With major acts of charitable philanthropy becoming few and far between in Australian regional centres when these acts do occur their contribution to those communities is enormous. Often country towns possess little or no means of establishing and expanding the kinds of facilities that city dwellers may take for granted, and as such the need for private gift-giving becomes all the more important. The support of a single, charitably-minded individual has the power to transform a country town entirely.
Sale, a Victorian country town located 220 kilometres east of Melbourne, is fortunate in having had just such an individual within its midst. John Leslie OBE, who passed away in December 2016, was born in Sale in 1919 and maintained a close and nurturing relationship with the town for his whole life.
John was one of two sons born to William and Isabel Leslie. John’s grandfather, William Durham Leslie, had been a Mayor of the City of Sale, and had established a profitable department store within the town during the 1920s called W.D. Leslies P/L. In time John’s father took over the business and it was intended that John’s elder brother Jim would be the next in line, with John destined to manage a family property near Deniliquin in New South Wales. John, it is said, ‘revelled in the prospect of a farming life’. However, fate intervened dramatically during the Second World War. Jim became a pilot for the RAAF, but was killed in a bombing raid over Berlin in 1944, while John served the Australian Army in New Guinea obtaining the rank of Captain.
After the war, John returned to Sale to assume his brother’s place in the family business. In 1948, John’s father died in a tragic accident on a property at Kilmany Park, just outside of Sale, and John assumed full responsibility for the family affairs.
John had a long interest in community life, which developed under both his father and grandfather. Unlike William Durham Leslie, who served two terms as Mayor, John’s father was not actively involved in the community but, as John recalled, ‘he did a lot of good things’. He was a foundation member of the Sale Rotary Club in 1928, which John later joined, but he believed that ‘Council and business don’t mix’.
John, on the other hand, believed it wasn’t right to criticise Council without at least trying to influence it by joining it, and in 1957 he was elected to the Sale City Council. In 1961 he was elected Mayor in his own right and served three terms until 1964. He remained with Council until 1967, and then in 1969, as he approached his 50th birthday, he sold his share in the family business and ‘retired’.
John was mindful that his own father had died when he was just 56, and there were other things John wanted to do while he could. His first major project was to oversee the development of the Sale Elderly Citizen’s Village, and since then he was a regular contributor to other charitable causes in the township, most notably, the Sale Regional Arts Centre (now Gippsland Art Gallery), the Sale Regional Hospital, the Sale Botanic Gardens (where an environmental park was established in his brother’s honour), the Sale Tennis Club, and the Esso-BHP Billiton Wellington Entertainment Centre.
Sale historian Peter Synan OAM states that John Leslie was ‘exceptional in his citizenship’:
Descended from Sale pioneers, he possessed business acumen, a trained mind and cultured upbringing. From his family, he inherited a tradition of benevolence and community service, characterised by a passion for the advancement of Sale and a devotion to the arts.
While contributing substantially to the wellbeing of the Sale community through the Elderly Citizen’s Village and Hospital, it was perhaps Sale’s cultural life where John’s leadership and philanthropy were most felt. One of his first acts as Mayor in 1961 was to develop an Arts Festival for Sale, which ran for six non-consecutive years in the 1960s. Soon after he established both the Sale Historical Society and a Planning Committee for the Art Gallery, which resulted in the latter’s eventual establishment in 1965.
According to Harold Farey, a Sale art teacher and member of the Gallery Planning Committee:
Like the Sale Festival, the Gallery only happened because of John Leslie. He had the vision. Most people in Sale had a very parochial view about culture, but John had a much broader vision. What he did for the community was immense. Other people had ideas, but because he had standing in the Council, he could get things done.
The Entertainment Centre, which opened in 2003, was only completed after John made a substantial financial donation, and in early 2015 it was announced that he had given $1.5 million towards the redevelopment of a Cultural Hub in Sale, incorporating a new Art Gallery and Public Library. This remarkable act of generosity was made, even more remarkably, fifty years after the Gallery first opened. In addition, the first five artworks to enter the Gallery’s collection in 1965 were purchased, or donated, by John. Since then he either donated or directly financed a further 72 objects for the Gallery’s collection.
John’s influence and benefaction, from time to time, radiated beyond the borders of Sale. During his time as Mayor he became friends with Rupert Hamer, then Minister for Local Government. When Hamer became Premier in 1972 he invited John to join the Art Advisory Council to the Minister of the Arts. Through John’s work on this Council he helped establish the Victorian College for the Arts, the Crafts Council of Victoria, and later, the state’s first dedicated Crafts Centre at the former Metropolitan Meat Market. In 1978 he presided over the state-wide festival of Arts Victoria—Craft, and the follow-up festival in 1981, Arts Victoria—Music.
In 1977 he was made the Gippsland Art Gallery’s first (and to date only) Patron, and in 1978 he was awarded an OBE for his long and distinguished community service. In June 2005 John was granted the Freedom of the City.
John was one of Sale’s most recognisable and admired figures. Touted in the 1960s as ‘Sale’s most eligible bachelor’, he never married, with his mother acting instead as his ‘Mayoress’ during his terms as Mayor.
In an article on John from 1969, the Gippsland Times recorded that:
In a deal, Leslie is firm, mildly compromising, but in the main non-ceding and inclined to state a price and his terms and submit it in a polite sort of ‘take it or leave it’ style. John Leslie is a sort of restrained progressive in outlook, a liberal conservative. Always meticulously groomed, his suits are cut on modern lines in excellent taste. He wears colourful sports clothes well.
John was an active churchgoer and a practising Christian, and he regularly visited his many old friends and relations in hostels and hospitals. A good listener, John helped many people with his wise counsel. He was an itinerant traveller — all the more so after selling his interests in W.D. Leslies in 1969 — and kept detailed diaries of his adventures.
In his later years, John maintained an enquiring mind, and was a regular attendee at University of the Third Age lectures and bushwalks.
In an age where offers of time or money come at a price, John Leslie was one of those all-too-rare citizens who genuinely believed in the ideals of ‘community’. One of the last philanthropists in the grand old tradition, in his 97 years John saw the town he loved grow and flourish under his loving care.
Sale has much to thank him for, and yet he asked for nothing in return. A visitor to The Wedge Performing Arts Centre wrote a thank you letter to John before he died, and he said ‘I enjoy that. Nothing gives me greater pleasure’.
1—Warren Telfer, John Widdis Leslie: His Life and Times, unpublished manuscript, 2002
2—John Leslie, in conversation with the author, 21 April 2015
4—Peter Synan, Vision Splendid: The Story of the Sale Elderly Citizen’s Village, Committee of the Sale Elderly Citizen’s Village, Sale 1999, p.9
5—Harold Farey, in conversation with the author, 1 April 2015
6—Gippsland Times, 24 April 1969, p.3
7—John Leslie, in conversation with the author, 21 April 2015