Canberra Citizen of the Year

1997


Donald Walter Whitbread (1936-)

Don Whitbread conducting the Woden Valley Youth Choir outside Lanyon Homestead, 1981 

Don Whitbread conducts the Woden Valley Youth Choir outside Lanyon Homestead during Canberra Day celebrations, 7 March 1981.

SOURCE: ACT Heritage Library image 000083, Canberra Times Collection. Photographer Michael Porter

Don is the elder of two sons of the Reverend Walter Whitbread (died 1981), a Wesleyan Methodist minister, and his wife Bernice Annie nee Baker (1905-1981). Don was born at Lake Cargelligo in central western NSW on 1 December 1936, but grew up in various towns as his father was moved from place to place. In 1949 Walter left Lithgow to be minister of the Canberra Methodist church, then based in a hall built in 1930. He was appointed a Commissioner in 1951 with the task of travelling round Australia to raise funds to build the Methodist National Memorial Church in Canberra. His success is commemorated in a window of the church in Forrest: “Walter and Bernice Whitbread. Dedicated Superintendent, Minister and Commissioner for Building this Church from 1949 to 1955”.

Walter Whitbread, like his son and grandson, was very interested in music. He believed that sacred music could be broadly defined as any form of music that is uplifting, enjoyable and enhancing. His Canberra legacy is the Wesley Music Foundation, of which Don is a founding board member. Money raised through concerts and donations has funded the scholarship program for young musicians, rebuilt the church pipe organ, and established the Music Centre.

Walter and Bernice moved on to other positions, but by then Don had completed his schooling at Canberra High and Wagga Wagga Teachers’ College. In 1956 he was sent to a one-teacher school at Beargamil near Parkes for three years, then to schools in Sydney. There he married Barbara Gumley, his high school sweetheart, in 1960.

Barbara (born 1936) is the only child of Edward Oliver Gumley (ca 1906-1989) and his wife Madge Ursula (1907-1987). Edward moved to Canberra in the 1920s to work as a carpenter; when building ceased during the Depression he first carted oranges and potatoes and then began a fruit shop at Manuka, later adding a milk bar. The Gumleys were dedicated members of the Methodist church, where Edward was a choir member; their memorial window stands opposite that of Don’s parents. Barbara worked as a nurse in childcare centres and was also a pianist.

Don graduated from the University of NSW in 1967 with a Bachelor of Economics and came to Canberra to work for the National Capital Development Commission in 1968. In 1970 he was Secretary to the Senate Select Committee on Securities and Exchange, then a Senior Advisor in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet before becoming Assistant Director at the National Film and Sound Archive on its establishment in 1984. Due to Barbara’s ill health he took early retirement in 1990 and set up his own company, Music Co-ordination Australia, which became part of an international body that organised tours for bands, choirs and orchestras into and out of Australia. After a second retirement in 2001 Don has worked freelance as a conductor of choirs, an adjudicator at eisteddfods and as a judge for the CAT (Canberra Area Theatre) Awards, as well as his work for the Wesley Music Foundation. He also presents workshops on conducting and choral technique.

Don first conducted a children’s choir at Carlton South Public School, Sydney, where he was a teacher. Within a year of their return to Canberra he and Barbara had founded the Woden Valley Youth Choir (WVYC), which Don directed and conducted for 28 years. The family lived in the new suburb of Pearce and there was little for children to do, so Don visited the schools and churches in the Valley to enlist support for a non-denominational children's choir which would be open, free of charge, to children who passed a simple audition. Rehearsals began in the Whitbreads’ living room in February 1969, with Barbara at the piano and Don conducting.

The choir initially performed in school halls and similar venues in the local area, then extended their activities to eisteddfods in Canberra, Nowra and Sydney. Membership grew to about 50, which Don considered the optimum size for maintenance of the high standards he achieved. W L Hoffmann, the Canberra Times music critic, wrote in 1975: “Occasionally a concert comes along which is so unexpectedly delightful that even the music critic walks out at its conclusion with a smile on his face and a new spring in his step - this happened last Friday night when I attended the concert given in the Playhouse by the Woden Valley Youth Choir."

The annual concert drew ever larger audiences; by 1978 it was held in the Canberra Theatre and later in Llewellyn Hall at the ANU School of Music. The choir built a reputation both locally and nationally, due to Don’s philosophy that children’s choirs should be treated as adult choirs were, “being just as careful with technical areas such as diction and intonation, and with the performances just as professionally approached in regard to presentation, costuming, stage settings and accompaniments." Under Don’s baton it developed a distinctive tonal quality, a perfect blending of youthful voices.

The WVYC has sung for royalty and prime ministers, at opening and closing ceremonies for international sporting events and performed with the Australian Opera and international guest artists. Each year it joins other Canberra choirs for Carols by Candlelight, for 25 years also conducted by Don. The choir has made overseas tours and recorded on disc and CD, and many of its members have gone on to professional music careers. In the year of his retirement as director and conductor the choir nominated him for the 1997 Canberra Citizen of the Year award.

Don’s other passion is hockey, beginning at school. He usually played in goal but was versatile enough to play in other positions also. Hockey, like conducting, is a physical activity and Don claims it gave him the fitness to see him through exhausting choir tours – provided he did not injure his hands just before needing them for conducting. He played for the Old Canberrans and for ACT and Australian representative teams, enjoying the comradeship over forty years in the game. In 1993 he captained the ACT team for the Veterans Championships in Canberra.

At about the same time as Don founded the WVYC he joined the new Rotary Club of Woden. In 1973 he was sent to the US as a member of the Study Exchange team, in 1984 received a District Award for Vocational Excellence, and in 1996 was made a Paul Harris Fellow.

In accepting the Citizen of the Year award Don admitted that when he and Barbara began the Woden Valley Youth Choir he never envisaged that it would become one of the country's most acclaimed singing groups. "I had a dream,” he said. “It's not very often that a dream comes true but this one did."

Awards and Distinctions

  • 1980 Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM)
  • 1984 Canberra Rotary District award for vocational excellence
  • 1996 Canberra Rotary Paul Harris Fellow for his work in fostering friendly relations between peoples through his work in music
  • 1997 Canberra Citizen of the Year for setting up and his work with the Woden Valley Youth Choir
  • 2001 included in ‘The 75 Faces of Canberra’, The Canberra Times 75th anniversary list of people who have helped shape Canberra

Select Bibliography

1987 'Sticks... of a different kind.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 21 March, p. 8 Section: TIMES JOBS, viewed 16 February, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article136295922

1996 Sunday Farewell To Choir Founder, WL Hoffmann, Canberra Times , 29 November, viewed 16 February 2016, https://global-factiva-com.rp.nla.gov.au/ha/default.aspx#./!?&_suid=145558177670609657563729909351

1997 Conduct Of Good Citizen Rewarded, Canberra Times , 13 March, viewed 16 February 2016, https://global-factiva-com.rp.nla.gov.au/ha/default.aspx#./!?&_suid=145558177670609657563729909351

2010 ‘Honorary member – Don Whitbread’, The Raven no 43 vol 42 5 May, viewed 16 February 2016, http://www.wodenrotary.org.au/assets/console/document/documents/RAVEN%202010-05-05.pdf

2015 ActewAGL Canberra Area Theatre Awards Judging Panel, viewed 16 February 2016, http://www.catawards.com.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=15&Itemid=116


See other Canberra Citizens of the Year.