Australia lost two of its greatest Indigenous artists, plus witnessed the shock early deaths of serving politicians and sporting greats.
Take a look back at some of the Australians lost this year.
Archie Roach, voice of the Stolen Generations
Archie Roach, a Gunditjmara-Bundjalung senior elder, singer-songwriter and truth-teller who shared painful stories of the Stolen Generations, died in July, aged 66, after a long illness.
Born in Mooroopna in Victoria, Uncle Archie was forcibly removed from his family when he was three. He sang about his personal experience of trauma in his most famous song, Took the Children Away, for which he won two ARIA awards and a Human Rights Achievement Award.
When he was still relatively unknown in 1989, Uncle Archie was invited to open a show for Paul Kelly and his band, The Messengers, who were performing at the Melbourne Concert Hall (now Hamer Hall). Uncle Archie ended his short set with Took the Children Away, which Kelly later said gave him goosebumps.
“He finished the song and there was still dead silence,” Kelly recalled. “He just stood there for a minute, and there was still silence … And as he walked off, this applause started to build and build and build. It was this incredible reaction. I’d never seen it before — people were so stunned at the end of the song that it took them a while just to gather themselves to applaud.”
For decades Uncle Archie also worked in youth detention centres, offering guidance and mentorship to young First Nations people, giving them, as he put it, “some balm to comfort the wounds that have been inflicted on them”.
Judith Durham, The Seekers lead singer
Judith Durham, an Australian icon with “the voice of an angel” who rose to fame as the lead singer of The Seekers, died in August, aged 79, after complications from chronic lung disease.
Born in Essendon in Melbourne, Durham recorded her first EP when she was 19. In 1963 she joined The Seekers, who became the first Australian band to achieve number one hits in the US and UK with songs Georgy Girl and I’ll Never Find Another You. They sold more than 50 million records worldwide and had six top-10 hits during 1965 and 1966, before breaking up in 1968.
“Alone, Durham would have been Paul McCartney without the Beatles,” wrote Mark Bannerman. “When Judith Durham sang alone she had a great voice. When she sang with The Seekers something truly astonishing happened … her voice took on a new character, cradled and ever so slightly tempered by the other three.”
Durham reunited with The Seekers for a 50th anniversary tour in 2013, but it was cut short after she suffered a stroke. She was honoured as an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2014 and inducted into the Australian Women in Music Awards Honour Roll in 2019.
Shane Warne, cricket legend
Shane Warne died of a heart attack in Thailand in March, aged 52.
Warne made his Test debut against India in 1992, having played just seven first-class matches for Victoria. The following year his first delivery in Ashes cricket was dubbed the “Ball of the Century” after he bowled leg-spin at England’s Mike Gatting and took the bails at Old Trafford.
By 1999, he had taken more than 300 Test wickets, a hat-trick and a one-day World Cup win. “Warne’s major weapon was his accuracy,” wrote cricket commentator Geoff Lemon. “Instead of bowling one or two bad balls per over, he might bowl one or two per hour. He could do this while shredding the ball or creating no turn at all.”
Warne’s flourishing career was plagued by a series of scandals — he was embroiled in the “John the Bookie” controversy, banned for using illegal drugs which he claimed were his mum’s diet pills and very publicly lost his marriage after cheating — but he retired on a high at the end of the 2006/07 Ashes, taking his 700th wicket on Boxing Day.
Ricky Ponting, the former Australia captain and Warne’s long-time teammate, described him as “the greatest bowler I ever played with or against”.
Olivia Newton-John, pop icon, Grease superstar
Olivia Newton-John, the British-Australian pop star best known for playing the leading role in the 1978 film, Grease, died in August, aged 73.
Newton-John’s death was announced by her husband John Easterling, who in a Facebook post highlighted his wife’s 30-year “journey with breast cancer”. After her first cancer diagnosis in 1992, she became a prominent advocate for cancer research and support, establishing the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Research Centre in Melbourne.
Newton-John’s music career took off in 1971, with the release of her first solo album, If Not For You. She went on to win four Grammys and sell more than 100 million records with hits such as Physical, Magic, and A Little More Love.
Her career soared after she starred in the popular film Grease, playing the pig-tailed high-school student Sandy alongside John Travolta’s bad boy, Danny. One of the highest grossing movie musicals ever, Grease’s soundtrack was also the second best-selling album of the year, with two number one hits: You’re the One That I Want, and Summer Nights.
Newton-John was made a dame in the Queen’s New Year honours list in 2019 for her services to charity, cancer research and entertainment.
Uncle Jack Charles, actor and elder
The “father of Black theatre”, Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta man Uncle Jack Charles, passed away in September aged 79 after a lifetime of work as an Indigenous Elder, actor, musician, potter, activist, mentor, household name and voice loved by all.
In a career spanning several decades, the Stolen Generations survivor used his creative platforms to share painful and personal truths about the brutal impact of government policies on his community.
Taken from his young Aboriginal mother at just four months of age, Uncle Jack’s early childhood was spent cycling through a range of institutions.
They included the Salvation Army Boys’ Home at Box Hill in Melbourne’s east, where he was physically and sexually abused.
“It’s hard to convey the damage that place did to me,” Uncle Jack told Victoria’s Yoorrook truth-telling inquiry earlier this year.
“It wasn’t just the abuse that traumatised me, the Box Hill Boys’ Home stripped me of my Aboriginality.”
But he said discovering his acting gift as a young man was a turning point.
“In a way it [acting] saved me,” he said, adding he owes his life to founding Nindethana Theatre with Bob Maza in 1971 – Australia’s first Indigenous theatre.
Uncle Jack went on to star in the groundbreaking 1978 Australian film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.
Yet the trauma of his upbringing was never far away.
In 2008, he appeared in the documentary Bastardy, which explored how trauma from his childhood had fuelled years of drug addiction and burglary, leading to stints in prison and homelessness.
In a personal piece of theatre, the actor starred in Jack Charles Vs The Crown, which was staged in Melbourne in 2010.
Paul Green, rugby league star coach and player
Former Queensland State of Origin coach and rugby league star Paul Green died in August. He was 49.
Green kicked off his NRL career with the Cronulla Sharks in 1994. He played 162 games for five different clubs as a halfback, five-eighth and hooker, as well as seven State of Origin matches for Queensland. He won the Rothmans medal as the league’s best and fairest player in 1995.
After he retired from playing in 2004, Green began coaching, working with several clubs in Queensland and NSW before landing his first head coaching gig, in 2014, at the North Queensland Cowboys. He coached the Cowboys through 167 games over six years — most famously helping the team win their maiden premiership in 2015 — as well as the Queensland side in the 2021 State of Origin series.
In October, following his death, Green was found to have a severe form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked with repetitive head impacts which can only be diagnosed post mortem.
Green’s wife Amanda said her husband hadn’t shown signs of mental illness before he died. “We often talked about our future and what that looked like,” she told the Weekend Australian. “I never once doubted that we would spend the rest of our lives together.”
John Hamblin, fan favourite Play School presenter
An actor and “unforgettable” icon of children’s television who hosted the popular kids show Play School for almost 30 years, John Hamblin died in September, aged 87.
Hamblin began as a presenter on the ABC’s Play School in 1970 and appeared in more than 350 episodes, becoming known as “Naughty John” for his cheeky sense of humour and irreverence.
Along with presenters Benita Collings and Noni Hazlehurst, Hamblin became one of Play School’s most recognisable faces. He retired from the show in 1999, though returned as a special guest for its 50th anniversary special in 2016.
Hamblin began his acting career on stage in England, where he performed in plays and briefly in the TV series Prisoner. After moving to Australia he acted in several TV shows including The Restless Years, The Young Doctors, Sons and Daughters, and All Saints.
“John was an unforgettable presenter whose comedic timing and wit helped cement Play School as one of Australia’s most cherished children’s programs,” said ABC Director Entertainment and Specialist, Jennifer Collins. “His presence always managed to keep both our toddler target audience and their parents equally engaged with the show.”
Margaret Urlich, Aria-winning singer
The first female solo artist to top the New Zealand charts who rose to fame in Australia after her vocals were featured on Daryl Braithwaite’s ’90s hit, The Horses, Margaret Urlich died of cancer in August, aged 57.
Born in Auckland, Urlich began her musical career in 1985 as a co-lead singer in the Kiwi band Peking Man. The following year she joined the pop outfit When The Cat’s Away, whose single, Melting Pot, shot to number one on the New Zealand charts.
Urlich moved to Australia in 1988, where she produced her debut single, Escaping, which saw her become the first female solo artist to top the charts in New Zealand. She won the 1991 Aria for best breakthrough artist with her album, Safety in Numbers.
The same year, she sang on Daryl Braithwaite’s song, The Horses, which spent 12 weeks in the Australian top 10.
“Marg was super stylish, she oozed confidence but underneath, she was a female who had to overcome her shyness to try to make it in a male-dominated industry,” her cousin Peter Urlich said. “And she did.”
Marshall Napier, All Saints and McLeod’s Daughters actor
Marshall Napier, an actor who starred in the popular Australian TV shows All Saints, McLeod’s Daughters and Stingers, died in August, aged 70, after an “intense battle with brain cancer”.
New Zealand-born Napier moved to Australia in the 1980s to pursue his acting career, going on to star in a string of successful films, TV shows and theatre productions. He was perhaps best known for playing the role of Harry Ryan in the TV drama McLeod’s Daughters, which ran for eight seasons from 2001 to 2009.
Actor Daniel McPherson said he had been “fortunate” to work with Napier on the TV series City Homicide: “Me as the young punk, him the wily old fox. The odd couple. I didn’t know how lucky I was,” he said.
Napier’s daughter, Jessica, who also starred in McLeod’s Daughters, described her dad as “one of a kind”. “Your charisma and charm was second to none. Your creativity and intellect was my inspiration,” she wrote on Instagram. “I love you so much and feel completely lost without you. I’m glad that you can soar free of the pain and confusion.”
Kimberley Kitching, Victorian Labor senator
A “feisty figure” within the Labor Party and the parliament who was passionate about human rights, senator Kimberley Kitching died suddenly of a suspected heart attack in March, aged 52.
Kitching’s death, in Melbourne, sparked an outpouring of grief among politicians in Canberra who described her as a friend, patriot and warrior. But it also triggered conflict within the Labor party, resurfacing allegations Kitching was being bullied by her colleagues and illuminating the often brutal, stressful nature of backroom factional politics, particularly in the Victorian branch.
Kitching served on the Melbourne City Council in 2001 before making an unsuccessful bid for Labor preselection in the 2013 federal election. When she entered the Senate in 2016, she was considered a controversial “captain’s pick” by then Labor leader Bill Shorten, on account of her time at the disgraced Health Services Union and reputation as a Right faction “warrior”.
As a senator she advocated for a tougher stance against China and was a key figure in the establishment of the Magnitsky Act, which made it easier for the federal government to sanction human rights abusers and those guilty of serious corruption and cyberattacks.
Anthony Albanese said Kitching was “just beginning” her political career when she died. “Kimberley was someone who lit up a room,” he said. “She was so full of life, she was a vivacious character and to lose her so young is just an enormous shock.”
Peter Reith, former Liberal defence minister
A former defence minister and a “stalwart” of the Liberal Party, Peter Reith died in November aged 72, after a “brave battle with Alzheimer’s disease”.
Reith served as the member for Flinders from 1982 to 1983, then again from 1984 to 2001. He was the Liberal Party’s deputy leader from 1990 to 1993, also holding the ministerial portfolios of industrial relations, small business, employment and workplace relations, and defence.
Reith was a key figure in the 1998 Waterfront dispute, one of the most significant events in Australian industrial relations history. He was also embroiled in the Howard government’s 2001 Children Overboard scandal in which ministers falsely claimed asylum seekers had thrown their children off a boat in an attempt to gain access to Australia.
After retiring from politics Reith served as a company director and political commentator. In 2017, while campaigning for the presidency of the Victorian Liberal Party, he was hospitalised after suffering a suspected stroke and withdrew from the contest.
Former prime minister John Howard said Reith was a “great warrior for the Liberal cause”. “The Liberal Party has lost a tireless champion of what it believes in,” Mr Howard said. “He played a major role in the successful reforms of the Howard government.”
Rod Marsh, cricket legend
Rod Marsh, the former wicketkeeper and a “colossal figure” in Australian cricket, died in March after suffering a heart attack, aged 74.
Marsh played 96 Test matches between 1970 and 1984, clocking up 355 dismissals and 3,633 runs.
No Australian cricketer had Marsh’s “macho aura, nor personified such a wildly entertaining and influential generation of cricket as had Australia’s bear-like custodian of the 1970s and ’80s,” wrote the ABC’s Russell Jackson. His partnership with fast bowler Dennis Lillee became part of the mythology of cricket in the postwar era, with ‘Caught Marsh, Bowled Lillee’ becoming “one of life’s great certainties”.
After he retired from playing, Marsh served as inaugural coach and then director of the Australian Cricket Academy, as well as director of England and Wales Cricket Board National Academy. He was also Cricket Australia’s manager of Elite Coaching Development and Australia’s Chairman of Selectors.
In 1981 he received the Order of the British Empire and is a member of the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame, Sport Australia Hall of Fame and the ICC Hall of Fame.
Test skipper Pat Cummins said Marsh’s “swashbuckling batting and his brilliance behind the stumps” over more than 10 years “made him one of the all-time greats of our sport, not just in Australia, but globally”.
Chris Bailey, punk rock icon
Chris Bailey, the “co-creator of punk music” whose band The Saints introduced punk rock to Australia in the 1970s, died in April aged 65.
Together with guitarist Ed Kuepper and drummer Ivor Hay, Bailey co-founded The Saints in 1973 after the trio met at school. They shot to national then global prominence in 1976 with their first single, (I’m) Stranded, about growing up in Queensland.
(I’m) Stranded is “as pure a punk anthem as one can find,” wrote New York Times reporter Clay Risen, “with buzz saw guitar and driving rhythms punctuating Mr Bailey’s fast-paced snarl of a voice, singing about youthful ennui and failed romance”.
The band signed with EMI and moved to London in 1977, releasing their albums (I’m) Stranded that year and Eternally Yours in 1978, both of which are considered punk classics. When their third album, Prehistoric Sounds, fizzled in 1978, The Saints were dropped by EMI and Kuepper and Hay left the group.
Frenzal Rhomb guitarist Lindsay McDougall described Bailey as a “co-creator of punk music”, while musician Nick Cave said he was “perhaps the greatest and most anarchic rock ‘n’ roll singer Australia would ever produce”.
“I can only simply repeat, for the record, that, in my opinion, the Saints were Australia’s greatest band, and that Chris Bailey was my favourite singer.”
Andrew Symonds, cricketer
At the age of just 46, cricketer Andrew Symonds died in May in a single-car crash not far from Townsville in North Queensland.
Prodigiously talented and with unlimited potential, Symonds had so much more to give to a professional cricket career that seduced Australia and challenged norms.
He bowled whatever he felt like. Spin one week, medium pace the next. Sometimes with a cap on. Somehow it always worked.
He fielded like nobody had before him. The athleticism of Jonty Rhodes and the laser arm of Ricky Ponting all in one.
Symonds brought more to the game than most in a career cut short, partly by his own excesses and partly by a system that abandoned him when he most needed support.
Symonds was born in Birmingham in the UK and adopted at 15 months old. His adoptive parents moved to Australia soon after and he grew up in the North Queensland town of Charters Towers.
2003 was the year Symonds made his mark on the Australian team with selection in the World Cup squad and his first international century in Australia’s tournament-opening win against Pakistan.
He faced consistent racism from members of other international teams and a feeling that Australian cricket had failed to fully support him.
The glitz and glamour of professional sport never appealed to Symonds. He escaped to the river, fishing rod in hand.
Caroline Jones, journalist
In a career spanning 50 years Caroline Jones chalked up a lot of firsts: first woman to anchor the ABC program Four Corners. First woman to become a reporter on the ABC program This Day Tonight. A member of the team that set up Australian Story in 1996. Jones also presented the ABC program Four Corners in the 1970s.
Her death in May at age 84 prompted an outpouring of sadness with descriptions such as “groundbreaking” and “trailblazer”, “grace” and “warmth” used over and over again to describe her.
Jones grew up in the NSW country town of Murrurundi, an experience she cherished. “I was growing up in a country community and that stays with you your whole life,” she told the Newcastle Herald in 2013.
In a 2021 interview with Women in Media, Jones said she had always wanted to be a journalist – her grandfather edited some of the first newspapers in country NSW and she had always been good at writing at school – but “I was a bit timid. I didn’t look or sound as though I had much drive. And so nobody took me on”.
It wasn’t until her late 20s, after six years of various jobs and an incomplete university degree, that Jones got her start in the industry when a friend helped her score a job with the ABC in Canberra.
“It was great to start in what was then a regional centre because you learnt a bit of everything,” Jones said in 2013.
Her natural ability was clear and by the time she was 31 Jones had moved to Sydney to join the ABC’s all-male Saturday night current affairs show This Day Tonight.
“I just thought, my job now is to do this as well as I possibly can and get on with everybody and I hoped that would open the door for other women.”
Lillian Frank, philanthropist and socialite
Hairdresser, fashion icon, philanthropist and high-profile Melbourne socialite Lillian Frank was 92 when she died in August. Her daughter Jackie, former editor and publisher of Marie Claire magazine, said her mother “lived life to the max” and was “the most spectacular selfless human being in the world with the biggest heart”.
Frank arrived in Australia as a child during World War II after fleeing the Japanese invasion of Myanmar, then Burma, where she was born. Lillian’s large Jewish family, the Jacobs’, built a thriving coffee business in the south-east Asian country after previously escaping their native Iraq to avoid religious persecution.
After settling in Australia she married Richard Frank, a refugee from war-ravaged Poland. Soon after she became well-known for her Toorak hairdressing salon and even styled the hair of Jean Shrimpton when she attended the Melbourne Cup in a mini dress in 1965. Frank was also a fixture at the annual horse race, attending almost every year for 50 years.
She was made a Member of the Order of Australia and a Member of the Order of the British Empire for her charity and community work.
“She saw the good in everyone and everything,” her daughter Jackie said.
Johnny Raper, rugby league Immortal
Rugby league legend Johnny Raper died in February at the age of 82.
He played 39 Tests for Australia between 1959 and 1968, captaining Australia to victory in that year’s World Cup.
It was little surprise that Raper, widely regarded as the best forward to have played the game, was part of the first batch of four legends named Immortals in 1981.
His career started at Newtown in 1958, but he made his name at St George, where he won eight straight premierships from 1959 to 1966 alongside fellow Immortals Reg Gasnier, Graeme Langlands and Norm Provan.
He was widely seen as the prototypical lock, revolutionising and perfecting the position in the 1950s and 60s with his trademark low tackles behind the defensive line to cut runners down.
Coach Jack Gibson, who played with Raper, described him as being one of the hardest workers he ever saw.
“[He was] small and not all that quick, but he had football instinct,” Gibson said.
“There was an intensity about him. Nobody trained like he did.”