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My university years with Dr Arnold Cook

in Be Empowered, Latest News, Our Team's Vision

Dr Arnold Cook will always be known as the pioneer of Guide Dogs in Australia, but he was also a very accomplished academic.

Imagine our delight when we learned a VisAbility Board member, our Deputy Chair, had studied economics. His lecturer was Dr Cook at the University of Western Australia.

On campus with Dr Arnold Cook

John Nolan joined our Board just over a year ago. As a student he remembers attending lectures and tutorials by Dr Arnold Cook in the late 1970s. Dr Cook became blind as a teenager when he developed Retinitis Pigmentosa.

Image shows John Nolan sitting on chair in light blue shirt in outside area
John Nolan, the former CEO of the Wilson Group, has been a Board member for a year

“It’s amazing to think of that connection now I’m on the Board of VisAbility. Dr Cook was regarded as one of the best lecturers in economics and an expert in his field. He could certainly command and captivate his audience. He knew his stuff.’’

John, who started losing his vision three years ago with ocular sarcoidosis, said there was one occasion when Dr Cook’s Guide Dog got a little too close to him.

“I remember I’d been to the beach and had thongs on, so my feet were a bit sandy. We were in a tutorial and Dr Cook’s Guide Dog came over and licked my feet!’’

The students at UWA never thought too much about Dr Cook’s background.

“Way back then, lectures were formal, so you didn’t get to know the staff very well. He was probably a little less well-groomed than other lecturers, his clothes weren’t as smart because he obviously couldn’t see.’’

Image shows black and white photo of Dr Arnold Cook being led by his Guide Dog Dreena
Dr Arnold Cook with his dog Dreena in the 1950s
John Nolan with his mother in his graduation gown
John Nolan graduated from UWA in the 1970s

Little did John know then that in later life he’d be advising on the Board of a not-for-profit which came about because of Dr Arnold Cook’s legacy.

From university to an accomplished career

John grew up in Fremantle with five other siblings. After qualifying with an economics degree from UWA, he then studied another degree in commerce. After leaving university he entered state government as an economist, before switching to accountancy. He married late in life to Nicole and has a fourteen-year-old daughter, Kate.

The last twenty-two years of his working life was spent with the Wilson Group. It is a diverse property group which also had interests in security, ambulance services, parking operations, technology and credit cards and solar equipment. He rose through the ranks – becoming Finance Manager and then Group CEO.

“My career took me to many countries such as Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong and the UK. I love meeting people and finding out about different business cultures so it was a dream job. I probably spent half my year in different countries.’’

Image of John Nolan surrounded by Cathay Pacific airways staff in a sports stadium at a key sporting event
John travelled the world in his senior role with the Wilson Group

Rare eye condition

In May 2017, John noticed some swelling around his left eye. A visit to his doctor and a subsequent specialist revealed he had ocular sarcoidosis. It’s a condition so rare that there’s only one other person with this diagnosis in Australia.   

It was while he was on a business trip to Italy that the problems with his eyes escalated.

“I had to fly back urgently as I started losing the sight in my left eye. There was this smokiness in my left eye which also went across to my right eye.’’

Over the next six months, John tried lots of different treatments and medications including steroids and chemotherapy to help suppress his immune system. He even visited the John Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute in Baltimore, America. It’s one of the world’s leading eye centres with ophthalmologists and specialists delivering state of the art eye care.

In 2018, John decided to leave his job.

“I’d been on sick leave because I was having treatment and medication and things pumped into me. I was like an iPhone 6, I could still do things but my battery was running low, so I had to go.’’

VisAbility client to Board Member

He started using our support services, making use of our assistive technology services and orientation and mobility.

“Coming to VisAbility was so refreshing. Everyone understood what I was about.’’

John Nolan – Board Member

“Most importantly, I learned about inside information which no one had shared before. Many financial things like the assistance on offer to me such as a Disability Support Pension and the Vision Impaired Person’s Travel Pass.’’

John is no longer on steroids and just has a tablet form of chemotherapy. While he knows he will lose his eyesight, he’s adjusting to what the future may hold. An ardent fitness enthusiast, he has thrown himself back into sport which was always important in his life. He swims regularly, goes to the gym and runs with a guide and has big hopes to complete a triathlon again one day.

He’s joined a number of Boards, Cricket’s WACA Foundation and is President of AJ Diamond, a corporate members club for the Fremantle Dockers. That’s on top of the VisAbility and Guide Dogs Foundation Board.

“Being on the VisAbility Board is perfect for me as I am both an umpire and a player. I’ve lived with some of the challenges, so I relate to what the clients are going through. Little did I know in 1977 that meeting Dr Arnold Cook would have such significance in later life.’’

Arnold Cook Society

Many people have kindly left a financial gift in their will to Guide Dogs WA. This step automatically entitles you to membership of The Arnold Cook Society. This is an honorary membership in recognition of your generosity and commitment to leaving a life-changing gift in your will. You can find out more by visiting Gifts in Wills.