‘A friend, role model and mentor’

‘A friend, role model and mentor’

The Australian Jewish community is mourning the death of Professor Louis Waller, a pre-eminent communal identity, who passed away aged 84.

Louis Waller. Photo: Peter Haskin
Louis Waller. Photo: Peter Haskin

TRIBUTES have poured in for Professor Louis Waller, 84, a towering figure of the legal profession, academia and the Jewish community, who passed away last week.

A child refugee from pre-World War II Poland, Waller would go on to have a monumental impact on Australian law reform.

A pre-eminent communal identity, he held several senior roles within B’nai B’rith, served as chair of the Makor Jewish Library, the Melton adult education program and the advisory committee of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University.

He also sat on the board of governors of the Jewish Museum, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, and was closely involved with Jewish Care.

Beyond the Jewish community, in the 1980s, he spearheaded a groundbreaking committee studying the legal framework behind IVF, leading the Victorian government to introduce the first legislation anywhere in the world to regulate IVF and human embryo research.

Waller was appointed chairman of Victoria’s Law Reform Commission in 1984, and from 1986-92 he served as a part-time commissioner. He chaired medical and legal organisations, including the Infertility Treatment Authority, the statutory Standing Review and Advisory Committee on Infertility, the International Humanitarian Law Committee of the Australian Red Cross Society, the Ethics Committee of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, and the Appeals Committee of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. He was founding president of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. 

The acclaimed jurist, recognised as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1989 and awarded an honorary law degree from Monash University in 2005, was a pioneer of legal studies at Monash University. He also served as a visiting professor and research fellow in universities in the UK, Canada and Israel.

Son Ian Waller said his father died on the eve of Yom Kippur, with his family by his hospital bedside after they had recited Kol Nidrei prayers together. 

Eulogising him at his funeral at Melbourne Chevra Kadisha cemetery in Lyndhurst last Thursday, Ian said his father “understood the power of words. He would often say: ‘Before you speak them, words are your prisoners – once spoken, you become theirs.’ He appreciated that words could be used to criticise, to defame, to provoke and to inflame; but also to encourage, to teach, to praise, and to advise”.

“Although I was never formally a student in one of Dad’s classes, Dad taught me so much by example. I know this is equally true for [siblings] Anthony and Elly.”

“I am often asked if I am the son of Professor Waller. When I confirm that I am, I learn of yet another person who has benefited from Dad’s influence,” Ian stated.

Born in Siedlce, Poland in 1935, he and his family emigrated to Australia in 1938 as the threat from Nazi Germany rose, and they changed their name to Waller.

He married Wendy nee Poyser and they had four children, Michael (deceased), Anthony, Ian and Elly. 

“Exactly a year ago, we celebrated Mum and Dad’s 60th wedding anniversary in Israel – returning to the place where it all began, but now surrounded by their 35 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Ian said. 

Professor Waller was a key figure in establishing Monash University, and was appointed the Sir Leo Cussen Professor of Law in 1964, a position he held for 36 years. He was dean of the Law School from­­­ 1968-70, and although he officially retired in 2000, he remained active as emeritus professor. A who’s who of Victoria’s legal fraternity celebrated his 80th birthday at the Law Faculty in 2015.

After his passing, Monash University president and vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner described him as “renowned for his compassion and reason … greatly respected and admired by his students and colleagues”.

Waller was an energetic stalwart of B’nai B’rith Victoria, joining in 1960. Addressing its 70th anniversary dinner in 2015, with his characteristic dry wit, he recounted his initiation among inductees in formal attire, “a parade of Jewish penguins the likes of which it’s now difficult to imagine … Today, look around you, not a black jacket or tie in sight”. 

He chaired B’nai B’rith Victoria in 1976-77, was a councillor of B’nai B’rith Australia–New Zealand (BBANZ) from 1982-85, and was president of the Raoul Wallenberg Unit from 2002-05. 

B’nai B’rith Victoria president Benny Monheit said Waller “ran our meetings with a firm and knowledgeable hand … He was our wise and much loved elder statesman”. BBANZ president David Samuels lauded Waller’s many years of service and his pivotal role.

Mark Leibler, national chairman of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, said its directors and professionals regarded the late professor as “a wonderful friend, role model and mentor … admired for his brilliance, dedicated commitment and profound contribution to the law”. 

As president of the Anti-Defamation Commission’s Council of Advisors for more than a decade, Waller was described by ADC chair Dvir Abramovich as “an extraordinary teacher and jurist”.

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