Jim Tully recalls letters from Hillary, VSA and his own family 51 years ago

As president of VSA from 1963 to 1976, Sir Edmund Hillary and other VSA Council members regularly wrote to all serving volunteers with news from across VSA. Sometimes they mailed the VSA newsletter, The Mosquito. In the October 1965 Mosquito, Sir Ed congratulated volunteers Jim Tully and Rod Trott on climbing 4096m Mt Kinabalu in Borneo.


Aerogrammes, from family and from VSA, were a lifeline for volunteers in pre-digital days.

Today communication with home is just an email or skype click away. So we asked Jim, now Adjunct Associate Professor, Media and Communication, at the University of Canterbury, how important letters were back in the day. Asking us to bear in mind that it’s 51 years since he was a school leaver volunteer, Jim writes:

I think we received several aerogramme newsletters in the year. It was good to have contact with VSA but understandably much of the content related to volunteers elsewhere. I can't speak for the South Pacific school leavers but certainly those of us in Sarawak and Brunei had individual contact with a member of the VSA council. In my case it was Maurice O'Brien QC who I think was deputy chair. I had an issue with my principal not allowing me to go to Kuching to compete at the Borneo Games.
Letters from home were eagerly awaited. My mother wrote almost weekly, Dad a couple of times. Interestingly, Dad wrote one letter because he had a sense that something might be wrong and he wanted to check that I was okay. The letter was waiting for me when I arrived back at the school after a couple of weeks in a village that was home to several of the pupils. While there, I needed medical treatment after collapsing in the village square - probably from drinking too much coconut milk after a football game.
Mum used to send food parcels with some of my favourites including shredded wheat breakfast cereal.
My GP wrote a couple of times as did friends from school. Each month, a package of books I had ordered arrived from the Kuching library service. I must have read more than 50 books that year.
The English VSO at the school, an Oxford graduate, received the airmail edition of The Times. Apart from keeping up with the news, the tissue-thin paper was our toilet paper.
I never felt isolated. Life at the school was too busy and being only 18 I had a good relationship with the kids some of whom were probably about my age. It was a life-changing year and I wrote to VSA asking if I could stay on. The answer, of course, was no.