Memorial address delivered by Rabbi Raymond Apple for Alderman Leo Port MBE at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, September 1, 1978.
No public figure was better known than Alderman Leo Port. None was more popular, and none evoked more admiration, and we have all been plunged into mourning by his death in the midst of life with major tasks still unfulfilled.
Mine is the sad privilege of acting as your spokesman. And I cannot help but be conscious of the Jewish tradition that insists that from midday on Friday, with the Sabbath due to be ushered in at sunset, expressions of grief and lamentation must be toned down and muted so that one becomes attuned to the calmer and more serene Sabbath feeling.
So let me suggest that our mood as we think of Leo Port today should quietly focus not so much on the shock and tragedy of his sudden passing but rather on the blessing it was for our country that this refugee boy made good and gave back to Australia far more than it gave to him; the blessing it was for our people that this inventive and talented man devoted his inventiveness and talents to the welfare of his fellows; the blessing it was for this city that a man of such vision and practical capacity gave it leadership and helped it into a new era; the blessing it was for his dear ones, his family and his friends, that there was a Leo in their lives.
It is truly remarkable to reflect that Leo Port spent only a decade in the public eye. He had less than ten years on the Council of the City of Sydney. He was Lord Mayor for under three years. What he achieved was not done alone; he had the support of his team and the approval of his citizens. But nonetheless one is almost overawed by the sheer size of the project to which he and his colleagues decided to devote themselves, and one is lost in admiration for the unflagging tenacity and vigour with which he planned, argued, fought, cajoled, and charmed to ensure that the dream became a reality.
He was honoured to hold office as first citizen of Sydney and indeed he gave the office honour. The title and concept of Lord Mayor derive of course from the City of London. But one suspects that no Lord Mayor of London faces such a responsible, complex, demanding and gruelling task as that of the Lord Mayor of Sydney. To be the leader of Australia’s oldest, largest, greatest and most beautiful city is to become the property of every one of the millions of people who pass through the City of Sydney, ranging from those who live there (and in Leo Port’s eyes, they were still far too few), work there, or come there to shop or be entertained, to the many tourists who visit Sydney from interstate and overseas.
Leo Port’s concern was the people of Sydney. It was not good enough for the City to be an unfeeling place of concrete canyons, big, daunting, cold and lacking in heart and soul. For him a city was for people. A city needed to be humanised. And somehow largely due to him the miracle was achieved. A few short years, and Sydney had a new image, a new face, a new feeling. Area after area came to life and began to breathe: Martin Place, Sydney Square and all the others. Oases were created for the people. There were imaginative festivals and celebrations. Being in town became fun. People began to enjoy coming into cosmopolitan Sydney.
The City of Sydney worked a change upon itself, and that is Leo’s enduring memorial. Perhaps there will be a tangible way in which his name will live in Sydney. Perhaps there will be a Leo Port Plaza or a Leo Port Garden, perhaps a Leo Port Award. But any tangible memorial will be only a symbol of the true achievement of the man. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice – “If you want a monument, look around…”
Leo and the people of Sydney achieved another thing which may not be so evident but has implications of historic proportions. Where some cities were increasingly becoming places of inhumanity and insensitivity, Sydney began to be seen as a place of human feeling. Where other cities sprouted fear and even violence, Sydney was one of the world’s safest cities, and people could come into Sydney to stroll, to relax. Sydney is not yet Utopia, not by any means. But it has commenced to accentuate the positive and to show that a city need not resign itself to the spread of the negativistic trends that threaten the stability of civilisation.
In the ancient days one of the great luminaries among the Jewish sages was Yochanan ben Zakkai. He had five favourite disciples. He once asked them to consider the question, “What is the best quality which a person can cultivate?” Each of the five gave a different view. Said one, “A good eye”; another, “A good friend”; a third, “A good neighbour”. The fourth said, “Ability to learn from experience”. And the fifth, Elazar ben Arach, suggested, “A good heart”.
The Master said, “I approve the words of Elazar ben Arach more than all your words, since with a good heart all the rest will follow” (Avot 2:13).
The discussion has its impressive application to Leo Port. Colleagues, the media, and ordinary citizens have rivalled each other this week in their assessments of his character and career, and the one phrase above all others which has summed him up is that he was a man with a big heart.
Exuberant, warm, outgoing, forthright; enthusiastic, open-hearted, generous – this was Leo. He was not the most modest or self-effacing of men. He had style. He knew his worth and did not belittle or denigrate himself. On the whole he enjoyed being Lord Mayor. Yet because he had a good heart people enjoyed him and were proud of him. He had a charisma and personality. He caught the imagination of people, and they responded to him.
But it wasn’t only a good heart, a lev tov, that made Leo a special person.
He had ayin tovah, a good eye. He saw things clearly and in perspective. That made him a good engineer and helped him to see the potential of facts and figures. It made him an ingenious inventor and a shrewd assessor of other people’s ideas on the TV programme “The Inventors”. It also gave him the ability to look at one drab, dull, treeless corner of Sydney after another and see it in his mind’s eye fitting into his strategy of developing a City that was green and human.
He was chaver tov, a good friend. He loved people. People who never knew him personally felt close to him. He had his battles and he did not win them all. But he would not easily allow himself to be mean and vindictive towards those with whom he disagreed. He offered others his friendship. He saw them as friends. He could be loyal, trusting and respectful even when one might have expected the opposite.
He was shachen tov, a good neighbour. His sense of civic awareness was exceptional. He could have saved himself considerable aggravation and anxiety. He could have found easier ways to spend his time. He could have limited himself to concentrating on his profession and his family, with one or two minor-key sporting or community activities as hobbies. But he was ambitious, not just for himself but for his city, and he was certain that he could help towards civic advancement.
He was a ro’eh et hanolad, one who learnt from experience. He had a sophisticated education. He had a fine intellectual capacity. He had met many persons and seen many key places. All this taught him. He could understand a problem without ponderous plodding and he could articulate a situation without painfully groping for the words. And he put all these abilities to work. He planned, he strove, he achieved, he evaluated, and he looked ahead.
Leo was, too, a loyal member of the Jewish faith and people. He came from a firmly traditional Jewish background and he was fully involved in the Jewish community and its causes, and the Jewish community is sponsoring as a memorial tribute a park in Israel with a children’s playground and recreational facilities.
He belonged to the synagogue, several synagogues, in more than name. He was a regular worshipper. In recent years as he walked down William Street to Sabbath service (he walked into town on weekdays too) you could see the pride on his face as he entered his city and by his actions emphasised with rare eloquence that the synagogues and churches inject soul and conscience into a city.
He was a public figure who never slackened in the dignity and devotion with which he performed his public role. But he was also a private person who had a family life in the true sense of the word. His was a colourful, strong, united and warmly Jewish home.
To his wife Edith and children and family, Leo Port was a blessing.
What consolation can we offer them on this occasion of remembrance and tribute? We are each aware that it was in working for our welfare as citizens that he wore himself out and his robust stamina gave way. We know that if he had gone at a lesser pace things might have been different, though perhaps he was constitutionally unable to go at a lesser pace, his vibrance and driving force and his warm love for Sydney and its people had to be in top gear.
All we can say is that to us too Leo Port was a blessing. We are grateful to God for him.
Leo died at 55. He will not grow old, as we that are left grow old. He will always be virile, vibrant and vital. This is the picture of him which we will retain. This picture will give us impetus to continue to think in terms of bigger visions. It will arouse us to maintain the energetic, progressive policies for our environment which he represented, and the pride in ourselves and our City which he stood for.
May God comfort his family. May his soul rest in peace. May God grant him an eternal Sabbath.
See also: Eulogy for Alderman Leo Port.