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10 Dec 2015

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By Eleanor Long and Sean Car

Having regularly attended worship at St Johns Southgate since the age of six, Dorothy Hamilton has been a much-loved figure of the Southbank community for 83 years.

Dorothy was born in Rainbow, Victoria in 1926. She is the same age as Queen Elizabeth.

Dorothy was born blind. “Not vision-impaired,” Dorothy insisted, “totally blind!” and is the eldest of seven children in the family, three of whom were born blind.

In 1932, at the age of six, Dorothy came to live at the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind to start her primary school education. Her parents brought her to St Johns for worship and her first impression was that it was a nice place because there were cushions on the seats!

During term time, members of St Johns would take turns to bring her to church each Sunday, and to the Sunday School classes held then across City Rd at the YMCA, which is now the site of Testing Grounds.

Dorothy noted that, back then, Southbank was a very different place.

“It’s a very busy area now and there’s lots of activity going on, which is very nice because I remember what it was like and we had lots of industries around here and now it’s all high-rise,” she said.

Supported by the excellent musical education provided in her primary years, Dorothy became an accomplished musician. At the age of 14, together with a sighted student, she gained first place in Victoria in sixth grade piano.

The examiner, Sir Bernard Heinze, then conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, recommended that Dorothy be given the opportunity to study at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

At a time when few girls were educated at senior levels, she matriculated (Year 12) in 1944.

In her five years at the University of Melbourne, Dorothy completed a Diploma of Music in piano, and then went on to become the first blind woman in the southern hemisphere to obtain the degree of bachelor of music.

However, this was far from the last of the “firsts” for Dorothy.

“I became a teacher and my aim was to be teaching at a sighted school,” Dorothy said. “In 1953, I achieved this when I accepted a position as music teacher at Korowa Girls School in Glen Iris.”

“For five years I taught piano (from beginners to Year 12), theory and recorder. I took the singing classes for the junior school, played for assemblies and ‘music through movement’, played the organ for church services and conducted the choir in the Malvern Town Hall for speech ceremonies.”

Meanwhile, Dorothy continued as an active member of St Johns congregation.

“It meant a lot to me that I could be a regular member of the youth group and I played the piano for their meetings and social activities,” Dorothy said.

“I was a member of the church council, I sang in the choir and I taught Sunday school. I played for the Sunday school assemblies and there would be around 90 children gathered for the session.”

Keith Hamilton also a committed member of St Johns and he often used to accompany Dorothy to the tram at St Kilda Rd. A loving relationship developed, and Dorothy resigned from her position at Korowa, married Keith in 1957 and became the mother of four children: John, Peter, Margaret and Rosemarie.

She managed the full range of household duties – even cooking, which she shared with her husband who was a baker. When the children were all at school, Dorothy started her own music teaching practice, sometime with 30 to 40 students.

She also began to transcribe music into Braille with the support of sighted musicians who read from printed copy according to rules set out in a manual. When the new St Johns Southgate opened, Dorothy began organising annual musical afternoons featuring Melbourne Lutheran musicians.

There was no thought of retirement for Dorothy as she achieved another very significant “first”, probably a worldwide first. Dorothy conceived of a way to transcribe music into Braille using a computer.

In 1994, she travelled to England as an Australian delegate for a project to write a manual for Braille-reading musicians that integrated English with European languages.

While in London, Dorothy visited the Royal National Institute for the Blind and she asked about their progress using the computer for transcription and they said “impossible!” So Dorothy taught them her system.

In 2013 Dorothy was a finalist for Victorian Senior of the Year. She still transcribes music using the computer four mornings a week at Vision Australia. She reads emails and newspapers via her Braille Sense laptop, which she carries around with her everywhere.

For every incredible milestone she has achieved, she said the community of St Johns Southgate had supported her through every step of her journey.

“It’s a very welcoming community and it’s a lovely one to be a part of. My son and I attend here every week and we wouldn’t be without our church,” she said.

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