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Guest It's private - the school he wants to forget - is Kevin Rudd keeping a secret?
Bookmark and Share      Created: 2011-01-31 08:57:55   Last updated : 2011-01-31 18:00:17

April 27, 2007

Kevin Rudd spent two years at a private Catholic boarding school, but clearly hated the experience, writes Cosima Marriner.

AT A lunch for Wayne Goss at the exclusive Brisbane Club in the mid-'90s, a high-profile Brisbane solicitor found himself seated next to Kevin Rudd.

In an attempt to strike up a conversation with Goss's right-hand man, the solicitor began: "I hear we've got something in common - we both went to Marist Brothers Ashgrove."

"I prefer not to remember those days," Rudd is said to have responded icily. "I received my education at Nambour High."

The solicitor can still recall the exchange. "He left me in no doubt that he detested the joint."

Much of Rudd's youth has been well documented - growing up in the green dairy country of the Sunshine Coast hinterland, shattered by the death of his father when he was 11. Without Bert Rudd to work the share farm in Eumundi, the family lost its home and livelihood.

Although Rudd's version of events has been disputed by the Low family, who owned the farm, the injustice he perceived as a child prompted him to join the Labor Party at 15 to right "what I saw to be the wrong things happening in the world".

But Rudd likes to gloss over the two years he spent boarding at one of Brisbane's elite Catholic boys schools after his father died, perhaps because it was such a traumatic experience, or perhaps it does not fit with the hard-luck personal narrative he has woven to appeal to aspirational voters.

Yet Rudd, who had his fees paid by the Marist Brothers, is not the first Labor leader to attend a privileged school. Frank Forde, the last Labor prime minister Queensland produced, boarded at the Christian Brothers College in Toowoomba, and Gough Whitlam went to Knox Grammar and Canberra Boys' Grammar.

Acknowledged or not, Rudd's time at Ashgrove reveals much about the child he was and the man he would become. It marked him out early as an outsider who would go on to rise to the top of the Labor Party without any obvious factional support or loyalties, and hints at why as an adult he eschewed the Catholicism on which he had been reared in favour of the less dogmatic Anglicanism.

The brother school of St Joseph's College Hunters Hill, Marist College Ashgrove, educates the sons of middle-class Catholics from as far afield as Cunnamulla in outback Queensland, to China and Hong Kong. It counts the rugby player John Eales, the union boss Bill Ludwig and the former Papua New Guinea prime minister Julius Chan among its alumni.

Set on 26 hectares of sprawling bushland in Brisbane's northern suburbs, it boasts eight ovals, sweeping views of the city and a tradition of rugby excellence. It was here that Kevin Rudd found himself six months after his father's death in 1969.

Kevin was the last of the four Rudd children at home. The eldest, Malcolm, had joined the army, sister Loree had entered the novitiate, and Greg was in year 10 boarding at Ashgrove. Struggling to get by after her husband died, Margaret Rudd gratefully accepted the Marist Brothers' offer to waive the boarding fees for Greg and Kevin.

This was a rare privilege. In those days Ashgrove had a four-year waiting list. It meant Kevin was looked after while Margaret went back to work as a live-in nurse at the Mater Hospital.

Brother Alexis Turton, who took over as headmaster at Ashgrove in 1971, recalls the fair-haired Rudd was a bright boy. "He seemed to be a very hard-working kid, enthusiastic. He was very involved in drama and debating. He was quite good at articulation."

A fellow Ashgrove student, Mark O'Connor, says the future politician was "very good at English and history. He was in the clever class".

Never a rugby type, Rudd studied piano and, as the Ashgrove Blue and Gold yearbook of 1970 records, acted in the year 8 production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, "which literally raised a laugh a minute".

According to O'Connor, "everything [at Ashgrove] was ruled and governed by a bell". After the upheaval Bert's death caused, this may well have appealed to Kevin's penchant for order and structure. But being shoved into a dormitory with 49 strange boys horrified him.

Greg Rudd remembers how his own messiness would irritate his younger brother when the pair bunked together at home. "Is it so hard to pick up those socks and put them in that drawer?" an exasperated Kevin would ask. It is no wonder he did not take to boarding. "He preferred living at home to living in a dorm with 50 guys farting and their smelly socks," Greg says.

However, O'Connor has no recollection of Rudd being unhappy at Ashgrove. "I'm not aware of any issues. In the five years I boarded I only saw two kids homesick. One was from Cunnamulla and one was from PNG … They kept us active so that we couldn't think of home."

The way Ashgrove old boys from the early '70s tell it, the place was fairly typical of Catholic boys' boarding schools of that era. Every student had to play rugby, regardless of his talent or inclination, chapel was at 6am each day, canings were a daily occurrence, and some of the Brothers had a dubious affection for their young charges. Former students can still remember the brother who would always volunteer for shower duty.

Despite the idiosyncrasies of boarding school life, many Ashgrove students enjoyed their time there. Not so Rudd. It was too rough and tumble for a sensitive child who had just lost his father and his home in quick succession.

"Never having grown up in this sort of educational Catholic culture, it was all pretty intense," he would reflect later in life. "It was tough, harsh, unforgiving, institutional Catholicism of the old school. I didn't like it … It was still the culture … which condoned violence."

Greg Rudd, who did like boarding at Ashgrove, explains: "Kevin was younger, his dad had just died, he missed his mum. His life had been torn apart. At the end of the day he was just a primary school kid."

Whereas the family tragedy made Greg, now a lobbyist, "fiercely independent", it made Kevin more family-oriented.

He begged his mother to let him come home. And as soon as Margaret Rudd got back on her feet, she did. Using the $4000 she had received from Bert's life insurance policy, plus some money she had scraped together nursing, she bought a $10,000 house in Nambour. She found a job at the local private hospital, and in mid-1971 Kevin started in year 9 at Nambour High.

Perhaps Rudd's experiences at Ashgrove were the genesis of his eventual move away from the strict Catholicism instilled in him as a child. He says his personal beliefs and ambitions crystallised in the year he spent bumming around between school and university. In an uncharacteristic outbreak of rebellion, he grew his hair long and hitchhiked down the coast to Sydney, working a series of odd jobs.

"When I was in Sydney that year I knocked around a lot of churches and got to know a lot of people and discovered that Christianity was wider than Roman Catholicism and there were a whole lot of other Christian traditions to think about," Rudd told the ABC last year.

Alluding to his estrangement from Catholicism, Rudd continued: "To discover an adult view of faith, it was necessary to step out for a while from the tradition that you'd grown up in, in order to reflect on it and to reflect what actually lay underneath it."

By the time Kevin enrolled at the Australian National University in Canberra in 1976 for his Asian Studies degree, he was easily identifiable as one of the "holy rollers" on campus. "He was certainly a very public Christian with an evangelical flavour," recalls one student who lived at Burgmann College with Rudd.

Family and friends believe Rudd's move away from Catholicism was sealed in his first week at university, when he met Therese Rein, a steadfast Anglican who would become his wife. Rudd regularly attends St John the Baptist Anglican church in the Brisbane suburb of Bulimba. He says he considers himself a "non-denominational Christian".
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