A man regarded as the world’s oldest active overseas aid worker, Fredrick Harold Hyde, has passed away peacefully at the age of 96 in Warwick, Queensland. Born in Pittsworth, Queensland, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 1997, the Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2007, the Queensland Senior Australian of the Year in 2015 and the RSL ANZAC Peace Prize on the centenary of Gallipoli.
Fred fought in the Middle East and Papua campaigns and on the Kakoda trail during WWII, with his tropical war experience proving to be valuable in his later work in remote Bangladesh. On his retirement at the age of 57 he took a role as a voluntary project auditor for the Gandhi Foundation India, before agreeing to an assignment at an orphanage on Bhola Island in the newly-formed Bangladesh, scene of the world’s worst single most deadly natural disaster, the Bhola Cyclone of 1970. His Bhola trip came at the request of Victorian Liberal Party MP and former fighter pilot Len Reid DFC of the Victorian Charity for Those Who Have Less. The charity’s Bhola Island orphanage was in financial difficulty with Fred arriving during a period of widespread starvation and unrest. One of his first tasks, after throwing the orphanage pistol into a pond, was to protect the unhusked rice on site, which he did by physically camping out beside the piled up harvest. Expecting to stay for a few weeks for his assignment, Fred ended up staying for over a year, and from that point on spent most of his life in Bangladesh, only retiring in November 2015 at the age of 95.
Fred established his own charity, Co-operation in Development (Australia) Inc (Co-ID) in 1991, moulding the organisation in his own image: lean, tough and caring. The charity, which was just the 99th NGO registered in Bangladesh (today there are almost 2500), grew to become one of the largest educational charities in that country even though the annual budget marked Co-ID out as one of the smaller overseas aid operations in the new nation. The contradiction was reconciled by Fred’s unique approach to charity: he bore all the key expenses of his own involvement (including living expenses and flights) and encouraged all other Australian- based volunteers in the organisation to do the same. He kept tight controls on expenses in Bangladesh, bargaining with local suppliers and paying modest local wages to teachers and office staff. The result was that he built a network of 41 schools and 7 kindergartens, serving over 13,000 children’s full time educational needs, for the cost of a handful of primary school teachers’ salaries in Australia. He ‘sold’ his vision to many Victorian and interstate independent schools; the ‘fundraising by children for children’ model also serving what he saw as a valuable pedagogical role.
A remarkably modern nonagenarian, he featured on the ABC’s Australian Story in 2001, and more recently on Al Jazeera where a helmeted 94-year-old Fred can be seen astride a motorbike off to supervise school building projects in regions literally off the beaten track, where few government schools or even madrassas were built. Despite quitting school in his early teens, he had a ceaseless passion for learning.
After WWII Fred was about to marry his sweetheart when in his twenties he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition. He did not want her to bear the burden of caring for a sick man so he called the wedding off. Even though it was later obvious that this was a misdiagnosis, Fred never married. He is survived by his brother Colin, nieces and nephews and both great and great-great nieces and nephews.
A memorial to celebrate the life and work of this extraordinary man will be held at St Michaels Church 120 Collins st on December 7 at 11am.
Dr Olav Muurlink is the chair of the CO-ID charity