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Largest ever crowdfunded gift to University helps fight cancer

20 February 2018
A family's gift honours a beloved father and human rights hero
The family of an Australian human rights activist has raised $100,000 to help tackle pancreatic cancer. It is the largest ever crowdfunded gift to the University of Sydney.
The van Beek family

The van Beek family

On a September day last year, Harris van Beek's doctor told him he had perhaps three days to live. Van Beek's response was to express sympathy for the doctor who had to break the news.

"His first instinct was always to think about things from someone else's point of view," says van Beek's son, Peter.

Van Beek, 65, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just six months earlier. In his final days, he spoke with his family about his wishes. Together, they decided in lieu of flowers to ask for donations towards pancreatic cancer research at the University of Sydney.

In the days before the funeral, those who knew and loved van Beek – and there were many – gave what they could. Fifty dollars here, five-hundred there.

"We were overwhelmed by the generosity of so many friends and colleagues," says Peter.

A few months on, the family has raised close to $100,000 through their crowdfunding webpage. It is the largest ever crowdfunded gift to the University and will help support researchers working to combat a cancer that is difficult to treat and kills almost 3000 Australians each year.

"The really shocking thing about pancreatic cancer is the lack of awareness," says Peter. "Survival rates haven't improved in nearly 40 years. More research is needed so that in the future dad's outcome would be the exception rather than the norm."

Harris van Beek and his wife, Jane

Harris van Beek and his wife, Jane

The gift to cancer research is only a small part of van Beek's legacy. He spent his life working to make the world a better place.

In 1973, van Beek was a 21-year-old public servant, with not enough to do and too much time in which to do it. When his supervisors paid no attention to his request for more work, he wrote a letter to The Sydney Morning Herald.

"I am writing to you as a state public servant, but more importantly as a taxpayer," he wrote. "As an officer in the department of local government I spend an estimated average of four and a half hours of every seven hours I attend my job doing nothing ... I consider that this example alone requires open investigation."

It was the end of his career with the department and the beginning of a lifelong mission to work for the greater good. He went on to become the first full-time employee of Amnesty NSW and, in 1982, became the human rights organisation's first national director.

During van Beek's 13 years of leadership, Amnesty expanded across the country. Its influence grew, too; by the mid-'90s, two thirds of federal parliamentarians were paying members. Under his direction, the organisation gathered crucial political support in Australia for the international movement to abolish the death penalty, and launched the first national campaign to draw attention to human rights violations in East Timor.

The really shocking thing about pancreatic cancer is the lack of awareness.
Peter van Beek

After leaving Amnesty, he worked to improve the education system and life in Indigenous communities.

"He worried about the things that needed to be worried about," says Peter.

That was his attitude at home, too. Peter remembers a father who was open-minded about everything - "except for small-minded discussions with a starting point of discrimination".

Van Beek and his wife, Jane, raised three children, Anna, Peter and Tom, in a house full of newspapers and loud with discussion. "Mum and dad gave us access to information, but we were never forced to think about issues in a certain way" says Peter. "Mum and dad have always been deeply committed to social justice, so it was a natural thing for us to be interested too."

The van Beeks plan to continue their fundraising efforts. They are excited by the potential of research into immunotherapy, which harnesses the body's immune system to kill cancer cells.

"It's a cause we are absolutely committed to as a family and we want to dive a little deeper," says Peter. His father would no doubt have approved.