Australia’s first Aboriginal judge will be farewelled at a state funeral in Sydney on Tuesday.
Robert William Bellear died on March 15th aged 60, after a long battle with lung cancer and asbestos-related pleural disease.
The widely respected ‘trailblazer’, as he was described last week by Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway, leaves behind him a remarkable legacy.
Born in the Tweed Valley town of Murwillumbah, in northern New South Wales, he was the eldest of nine children.
He left school early to help support his family, joining the Royal Australian Navy in 1961.
For seven years, he worked his way up the ranks from stoker and engineer to become the first Aboriginal chief petty officer.
However, it was his time below the decks, where he was exposed to asbestos lagging used to insulate the ships, that would eventually claim his life.
The judge took sick leave from the NSW District Court bench in June last year and was diagnosed with lung disease.
Earlier this month, Judge Bellear reached a confidential settlement with the navy after taking his case to the Dust Diseases Tribunal.
It was his last fight after a distinguished legal career which began in the early 1970s.
His outrage at the injustices faced by indigenous Australians led him to quit his job as a fitter and turner and enter university.
He was admitted to the NSW Bar in 1979 and took on his first case representing traditional owners in a Northern Territory land claim.
Outside the courtroom, the judge played an active role in promoting the empowerment of Aboriginal people.
He was one of the original occupants of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, and co-founded Redfern’s Aboriginal Housing Company, as well as directing the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Legal Service and Aboriginal Children’s Service.
From 1987, he worked for three years as Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
On May 17, 1996, he was sworn in as a judge.
His brother, Sol, said one of his few disappointments was that he remains the only indigenous person to have done so, according to a report by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
“The tragedy of his loss is all the more acute” because of this fact, NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigelman told SMH.
Judge Bellear is survived by his wife, Kaye, two children and eight siblings.