John and Barbara Ralph have been honoured by Australian Catholic University (ACU) with the unveiling of a vibrant and realistic portrait of the couple painted by South Australian artist Tsering Hannaford. The large oil painting on Belgian linen was commissioned by Professor Zlatko Skrbis, ACU’s Vice-Chancellor and President, in recognition of the Ralphs’ generous and long-standing contribution to the university. Officially unveiled last month at a special event hosted by ACU in Melbourne, the portrait will hang in the Mother Teresa Building when construction at the Fitzroy site is completed.

John and Barbara Ralph have been long-time supporters of ACU and many other faith-, community- and business-based initiatives and organisations in Victoria and beyond. Among his very long list of contributions to ACU, John was Chair of the Fundraising Campaign Committee for the Melbourne Campus Appeal in the 1990s. He negotiated an endowment from the Pratt Foundation that supported the establishment of the Raheen Library in Melbourne, served on the ACU Faculty Business Advisory Council and was an Advisory Board member for the university’s Centre for Research in Ethics and Decision-making in Organisations.

To this day, the couple continue to contribute to ACU and have endowed funds for two prizes to business students in Melbourne, as well as merit scholarships, Creating Opportunity Fund scholarships, a Student Urgent Relief Fund and a Student Hardship Fund. They have also given their time and energy, along with their financial support, to the Priests Support and Education Fund, St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research, and St Mary’s House of Welcome.

Closer to home in their local parish of St Peter’s, Toorak, where they’ve been part of the community for 52 years, John headed the parish renewal and development committee, along with parish priest Fr Brendan Hayes. John’s work has enabled the development of The Benson Toorak Retirement Village, which has funded the much-needed restoration of St Peter’s. Barbara also has a long history of serving and holding offices on the mothers’ committees of St Kevin’s junior and senior schools and Loreto. She was a member of the committee that organised the Archbishop’s Dinner—at the time, the only woman on that committee—and she has run John’s home office since his retirement from business, and supported and coordinated his role as Lieutenant, Australia-Victoria, and subsequently as a member of the Grand Magisterium of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. Barbara also served as a member of the Council of the Order for three years.

John and Barbara have been happily married for 63 years and are a formidable team. They met while both were working for a mining company—The Zinc Corporation—in Broken Hill, NSW. Born and bred in Broken Hill, John comes from a long line of miners. In 1890, his great-great-grandfather, also John Ralph, was killed in an underground mining accident in his 40s. Both of his grandfathers were underground miners, and his own father was employed in the surface workings of The Zinc Corporation for 35 years. John commenced working at the same company at the age of 16. He was with the same mining group, which was later called Rio Tinto, for 46 years, working his way up from an office junior position to chief executive officer of the company. He became finance director of the company aged 38.

Throughout this time, John says, he’s been ‘fortunate to have had a lot of opportunities’ in his working life, which included study at Harvard University, overseas travel and two years living in London with the family. We went over to England with five children,' says Barbara, 'and came home with six!'

Life has always been ‘busy’ in the Ralph household, according to Barbara. While John pursued his career in mining, Barbara tended to the home and children. At the same time, she often put her secretarial training and skills to use with local parish and school committees and projects. The Ralphs bought a small farm near Yea, north-east of Melbourne, in 1976 so that they could enjoy ‘family bonding time with no television and no dishwasher’. Barbara would often spend school holidays there with the children, with John travelling there on the weekends and often once during the week. ‘The farm was good for our family,’ says Barbara, ‘We’ve had a lot of good times down there, and the children would often bring their friends to stay.’

Though the Ralphs have a long list of achievements and contributions to their name, spanning decades, they say their biggest achievement is their family, and their marriage. When asked ‘what are you most grateful for,’ Barbara replies, ‘Meeting John’, and John says, ‘The fact that we’ve had very good fortune with family.’ John is also conscious that he’s had excellent role models in his business and working life, paying particular thanks to Sir Maurice Mawby, who gave him his start at The Zinc Corporation and Sir Mark Turner who was ‘very influential’ throughout his business career.‘

'Sir Maurice Mawby, who later became chairman of the company, always said to me, “If you do well in society, you have an obligation to give back”.’ John has chaired four Commonwealth Inquiries and was chair of the Commonwealth Government Review of Business Taxation, all of which he did pro bono. He is adamant that each of us has a responsibility to give back from what we are given, saying, ‘I’ve always made a focus on talking to graduating students to tell them you have rights and entitlements, but you also have responsibilities and obligations. You need to recognise both sides of the coin.’

Both John and Barbara gratefully acknowledge the role of faith in their lives. Having converted to Catholicism when she married John, Barbara says her faith has been a source of strength, particularly during difficult times, including during serious cancer surgery, from which she has fully recovered. ‘There’s also that sense and strength of community and family,’ she says. ‘I’d like to think our family always stays connected to the Church and that we all eventually find our way to heaven.’

Ralphs’ legacy lives on in portrait at ACU

John and Barbara have six children (three sons and three daughters), 18 grand-children and seven great-grandchildren. Five of the six children and several of their grandchildren and great grandchildren attended the portrait unveiling at ACU. Commenting on the portrait, one of their daughters said to John, ‘I recognise your hands.’ Tsering’s skill in painting faces and hands was one of the reasons the Ralphs, together with ACU representatives, chose the artist.

Tsering, whose paintings have been hung in some of Australia’s most celebrated prizes, including seven times as a finalist in the Archibald Prize (she was highly commended for the award in 2020), travelled to Melbourne in March and April to conduct 15 sittings with the Ralphs. Five sittings were with Barbara alone, five with John alone, and five with the two of them together. She’d continue working on the painting back in her studio just outside of Adelaide. On occasions during the sittings, Tsering would retain personal items—Barbara’s necklace and John’s Order of Australia medal—so that she could work on the detail in their absence. ‘She’s done everything so beautifully,’ says Barbara.

ACU Vice-Chancellor Prof. Zlatko, who commissioned the portrait of the Ralph’s, is also delighted with the painting. ‘It will provide a permanent reminder of the service given selflessly by John and Barbara to ACU and to the Catholic community,’ he says. ‘The portrait celebrates the Ralphs’ many years of loyal and gracious service, friendship and generosity to ACU. They are a remarkable couple, whose faith is an inspiration and whose generosity and character epitomise all that ACU aspires to.’

And as glasses were raised in honour of John and Barbara Ralph at the unveiling, so too will they be raised for John’s 90th birthday, which is coming up in October. Barbara is busy organising the big event with one of her daughters, with the special celebration due to take place at Werribee Mansion. ‘We’re really looking forward to the family gathering,’ says Barbara. ‘It’s going to be a big family occasion!’

John Ralph is Knight Commander con placa of the Order of St Gregory the Great, Knight Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and Member of Honour of the Grand Magisterium. Barbara is Dame Commander with Star in the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. Though they live in Melbourne, they also enjoy spending time on their Angus beef farm in Holbrook, NSW.