Canberra Citizen of the Year
Victor Karl de Fontenay (circa 1950-2009)
Vic de Fontenay, right, with Rex Crabb, prinicpal of Malkara School and Haxel Hawke, wife of the Prime Minister, at the opening of the Malkara School hydrotherapy pool, 23 July 1986
SOURCE: ACT Heritage Library, Canberra Times Collection, Handicapped file. Photographer lende
The Australian de Fontenays are descended from Louis Adrien Ferdinand Cadet de Fontenay, born in Mauritius in 1863. His ancestor, Pierre François Cadet de Fontenay was born in Paris, a member of the Cadet family; two of his brothers were Louis Claude Cadet de Gassicourt (1731-1799) and Antoine-Alexis Cadet de Vaux (1743-1828), well-known research chemists and pharmacists.
Pierre François arrived in Ile de France - as Mauritius was then known - in 1768 to be part of the island's regular French army. The Ile de France, then a major French base on the main Indian trade route, was eventually invaded and conquered by the British in 1810. One of the terms of the capitulation was that the French residents of the island could remain and retain ownership of their possessions. The Cadet de Fontenay family was one of the many French families who stayed on; numerous descendants are still living on the island.
Louis Adrien attended medical school in Dijon, France but returned to Mauritius before completing the degree. As the seventh son the family could not support him on the island so he departed on the MMS Salazie for South Australia, arriving in May 1888. In 1891 he married Elizabeth Mountford Salisbury. Their nine children initially bore the surname Cadet-de-Fontenay, later dropping the Cadet. Victor John de Fontenay, also a seventh son (eighth child), was born in 1910; he married Ursula Mulhall of Northcote in Melbourne in 1947 and they had two children, Ursula Elizabeth and Victor Karl.
Victor and Ursula moved to Alice Springs, where in the 1950s they established El Mima Date Garden, pioneering commercial date growing in Australia. Their son Vic was more interested in the local swimming pool and in 1968, aged 18, he was appointed manager of the ageing pool following the sudden resignation of the previous manager. Vic worked long hours to keep the pool open during the summers and travelled round Australia during the winters to learn about municipal pool operations.
Alice Springs desperately needed a new and larger pool, and Vic was named president of the Memorial Olympic Pool Committee. He made some preliminary design drawings and estimated the construction cost, then led the committee in fundraising. When the final design was revealed, Vic was pleased to discover that it was very similar to his sketches.
While the pool was under construction Vic went to England to gain experience first as a life guard and then assistant manager at a community pool. From there he moved into the more technical field: as a trainee filtration engineer in southern England he built filtration plants on commercial pools and sewage treatment works, and at Haifa Institute of Technology in Israel he started designing sewage filtration systems.
Back home, Vic started a full-time swimming pool business in 1973, opened a pool supply shop in Alice Springs in 1975 and another in Darwin. He and his wife Verity, a former nurse, moved to Darwin in 1978 and sold the Alice Springs shop in 1979. In 1981 Vic wrote the first technical training manual for swimming pool servicing in Australia, followed by lecture notes and an audiotaped training program. He travelled widely, overseeing the construction of pools and fountains and running motivational seminars in Darwin.
In 1982 Vic began importing swimming pool industry chemicals and equipment from the US, basing the operation in Canberra; he and Verity moved here in 1983. His partnership with a local businessman failed disastrously and he switched to pool repairs in the Canberra area, then tendered successfully for the pool complex to be built at the Australian Institute of Sport. Confidence restored, he added a state-of-the-art hydrotherapy pool at the AIS and then won a contract to undertake an efficiency study of the complex prior to providing a six-month staff training programme.
One day in 1985 he heard motivational speaker E James Rohn say: “When you don’t have anything left to give, then give to someone who has less”. Two days later a news item described the need for a hydrotherapy pool at Malkara Special School for profoundly handicapped children. The school’s funding had been cut and the prospect of the pool was receding, so Vic offered his services free of charge. Vic designed what was probably the most technologically advanced indoor pool complex in Australia, most notably in its unique use of ultraviolet light instead of chlorine which would have adversely affected the children. A year later the complex was finished, and after Hazel Hawke had officially opened the pool Vic was ‘encouraged’ to be the first person in – fully clothed.
Vic was awarded Canberran of the Year, with the official citation: “Apart from the months of full time work he devoted to the planning, design and building of the pool, Mr de Fontenay collected around him an ever widening circle of helpers from all areas and strata of Canberra. These included professionals such as himself, builders and their labourers, housewives and public servants, people who had appeared before the courts and were given community work to do, and children."
The publicity generated a rush of contracts including one to construct the complicated water feature component of the Royal Australian Navy Memorial on Anzac Parade. After that he won the contracts for three water features at the new Parliament House: the swimming and spa pools, the reflecting pool below the flagpole, and the commemorative fountain pool in the forecourt.
Business was booming in the hotel, municipal and private pool sector until the economic downturn of the early 1990s. Vic and Verity saw a financial future in Fiji but discovered that the limitation on foreign ownership restricted Vic to working for existing locally owned companies. They returned to Adelaide in 1995; their dire financial situation improved with another rush of contracts in Australia, including the Canberra International Sports and Aquatics Centre (CISAC). Vic was also in demand as a consultant to overseas developers, including those in Fiji. This allowed him to return, alone, to Fiji in 2005 to set up a partnership with Fijian nationals.
In 2009 he married Reshmi, mother of his first and only child, Asim. On a honeymoon trip to Adelaide Vic fell ill but insisted on returning to Fiji, where he was diagnosed with kidney failure. He died on 10 September 2009 in Nadi and was buried there.
Awards and Distinctions
- 1987 Canberran of the Year
1987 Rotary International Paul Harris Fellowship
1981 De Fontenay, Victor K, Swimming pool service: technical manual, Marion, S Aust, Howden Printing
1981 De Fontenay, Victor K, Swimming pool shop and servicemen's reference, Marion, S Aust, Howden Printing
1983 'One of the best in Australia.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 13 May, p. 10, viewed 25 January, 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131843789
1987 'Pool 'stirrer' is Canberran of 1987.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 12 March, p. 1, viewed 19 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article136294387
2011 Alice’s First Olympic Pool, Alice Springs News, April 21, 2011, viewed 20 January 2016, http://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/1812.html