Dr Ann Farley, Director of Cross Faculty Initiatives
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Kirsten Jack —a beloved Girls Grammar student — sadly passing away during Year 11 in 1977. Dr Ann Farley discusses how Kirsten’s joy of life and the love of her friends inspired a legacy of friendship, commitment and caring for others.
Familial love apart, there is no closer relationship than that of a friend and Kirsten had many. During the course of her education, which she never completed, she came in close contact with three girls of similar age and outlook who became her special friends. These four young ladies lived a happy and healthy existence in each other’s company. They were a sparkling and vivacious quartet, full of promise for the future (Jack, 2001).
This year we celebrate Kirsten Jack, whose joy of life and love of friends inspired the formation of the Brisbane Girls Grammar School Kirsten Jack Memorial Leukaemia Committee. On the last day of Term IV in 1976, Kirsten was admitted to hospital for tests to determine if she had glandular fever. On the first day of the Christmas holidays, Kirsten was diagnosed with leukaemia and on 5 June 1977, sadly, she passed away.
At that time, her Girls Grammar friends rallied together to support and care for each other. At a Year 11 Assembly many years later, one such friend and Grammar Woman, Clare Florence (1978), spoke about the strength of the girls’ friendships, their love for each other and the feeling that together they had to do something to make sense of what had happened to Kirsten.
Finding a cure for leukaemia was paramount in our minds. We started thinking of fundraising ideas to channel money into much needed research’ (Florence, 2009).
This was the beginning of the Kirsten Jack Memorial Leukaemia Committee — the group that has now become fondly known to many as the ‘KJ Committee’. This assembly was held during my first year as staff co-ordinator of the Committee in 2009, when Clare, and two other friends of Kirsten, Anna Blocksidge (1978) and Jane Carpenter (1978), returned to the School to share memories of their friend. I remember my concern as they were about to speak to the Year 11 students. I knew there would be happy stories of fun and friendship, but I also knew that Kirsten’s passing had at the time turned the girls’ world ‘upside down’ and I had some trepidation about the impact of their reflections on the current students. I need not have worried. As the ladies shared stories of their experiences with Kirsten from both inside and outside the classroom, it seemed that Kirsten became real to us and silent tears were shed by many. We identified with so many emotions: joy; fun; pain; suffering; courage; disbelief; and loss. At no time did I sense feelings of hopelessness among students, rather — in response to their emotions of love and loss — I sensed a strengthened determination to ensure Kirsten’s memory continued to be honoured.
Inspired by this event, I now use pictures of Kirsten and her friends’ words and reflections to ‘introduce’ Kirsten to the new KJ Committee members at the beginning of each year, including this example from Anna Blocksidge:
Danish style and English sensibility. Kirsten was such a beautiful blend — exotic and worldly despite her youth. She had an ethereal quality which I find I can’t quite describe. Not fragility, but something alluring and enticing — a softness that was curiously powerful. Her laugh was truly contagious and she seemed to have a smile not just on her lips but on the inside too.
I am inevitably touched to see the empathy and enthusiasm Kirsten’s experiences inspire in our current students.
In 1977, Kirsten’s friends raffled ‘George’, an enormous stuffed dog, and held an ‘Informal Dress Day’ to raise money for research into childhood leukaemia. In 1978, The Kirsten Jack Memorial Leukaemia Committee met for the first time with Clare Florence as the founding president and Mrs Mary Hukins as the first staff co-ordinator. In her 1978 School Magazine report, Clare offered a challenge to future Grammar girls:
Kirsten would have been in this year’s sixth form and when we have gone, perhaps another form will carry on ‘Informal Dress Day’ for us, because leukaemia lives on, and every day, young people like Kirsten are dying after months of torturous suffering. (Florence, 1978)
For forty years, Grammar girls and staff have responded to Clare’s challenge. Kirsten’s family maintained a close connection with the School and for many years Kirsten’s father returned to the School to acknowledge the work of the students. During the past four decades, the activities of the KJ Committee have changed with the times, but the focus has remained steadfast. I am sure that fun-loving Kirsten would have enjoyed Michaelina Andersen and Courtney Griffith’s (both 2012) description of the ‘magic moments of Kirsten’ in the 2012 School Magazine:
Spiral balloons and brightly painted faces sprinkled across the campus on Open Day; rainbow spiders on Bandanna Day; roses for Mother’s Day; the raffle of KJ the bear, named in memory of Kirsten Jack; generously donated daffodils for Daffodil Day; a collection of bake stalls; the annual Year 12 post-formal fashion parade; and a plaque dedicated to the memory of Kirsten Jack on the 2012 Wall of Appreciation at Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital. (Anderson Griffiths, 2012)
They concluded their report with ‘Thank you to Kirsten for reminding us how precious life really is’.
Over the years, the funds raised from activities such as those described above have been donated to organisations including The Leukaemia Foundation, The Queensland Cancer Council, Canteen and various researchers to help fund specific projects, including Grammar Woman and former Head of the Bone Marrow Transplantation Unit at Royal Children’s Hospital, Dr Liane Lockwood (1974), and Professor Hancock of the Leukaemia Research Unit at Queensland Institute of Medical Research. Most recently the majority of funds raised have been contributed to Childhood Cancer Support and Professor Maher Gandhi (current parent and Leukaemia Foundation Queensland Chair in Blood Cancer Research) to support the Endohaematology Fund, Department of Haematology, Princess Alexandra Hospital.
The Kirsten Jack Memorial Leukaemia Committee is the longest running service group at Girls Grammar. This year’s leaders, Emilia Weedon (11O) and Louise Rainbird (11G), agree that the group has remained relevant today because cancer is still affecting so many young people. There is still a great need for research to find better treatments and many members of our Girls Grammar community know someone who has been impacted by the disease. Emilia suggested that Kirsten’s legacy will always remain strong within the Grammar community … that she will always be remembered and appreciated for her fighting spirit … that ‘she inspired a movement with a passion for action and change in our school.’ Louise said that Kirsten’s memory inspired ‘the coming together of a group of passionate, committed and like-minded girls who support the treatment of young people with cancer with the hope of finding a cure’.
As staff co-ordinator of the KJ Committee, I see Kirsten’s legacy not only in terms of fundraising but also in relationships built between students and teachers, and in opportunities for girls to demonstrate their passion and leadership.
The committee is now fondly referred to by many as simply ‘KJ’— an indication that the essence of Kirsten Jack and her friends is the reason why it has endured for so long, an essence that Anna Blocksidge beautifully defined in her Year 11 assembly speech in 2009:
It makes me very proud as an Old Girl to know that her journey might lead you to continue to help those who need it. But more importantly, remember to love dearly those friends who are dear — they make your life so full and rich. (Blocksidge, 2009, August 4)
Anderson, M. Griffiths, C. (2012). Magic moments in memory of Kirsten. Brisbane Girls Grammar School, School Magazine.
Blocksidge, A. (2009, August 4). Year 11 Assembly Address [Speech]. Presented at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, Brisbane.
Florence, C. (2009). Year 11 Assembly Address. [Speech]. Presented at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, Brisbane.
Florence, C. (1978). Informal Day 1978. Brisbane Girls Grammar School, School Magazine.
Jack, A. (2001). The Travelling Companion. Self-published Memoir Presented to the Beanland Memorial