MICHAEL Wansey, whose family once owned the Newcastle Herald, and who himself started The Star among a host of other business ventures, has died in Sydney, aged 79.
Mr Wansey, whose life went from the top shelf to more straitened circumstances, was diagnosed in September last year with bowel cancer.
“He had an operation then and was going all right on oral chemotherapy but the cancer became resistant to it and he was hospitalised,” son Andrew Wansey said from Sydney on Friday.
“They stopped the treatment about six weeks ago and he died on Wednesday.”
Michael Wansey was born in Newcastle on April 18, 1939. He lived as a child in various places including Mosman, and was schooled at Moss Vale and in New York.
As recalled in the official Fairfax family history, Gavin Souter’s Company of Heralds, Michael’s father Sydney Wansey inherited control of the Newcastle Herald from his next-door neighbours, the Berkeleys, who were childless and raised Syd as their own.
Syd sold Fairfax a 45 per cent share in 1961. Company of Heralds says that after Syd’s death in 1970 his widow, Francoise, “with the consent of her son (Michael), who was residual beneficiary”, sold the remaining 55 per cent of Newcastle Newspapers to Fairfax, giving it full control.
The financial windfall freed Michael – who had learned the ropes by working in the business – to pursue other interests. The Wanseys had a stake in NBN, along with the Lamb family, and Michael started The Star newspaper, with the first edition rolling off the presses on October 10, 1979. After being owned by NBN and Rural Press, the Star is now a Fairfax publication.
“He was extremely proud of the fact that he managed to set up a paper with that type of circulation at the time up against the Sun and the Herald in Newcastle,” Andrew said.
Wansey’s other business love was transport. After selling his stake in NBN to fellow entrepreneur Kevin Parry, he started Australian Vintage Travel, which ran a luxury train, the Southern Cross Express, between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.
Modelled on the Orient Express, it was described by the Sun-Herald in 1988 as “a world of opulence and elegance to rival any of the nation's luxury hotels”.
Wansey bought and restructured Rebel Air – a trio of Douglas DC-3 planes – operating mainly as a freight service although it also flew singer Joe Cocker and his entourage around the country for a national tour.
An enthusiastic pilot, Wansey also restored an old Catalina sea plane, which he landed on Lake Macquarie.
He was heavily involved in the restoration of the former Sydney ferry, South Steyne, although the project ran out of money and the vessel was snapped up by another Novocastrian, then Cambridge Hotel publican Brian McDermott, who ran it as a restaurant on the foreshore before taking it to Sydney for the 2000 Olympics.
Andrew said his father’s later years were difficult.
“He lost everything in the 1987 stockmarket crash and he was driving coaches to make ends meet. Then he was director of the Australian Waterski Association – we were a waterskiing family – and then he went to America in the 1990s and worked for an ad company in Texas.
“He started a driving school and was getting back on his feet when the global financial crisis hit and the business went downhill and he went through another divorce.”
It was his third. Andrew says he paid for a one-way ticket to fly his father back to Australia in 2009 and even at 70 he was determined to keep working, and he drove airport transfers while living at Emu Plains.
Andrew said his father was an enthusiastic and determined businessman who taught him “the importance of resilience”.
“He went broke but managed to pick himself up and go again and rebuild his life,” Andrew said. “And it happened to him three times. He never gave up and I think that helps me to be resilient and look at different ways of doing things. To realise that if something chronically bad happens, it’s not the end of the world.”
Michael Wansey is survived by his three children, Carolyn Campbell, Andrew Wansey and Belinda Wansey, and his four grandchildren. His funeral is at 11.30am on Friday at Sydney’s Northern Suburbs Crematorium.
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