tenure as Dean, Roger was met with a terrible blow: the news that Merrilyn had Alzheimer’s disease. Roger sought the counsel of Professor Henry Brodaty, a distinguished researcher with the UNSW Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration who would later be one of the founders of CHeBA.
“As our relationship grew, Merrilyn and Roger agreed to be on our Consumer Advisory Committee,” remembers Henry. “Throughout it all, I was impressed by Roger’s steadfast support and care for his wife, his compassion, and his curiosity about the science behind Alzheimer’s.”
Merrilyn passed away in 2012, to the immense grief of Roger and their three girls, Gretel, Lucienne and Jacinta. In the same year, Roger accepted an offer to join the CHeBA Advisory Committee. As his association with CHeBA grew, he began providing financial support, too, targeting his donations at research infrastructure and administration, areas that he believed to be much overlooked and underestimated.
In better times, Roger and Merrilyn had been loyal supporters of UNSW’s resident chamber music ensemble, the Australian Ensemble. Since its launch in 1980, they had been regular attendees, and often discussed the idea of how best to help young Australian composers establish themselves in the industry. In 2018, Roger moved to establish the Layton Emerging Composer Fellowship.
“Even though Merrilyn hasn’t been involved in the decision, I know that it’s exactly what she would have wanted to do,” said Roger at the time.
Each year, the Layton Composer Fellow is engaged to write two new pieces, one for a small ensemble and one for a large ensemble, supported by a stipend of $10,000 and mentoring sessions with more experienced composers.
Harry Sdraulig, the 2019-2020 Layton Composer Fellow, remembers meeting Roger at an early workshop for one of his compositions.
“I was immediately struck by his warm, supportive demeanour and obvious curiosity for the musical experience unfolding in front of him,” he says.
Harry’s successor, Ian Whitney, had a similarly enriching exchange with his benefactor.
“In our discussion, he shared his [insights on] the relationship between music and his own discipline of marketing,” says Ian. “His passionate and vital support of Australian composers through the Layton Fellowship has left an important legacy on how Australia sounds."
CHeBA and the Australia Ensemble accompanied Roger through some of the most vivid, challenging and beautiful moments of his life with Merrilyn. A member of the Scientia Circle, Roger made provisions for his support of the two institutions to continue well beyond his own lifetime with a Gift in Will to support the work of CHeBA and the Australian Ensemble for many years to come.
As a student, Roger’s daughter, Lucienne, followed her father to the UNSW Kensington campus, first completing a dual degree in Commerce and Law, and later an MBA at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM). She recalls a childhood of curiosity and lively conversations with a much-loved Papa.
Roger was a man with immense curiosity about the world and society in all its facets. In going through his library, my sisters and I were delighted to find books on quirky subjects relating to science, history, travel, photography, indigenous culture, climate change, sociology, religion, market places, philosophy, chess, fast cars, business jokes and the oddities and ‘big questions' of the world.
These topics reflected the lively conversations we had as a family at mealtimes, where both Mom and Dad encouraged their girls to contribute their thoughts and debate the issues – nothing was too hard or off the table. They also reminded me of the many Sunday afternoon conversations I had with Dad as an adult over coffee and chocolate cake where we sparred and challenged each other's thinking about the issues that were engrossing each of us at the time.
Dad will be remembered as a sounding board to many, an encourager of original and ground breaking academic thinking, a modest man who deeply respected other people and their views. I am so proud of the legacy he has been able to leave and his contribution to CHeBA and the Australia Ensemble. Yet to me, I will always remember him as my Papa.
- Lucienne Layton BCom/LLB ’86, MBA ‘97