Vale – Barry Williams

It is with great sadness that we report the news of the passing of Barry Williams, who died on January 20, 2018, at the age of 79, following a series of heart operations.

Barry was intrinsic to the history and development of the skeptical movement in Australia, and for many years he was the face of Skepticism in this country. As fellow Skeptic Peter Bowditch has said: “We should all remember that we are here because he was there.”

Barry was born in Queensland on November 10, 1938. He joined the RAAF and served in various places including at Butterworth air base in what was then Malaya. While he was a member of the ground crew rather than airborne, he was particularly proud of being the leader of a ‘parade’ bringing back a jet plane, that had made an emergency landing on the highway north of Newcastle, NSW, on a long trek back to Williamtown Airforce Base, traffic jam notwithstanding.

He followed his RAAF career with stints in scientific instrument sales and as exhibitions manager for the US Dept of Commerce in Sydney.

In 1980, he watched a TV program on a series of tests of water diviners organised by Dick Smith and James Randi. Dick said there should be an organisation established to do such tests on a regular basis, so Barry put his hand up and formed the Sydney branch of what was then the Victorian-based nascent Australian Skeptics. (Being a science journalist who had covered some of the exhibitions Barry had organised, he persuaded/cajoled/insisted the author of this piece to join the Sydney committee at its first meeting. It was an offer I could not refuse.)

In 1985, the first Australian Skeptics National Convention was held in Sydney, and the following year the ‘national office’ of the Skeptics moved there, followed by the magazine, The Skeptic, the next year.

In his capacity as President of the notionally national Australian Skeptics, Barry took up a high media and community profile, which he maintained until his retirement from active skepticism in 2009.

In 1990, he took over editorship of the magazine “just for one issue”, which lasted for another 18 years. He continued to be a contributor to the magazine with articles of whimsy and erudition, contributing many hundreds of pieces he wrote during and before his role as editor.

In 1995 the Skeptics received a sizeable bequest from the estate of Stanley David Whalley. With these funds, the organisation established the Australian Skeptics Science and Education Foundation (ASSEF), and was able to create the position of Executive Officer, which Barry took up, relinquishing the Presidential chair. (With his skepticism in mind, you can imagine, as Barry put it, “his flabberghastocity on being admitted to hospital on 20 December to find the cardiologist in charge of his case was one Dr David Whalley”. This David Whalley is a distant relative of the other David Whalley whose generosity helped take Australian Skeptics, and Barry with it, into new and dramatic areas. Coincidence? We don’t think so.)

In his off-hours, Barry was a prodigious reader, with a leaning toward science fiction and detective novels. He also had a strong interest in Egyptology and astronomy. But more importantly, he was a cricket tragic to the nth degree – he could turn any conversation around to cricket, regardless of the time, place or topic. He wrote the definitive article on the myth of the number 87, the legendary but totally misplaced nemesis of the Australian cricket team. That article was first published in The Skeptic in 1993 (reprinted in 2012), and in 2001 it was selected to be published in a book titled The Best Ever Australian Sports Writing – a 200 Year Collection.

Appropriately, when Barry was awarded the first Australian Skeptics Lifetime Achievement Award, the plaque was mounted on a facsimile of the Ashes urn. He was thrilled. Cricket was the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

That is, when the answer wasn’t skepticism.

Throughout his Skeptical and other careers, he was always known as someone who wasn’t backward in letting people know his opinions and shared his truly broad knowledge. (He once bet an encyclopaedia salesman that if the latter could ask a question Barry didn’t know the answer to, he would buy a set of the overpriced books. He didn’t need to buy one.)

His height, strong voice and, shall we say, his more than adequate size, meant he was an imposing figure in any discussion, and he was never shy in confronting the purveyors of woo and the shonks selling any form of pseudoscience and the paranormal.

In the days before social media, Barry was ever present on TV, radio and in the press, and was instrumental in the transition of the Skeptics’ image from amusing novelty to serious players and activists.

He might have been a curmudgeon at times (a description he would and did approve of), but he also had great enthusiasm and a strong sense of humour and the ridiculous – a jolly Santa with a “bah humbug” never far from his lips. He could probably quote every word of the Goons shows, and he was a mine of information on British comedy. Boredom was never an issue in long conversations with him (and I had many of those). Seeing him with the long lineage of dogs and cats he owned and sometimes found over the years, you realised that he very much had a soft side that came readily into play. Likewise he was extremely proud of his family, and would regularly cite the success of his daughter, Pita, in the legal profession.

One of his last comments during his recent hospitalisation was that he wanted to “ensure he doesn’t croak before humiliation of the Poms in the Ashes is complete”.

He might not have seriously intended to croak, but the Australian test team did manage to fulfil his wish. He would have been very pleased that they had taken such positive notice of his request. It was the least they could do.

To Pita, Roz, Helen, Stephen, Nicholas, Christopher, and the rest of his family and wide circle of friends, our sincere and deepest condolences.

Rest in peace, Barry. We’ll miss you.

Tim Mendham

3 thoughts on “Vale – Barry Williams”

  1. Thank you Tim for a wonderful obit on Barry. What a tremendous man he was and those of us lucky enough to know him even slightly were fortunate. I met him first in 1981 when he worked at the USIS, as it was then called, based in Glen St Milson’s Point in the same building at SBS TV where I worked as a producer. Later in early 2001 I was working in Roseville and lo and behold who should stroll up for a coffee but Barry. It was alway a delight to be with him, to gently tease him and get a great response, to listen to him pontificating and know you were learning something and to laugh ourselves stupid as we both remembered snatches from British radio comedy shows from years ago, led by all the Goonish delights we both loved. I saw the notice in the Herald this morning and, sadly, knew it must be THE Barry Williams. Never again to hear the booming voice, the laugh, the eloquent put down or indeed a proud father and grandfather talk of his family. Our loss. Thank you Barry for so much wonderful Skepticism.

  2. Barry was an inspiration to us older skeptics – a very good leader, organiser and media performer. This was considerably helped by his witty sense of humour and effective people skills. He was editor of The Skeptic magazine for nearly 20 years and will be sadly missed.

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