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Stan Cowper and David Barnsdall: A lifetime of friendship and giving

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A retired chemist and accountant, and philanthropists who have helped make a remarkable difference to the lives of many young people.

Stan Cowper (BSc ’60) and David Barnsdall OAM (BCom ’61) make their way across the crowd gathering in the sun-lit lobby of the John Niland Scientia Building in search of a quiet space for their interview. 

Finding a small room downstairs, the long-term friends shepherd each other through the door and sit down, side by side, at one of the tables. A retired chemist and accountant, and philanthropists who have helped make a remarkable difference to many young people, for all their accomplishments, they look at ease here in each other’s company. 

The two friends are UNSW Pioneers – a title given to UNSW’s earliest graduates who were responsible for building the great reputation the University enjoys today. The pair are on the Kensington campus to attend the Chancellor’s Luncheon, an annual event hosted by Chancellor David Gonski AC to recognise and thank members of the UNSW Scientia Circle. This special group is made up of philanthropists, like Stan and David, who have generously chosen to leave a gift to UNSW in their Will and invest in the future of our University. 

In their Wills, Stan and David have provided gifts to support the UNSW Matraville Education Partnership. It was Stan, says David with a nod to his friend, that inspired him to make a bequest. 

“Stan and Matraville, that’s what got me into this.” 

The decision to bequeath a donation to the University, to ensure that their generous influence extends beyond their own lifetimes, was an easy one for the friends. Both men have long histories of community giving and harbour a deeply-held gratitude for the privileges afforded them by a university education. But the Matraville project – the latest venture for these UNSW alumni – looms large. Coming 45 years into their friendship, it has seen them make trips across the bridge and down Anzac Parade to Matraville Sports High School (MSHS) in Sydney’s south. 

The high school, located in Chifley, has a diverse student population with 35% of its students Aboriginal. Many live in public housing, and the school has a low Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) rating, influenced by recent rapid gentrification in South East Sydney. The school has a history of low enrolments and under-performance in NAPLAN and HSC results, but in the last few years those measures have been shifting in response to the work being done by the UNSW Matraville Education Partnership: a coalition of Matraville teachers, community members, and UNSW staff, students and alumni. 

Cowper prize
Illustration courtesy of St. Clement Creative

Since the launch of the partnership in 2015, Stan and David have been visiting MSHS often. They’ve sat in the Homework Centre and seen how students with no access to computers at home have benefitted from the free facilities and tuition on offer. They’ve learned how much the music, drama and creative writing workshops, and visits to university museums and libraries, mean to young people from families on limited incomes. They’ve met with teachers, students and elders from the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, and heard their stories. 

“You’re doing something. You’re actually physically involved in it,” enthuses David. “You’re hands on and you get an understanding of the issues.” 

Stan sits on the Advisory Committee of the Partnership, alongside the likes of UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs and the Honourable Dr Bob Carr, former Premier of the state and a Matraville High ‘old boy’. A centrepiece of the Partnership is the Norma Cowper Literacy Program, named in honour of Stan’s late wife. It was the friendship between Norma and David’s wife, Stephanie, that first brought the two men together. 

“They worked together in the same organisation and I think Stephanie got to know Norma, and then Stephanie and I got married, and later Norma and Stan got married,” remembers David. “That would have all started around 1974,” adds Stan, cheerily, “which was a few years ago now!” 

Sometime after that, Stan found himself wanting to make a philanthropic donation to UNSW in honour of his own parents. The tears well in his eyes as he thinks about the sacrifices they made to ensure not only that he would attend university, but that he would be the first in his family to finish school with a Leaving Certificate. 

“I do weep,” he says, with a bashful chuckle, as his friend lays a quiet hand on his shoulder. 

With the support of the University, Norma and Stan established the ‘E&FJ Cowper Prize’, offering financial support for students in the UNSW School of Chemistry. Many years later, and with the avid support of David and Stephanie, Stan began exploring the idea of setting up a Literacy Program in Norma’s name. He was adamant that the program should be enduring and sustainable, and provide ongoing support to a community in need. 

“I had a lot of trouble with that, it turned out, because most things are run on a year-to-year basis,” he says. 

After discussions with a number of prospective partners, Stan decided that only UNSW shared his long-term vision. Soon after, the program was launched with the students of MSHS. 

“It permitted me to attend on Speech Day and things like that,” he chortles, “and to see the young people!” 

Because of his involvement with the school, Stan later established an equity-based scholarship for a student graduating from MSHS to attend UNSW. In the golden years of life, Stan highlights that many can become vulnerable to isolation, so his ongoing interaction with the Matraville school community has been a great source of joy – one which has spurred additional support to fund some class awards. 

“I gave some money for prizes and they were given to recognise –” he pauses to compose himself after another surge of emotion, “I do this all the time! – to recognise mothers. We never get there without our parents.” 

Watching and nodding gently, David picks up on his friend’s line of thinking. 

“Certain key things happen in your life that make you go this way or that way. And we’re here now, and we’ve had great lives,” David adds. 

As one of our first part-time graduates in Commerce (Accountancy), who later found work at a Chartered Accountants following a referral from UNSW, David attributes much of his success to the University, including the introductions and opportunities it has provided at key points in his career. With a granddaughter just about to graduate, he says the connections between himself and the University are strong and underscore his philanthropic commitments. 

“I owe a debt to the University,” he says. “My whole career started here. And I formed friendships that have lasted to this day.” 

Like David, Stan acknowledges the profound influence of the University education that his parents worked so hard for, but for him the thought is bittersweet. 

UNSW
Illustration courtesy of St. Clement Creative

“I do realise how much education has changed my situation,” he says, thoughtfully. “It has taken me away from my early friends and, to some extent, from parts of my family. Nevertheless, such interests as I have, have come out of my time at university. It has served me broadly. We all need to have some compassion and sympathy and I think education can do that for you.” 

As the interview closes, the duo make their way back upstairs to rejoin their fellow Scientia Circle members to learn about the work and progress of the University, and spend some quality time reconnecting with old friends.

This article originally appeared in the 2019 UNSW Donor Impact Magazine

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