Philip Henry Napoleon Opas, OBE

Maree Toogood

Blackburn, Melbourne, Australia

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Air Commodore (ret) Philip Opas, at the Melbourne Anzac Day March, 25th April 2008.
When I asked this very nice old gentleman if it would be OK if I took his photo, I didn’t have any idea just who he was. After some research I am amazed at the life that this man has led. I was also saddened to find that he passed away just 4 months after this shot, in August 2008 at 91 years of age.



FEW other Australians have been so closely linked with as many diverse names and events that captured national attention as Dr Philip Opas, who died after a long illness, aged 91.

His name will always be associated with his most notorious client, Ronald Ryan, the last man to be hanged in Australia, in 1966, but not many would know that as a young track rider, he twice rode iconic racehourse Phar Lap.

He was also at the liberation of the infamous World War II Japanese prisoner of war camp at Changi in Singapore, and kept the Samurai sword of the commander for many years before returning it to the man’s family in Japan.

Perhaps his greatest silent legacy was as a representative of the Australian government, when he was sent to war-shattered Europe to recruit skilled labour – that pool of immigrants who helped to build Australia into a vibrant society and provided many leading lights of successive generations.

Despite his many achievements, Opas always rued the hanging of Ryan – an event that changed his own life. He was convinced that Ryan could not have fired the fatal shot in 1965 that killed Pentridge warder George Hodson while he was escaping with fellow inmate Peter Walker.

In his autobiography, Throw Away My Wig, published in 1997, Opas begins his life story with an account of the day Ryan was hanged, in February 1967. “The death of the unfortunate Ronald Ryan affected me deeply. It certainly changed my life,’’ Opas wrote.

Opas’ life was divided into three parts: sport, the RAAF and the law – and he assigned them all the same importance.

He was a great lawyer and a great athlete. His had a lifelong association with sport – as a sprinter, cricketer, footballer and sports administrator, becoming chairman of the Victorian Amateur Athletic Association.

At the 1956 Olympics, he was chief manager of the athletics competition. When the Olympics official due to present the gold medal to Harold Connolly of the United States for his win in the hammer throw was nowhere to be found, Opas stepped in and did the honours, causing huge public controversy.

Opas, who was born in Melbourne to Joseph and Sarah (nee Goodman), the eldest of five siblings, was educated to Melbourne Grammar (1925-31), but left school early during the Depression and worked as a law clerk with Roy Schilling. He completed his matriculation by correspondence.

In 1939, he married Stella Sonenberg, the daughter of criminal lawyer NH Sonenberg. Within weeks of his marriage, he enlisted in the RAAF and served in New Guinea during World War II.

His work with the RAAF earned him spectacular promotion and by July 1969, he became judge advocate general, a post he held for 15 years until he retired as an air commodore in June 1976. He was immensely proud of his service, saying in his notes that “I attained the highest rank ever held by a Jew – air commodore, the equivalent of a one-star general.”

Opas was awarded an OBE in 1969 for services to law and the RAAF.

He was initially in favour of capital punishment, then later became a strong opponent. And he also opposed pomposity in the law. He was a keen letter writer to the newspapers and believed the wigs and gowns associated with the law should have been abandoned long ago.

He loved painting, poetry, cricket, lecturing at U3A and supervising doctoral candidates. He also wrote significant articles for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and was a proud and active member of the Victorian Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women’s Association, and served as its president in 1953. The ANZAC Day parade was an important part of his life.

At 80, he toured with a Cricket Australia masters team as a wicket-keeper. He was a lifelong Geelong supporter, and claimed to have been the team’s mascot when they won the 1925 grand final he was certainly at the MCG when the club won last year’s grand final.

He loved words and language, authored seven books, including Here’s To The Next Man That Dies, The Law Has Long Ears, and The Great Ring In!

His wife of 66 years, Stella, died three years ago. He is survived by his daughters, former County Court judge Lynnette Schiftan, and psychologist Rosemary Starrfour, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Tony Burke is president of the Law Institute of Victoria.

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