Italian Team of the Century- Ian Stewart (Cervi)

If you wish to see the whole Italian Team of the Century, it’s available at: http://www.italianteamofthecentury.com.au/final-team.php

By Tony De Bolfo

Ian Harlow Stewart (Cervi)

To those whose rare privilege it was to see him play, Ian Stewart was an undisputed champion of his craft, a luminary within the nation’s only true indigenous sport.

The impassioned St Kilda historian Russell Holmesby, in his authoritative tome Heroes with Haloes, best reflected this popular view when he wrote, “Few men in the history of the game of Australian Rules football have possessed the gifts of Ian Stewart. The classic pinpoint disposal in which a kick was never wasted . . . the courageous marking that defied imminent danger . . . and the consummate balance and ball control. Throw in an innate capacity to read the game and you have the profile of a man who three times won the game’s highest individual honour, the Brownlow Medal”.

But for all that he achieved in football, Ian Stewart unhesitatingly declares his commitment to family as his crowning glory – which comes as no real surprise when one begins to understand the difficult circumstances of his own upbringing.

Ian Stewart is a first generation Australian of Italian origin. He was born Ian Harlow Cervi, the only child of an Australian-born mother Anita Stewart and Aldo Cervi, a native of Italy’s north.

But Ian was only three when his father walked out on the family forever and he has effectively carried his late mother’s maiden name as his surname ever since.

Now 63, and with an inner peace not before experienced in the first five decades of his life, Ian can now talk of the father he never knew and the profound impact of the separation.

“Dad left when I was very young and I never really asked any questions from that time on,” Ian said recently.

“Sometimes it’s easier to live like that, especially when you’re a kid, but I also refrained from asking questions out of respect for my mother, who lived her life riddled with shame. She experienced an incredibly difficult life until I had children. She was a little over 50 years old when that happened and all of a sudden whatever guilt she had left her and the next 20 years or so of her life were her happiest.

The remarkable story of Ian Stewart has its origins in the wilds of Queenstown Tasmania. Details of his early years are sketchy and as he said, “I’m not sure where my mother and father met, but I presume it was in Queenstown, simply because that’s where we were”.

“From what I understand, my father was working in the mine, while my mother was working in one of the many hotels there because she was a waitress in those days,” Ian says.

“I’m not sure what it’s like now, but Queenstown was inundated with hotels then and there was a pub on every corner.

“I honestly don’t know when they separated. I don’t even know whether they divorced. I was only two or three at the time and I have no memory of my father back then, none whatsoever.”

To fully understand Stewart’s deep links with the Cervi name, one must go back two generations, to the time of his grandfather, an Italian migrant.

Giuseppe Cervi was born in Biadene di Montebelluna, provincia di Treviso, about 50 kilometres north west of Venice, in the Veneto region of northern Italy on April 6, 1889. In 1909, at the tender age of 20 years, Giuseppe made the voyage to America for work purposes, committing his physical energies to the copper and coal mines and later the Southern Pacific Railroad.

At some point he suffered a knee injury so severe that amputation of his leg was a real possibility. This prompted Giuseppe to return to his homeland to seek a second opinion and, on the advice of a local specialist, he pedalled a bicycle for six months to improve the state of his knee. It worked and as his son Basil explained: “Dad’s cause was also helped by the Indians, who gave him a special herb before he left America. The herb helped seal the wound in his knee, which had been discharging and was virtually gangrenous”.

World War I forced Giuseppe to traverse southern Italy, and it was during this time that he met Maria Noemi Martinazzo. Maria, twelve years Giuseppe’s junior, had been adopted by a family named Milani and had hailed from a town not far from Biadene. She, like Giuseppe, had also been forced to relocate to the south as a consequence of the war.

Towards the end of wartime hostilities, Giuseppe and Maria returned to northern Italy and there they married in 1917.

As Giuseppe had amassed a small fortune during his time in America, he managed to pay his mother’s back taxes and rates, to stave off the government’s efforts to wrest control of the Cervi family properties, including a forest. The American influence had obviously rubbed off on Giuseppe, who acquired a social club as backdrop for patrons indulging in fine wine and grappa whilst playing cards. He also hired out the local church hall to conduct dances, but the hall was shut down after just one week.

Giuseppe’s industrious nature was more than matched by an almost gung-ho attitude, according to his only surviving child Umberto (Basil) Cervi, who has compiled his family’s history and graciously allowed much of it to be published here.

“After the war, the Spanish flu took thousands of lives, and nobody left living wanted to touch the dead, so the corpses were left where they dropped,” Basil said.

“Dad offered to bury the bodies if the townsfolk dug the graves and, using a cloth as a mask, eating garlic and drinking grappa, he buried them all.”

On January 22, 1920, Maria gave birth to the first of the five Cervi children – Carmela, later known as Carmen. Two years later, on April 27, 1922, she presented Giovanni with the first of three sons – Aldo (Carl) Liberale Cervi, Ian’s father.

After hearing of the discovery of sizeable gold deposits, Giuseppe opted to make another move, sailing to Australia in 1923 in the company of Maria, Carmela and Aldo, along with Albert Tesser, a first cousin.

Giovanni’s experience in the American mines aided his cause in landing work in Queenstown, Tasmania, but after just three months, he and Albert opted to try their luck in Boulder, Western Australia, where they ultimately staked a claim and found gold.

In the end, the lure of family brought Giovanni back to Tasmania and after three months he sold his share to Albert and his wife, Giovanna. When Albert sold his share of the mine in the 1950s gold was still being produced and the mine was only closed down within the past decade or so.

In 1924, Maria gave birth to another daughter, Ines, who was to die in tragic circumstances just three years later. After taking ill in 1927 she was admitted to Queenstown Hospital and there she died before the resident doctor arrived the following morning.

Maria, pregnant again at the time of Ines’ death, opted to return to Italy to prepare for the birth. There, on April 28, 1928, another son Guido (William) was born, but his parents had already taken out Australian naturalization.

Finally, another son Umberto (Basil) was born on October 2, 1934, completing the Cervi family.

In 1936, Giuseppe returned to Australia with Bruno Milani, Maria’s step brother.

Money was borrowed to cover the one way fare aboard the steamship Remo at a cost of 220 pounds. Upon his arrival, Giuseppe made for the Queenstown copper mine at Mt Lyell, toiling for pay to cover the costs of relocating each of his family members.

Basil Cervi related a wonderful tale about his father’s time underground. “Dad was balding and for many years refused to wear a hard hat when he worked in the mine,” he explained. “That way his head was exposed to falling dust and if he felt the dust land he knew there was danger of a collapse, so he’d down tools and run. He said it must have saved his life seven or eight times.”

As there wasn’t any passage assistance at this time, Giuseppe somehow had to find 800 pounds to cover all his loved ones’ travel expenses. In those days the sum would fetch three Carlton homes.

It wasn’t until 1939 that Giuseppe advised his family that all documentation had been finalized, fares paid and that it would be advisable to make the move sooner rather than later with war looming.

By then, Carmela had married Luigi Baldessin and given birth to a son, George, but as there was only one ticket available she was forced to travel to Australia[i] without them. And she would not be reunited with them in Australia for another ten years.

After the war, Giuseppe Cervi earned a sizeable pension from the mine owner as his lungs were carrying more than 50 per cent of mine dust. This enabled him and Maria, who was suffering from the debilitating effects of diabetes, to relocate to a house at 535 Drummond Street, Carlton, in the heart of the city’s Italian quarter. Progressively, Giuseppe and Maria were joined by the remaining family members, with the exception of Aldo, Anita and Ian.

These were happy days for the Cervis in Carlton. The house boasted a bocce pitch out the backyard and many friends would converge on the place to participate in a friendly game and to eat and drink afterwards. Basil can also remember kicking a footy in the street end to end with kids like Sergio Silvagni, Silvagni’s cousin Mario (John) Benetti and Bruno Zorzi who, like Ian, would all one day progress to the big time at VFL level.

“Serge and his cousin Mario Benetti were always up there, as was Bruno Zorzi and others like Nino and Phonse Romanin. There used to be seven or eight kids at either end kicking the football to eachother and that’s all we knew in those days,” Basil recalls.

“In fact I played in the same football team, St George’s, as Peter Bevilacqua [the only League footballer born in Italy] and Elmo Pertile, who went to Carlton at the same time as John Nicholls.

“But Elmo preferred quail shooting and he used to say ‘They want me to train twice a week and I’m not going to do that’. He was as tall and as strong as Nicholls and a very good ruckman, but he gave it away after a year in the seconds.”

Giuseppe Cervi died at Drummond Street on February 8, 1963, almost six years after his wife Maria’s passing. They are buried together in the Roman Catholic section of the Melbourne General Cemetery in Carlton, not far from the old family home.

Ian’s father Aldo Cervi was 17 years, nine months and seven days when on February 4, 1940 he arrived with his mother, brothers and sister aboard the Remo. Later that year, with war escalating in Europe, the Remo was seized by Australian authorities at Fremantle and renamed Reynella.

A little more than two months after his arrival and settlement in Queenstown, Aldo was detained as an Italian internee. That happened on June 11, 1940 and an archival document of the day describes Aldo as “a single man with dark hair and brown eyes”.

But Aldo’s incarceration was all-too-brief, as he was released on parole by an officer on July 5 that same year.

Not long after, Aldo met and married Anita Stewart, a local girl from Zeehan in the rugged western region of Tasmania.

Anita was one of three children. She had a sister and a brother Jack, who later served Australia in World War II as one of the famed Rats of Tobruk, and who now lives quietly in Launceston.

Fate brought Anita to Queenstown and into Aldo’s life. Then aged in her early 20s, Anita had relocated to the largest of Tasmania’s mining towns from nearby Gormanston, on the slopes of Mount Owen, where her mother and father lived.

Anita and Aldo married, and on July 30, 1943, she gave birth to their only child, a son, Ian. Then, in the blink of an eye, Aldo left forever.

“The early days in Queenstown were not good days. I can hardly remember any of them,” Ian concedes.

“When Ken Hands offered me money (to join Carlton) I didn’t realise I was poor, but when I look back now at where we lived, we couldn’t even get into a commission home. There were no pensions or social services then and my mother really couldn’t look after me, so I ended up at Boystown for a long time. When I was there, kids used to ask me where my father was and it was easier for me to tell them that he’d died in the war. I knew it was a lie, but I perpetuated it. I also remember being called “Mussolini”.

“Do you remember the telemovie The Leaving of Liverpool, about all the kids from Liverpool who were sent to Australia? Well, while I was in Boystown they all arrived. They were English kids that nobody could look after so the government just shipped them out. They were in a bad way, all undernourished, and there were a lot of good kids amongst them and a few bad ones too. It was a home for English kids, a home for wayward kids and a home for kids whose parents couldn’t look after them.”

Ian says that when he broke into the Tasmanian football representative side as a kid, (he thinks it might have been under 13s), “you had to produce your birth certificate and I can remember producing mine upon which was written the name ‘Cervi’”.

“Now I was known then as Ian Stewart and they (the football officials) said “Hang on, that’s not right”, so that’s when I began to realise that my name was Cervi,” Ian says.

“I don’t know what then happened, but I do know that I ended up playing under the surname ‘Stewart’, so I can only assume that my mother did something about it . . . and it did become easier to live with the change.”

Despite the serious overtures from the then Carlton coach Ken Hands, Stewart was adamant he’d follow his idol, the legendary Darrel Baldock, to St Kilda. Baldock had joined the Saints from Tasmanian club Latrobe.

“I came across to Melbourne on my own to play for St Kilda. Mum came across about 18 months later. In the interim St Kilda put me up with a lovely family and it was the first time I’d ever participated in a family experience. I started to feel a real sense of ‘family’ and I loved it.”

Basil Cervi believes Aldo left Tasmania forever in either late 1945 or early ’46.

“He worked a lot of different jobs,” Basil says. “I know he was working as a chef at the Manchester Café in Melbourne because he got me there in October 1948 where I worked for him for just three weeks before crossing to the Wentworth.”

Then in 1949, Aldo made the trek to Coober Pedy in search of opals and mica. Basil recalls seeing a few precious stones on Aldo’s return two years later, but not nearly enough to afford an early retirement. On his return, Aldo went to work on the waterfront in Williamstown. An immensely powerful figure, he was renowned amongst fellow workers as the only man capable of scaling the wharf steps armed with two bags of cement on each of his shoulders.

“He was broke at that time and I actually paid him 250 pounds for his old Armstrong Siddeley . . . I used to drive down to Williamstown to pick him up because he didn’t have a car,” Basil says.

“Aldo used to play cards and bocce. I would say that he was a womaniser for sure and he was a very good looking bloke,” Basil says. “He was the nicest bloke you could meet, but if you got in the bad books I tell you what – he’d fly off. My other brother Bill was a golden gloves boxer, but I saw Aldo once pick him up and pin him against a fence. I was only 13 then and it really left an impression. When he got upset he was a different person.”

On April 20, 1959, less than four months after he obtained an official divorce, Aldo again exchanged marriage vows, this time at Melbourne’s Wesley Church. His bride was 28 year-old Ivana Bassi, who left her home town of Tirano, Sondrio and boarded the Melbourne-bound Cyrenia, disembarking almost a decade before.

The couple would later become parents to two daughters Alda and Ines (so named after Aldo’s little sister who died more than 30 years earlier), the half sisters of Ian Stewart whom he has never met.

“Mum and Dad would have first met in Melbourne in 1950 I’d say, but exactly where I’m not sure,” Ines says.

“They moved in together at a house in Little Palmerston Street, Carlton in 1951 and I was born the following year. Four years later we moved into a place in Barrow Street Coburg and then to another house in Danny Street. Then my younger sister Alda was born in 1960.

“Dad [Aldo] was good hearted, generous. He was also a very hard man. He was very family-orientated in terms of keeping everyone together and he kept regular contact with his brothers and sister, at least once a week, at family gatherings,” Ines says.

At about this time, Aldo began to experience heart problems. As younger brother Basil explains: “He suffered rheumatic fever for some time and at one point during his days as a painter and docker he was painting the top of a mast and he actually burst a blood vessel in his heart and fell into the drink”.

“It was around 1957 and he was treated by a well-known surgeon. He was actually only the second patient to undergo open heart surgery. The first bloke had it a week before and died a day after my brother’s operation,” Basil says.

“Aldo was cut open right around to the top of his shoulder, which later required 112 stitches, and they took out two ribs. He was unable to return to work.”

Ines concedes that Aldo’s ill health proved demoralizing for her father. “He had a hard life in that he was pensioned off at a young age and he had to stay at home, and for a man of his youth not to be able to work to support his family would have been devastating. He had to look after all the cooking and cleaning at the house, while Mum had to work as a cook in the Lyndhurst Hotel in Brunswick,” Ines says.

Aldo and Ivana separated in December 1971, prompting Aldo to vacate their Danny Street abode and take up lodgings in the Hampton premises of his sister Carmela Baldessin and her husband Luigi.

At the same time, Ivana, together with daughter, Alba, returned to Tirano to care for her (Ivana’s) mother, who was dying of cancer. Following her mother’s death, Ivana and Alba remained in Italy to tend to her father, who had never before lived alone. Alba then met her husband-to-be in Italy and there, mother and daughter remain.

Ines, meanwhile, met her future husband Gianni Baldassari in Melbourne, has since given birth to and raised two sons of her own, and lives happily with Gianni and her boys in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

Not long before he died, Aldo agreed to meet with Ian, who had just secured his third Brownlow Medal, this time with Richmond.

No one seems to remember exactly when the meeting took place – perhaps it was early 1972 – and while Aldo at the time lived with his older sister at 15 Alicia Street, Hampton, it was resolved that all parties meet  across the road at no.14 – the home of Basil and his wife Emanuela.

It was the first time in more than a quarter of a century that father and son had met. It would also be the last.

“I remember the experience and it truly was an experience because my father showed no empathy to me at all. He showed so little empathy that I started to think that maybe I wasn’t his son. There was no attachment, nothing,” Ian concedes.

“That was the only time that I met him. I never met him again and I presume that he didn’t want to meet me either. He’d already remarried I believe, but I didn’t even know that his second wife had daughters – my half-sisters. I went to his funeral, but my mother didn’t go.”

Aldo Cervi was only 50 years of age when he died at 15 Alicia Street, Hampton, on July 12, 1972. He too is buried at the Melbourne General Cemetery, within close proximity of his parents’ grave.

But Aldo is buried alone.

Anita Stewart, whose last address was given as Flemington, died in Dandenong on November 15, 1999, aged 79, and is buried at Cheltenham Cemetery. “She never remarried and never saw a game of football,” Ian says.

Aldo’s second wife Ivana now lives with their daughter Alda in Tirano. The other daughter, Ines, lives in the northern inner city suburb of West Preston. Ines recently met with her stepbrother Ian for the first time.

In spite of those difficult years of his early upbringing, Ian’s deep affinity and respect for the Italian way has not been quelled.

“I’m proud of my Italian heritage now, but I’ve always had empathy for the Italians – always. I always knew that they didn’t know I was Italian back then and because I was too ashamed I didn’t want anybody to know. In fact I’d only ever told two or three people in my life until recently, and Alec Epis was one of the first,” he says.

“I’ve never used the terminology ‘wog’ and I’ve never spoken in derogatory terms towards the Italians. In Tasmania some of the people you’d find in the film Deliverance would call me a wog. I’d say to Mum, “Why are they calling me a wog?” and she’d give me some excuse that I really can’t remember.

“I have been to Italy, but I’ve never been to my father’s hometown. I wouldn’t even know where it is. When I look at these early photographs of him and my family they don’t trigger as much emotion in me as they should, because there’s been all these years of denial. But even in sport I’ve never dwelt on anything and never looked back at an old football video or a picture of myself. I do love looking at pictures of my kids. I love people, I enjoy people’s company and I care about people.”

Ian and his dear wife Susy have been happily married for more than 30 years. In that time they have raised a son Ben and two daughters Lauren and Amy into adulthood, and Ian carries photographs of them everywhere.

“To be a good husband and parent is about the best that you can do and if you achieved that then you’re entitled to be satisfied with your life,” he says.

“I have a lovely wife and I try very hard to be a good father to my two girls and my boy. I always wanted to give to them what might have been deprived me. That’s always been more important to me than what I might have missed out on. I have tried very, very hard and I’ve always looked forward.”

The rolling years have also afforded Ian the opportunity to reflect upon the impact of his own father’s life upon him and the emotional and social complications it later caused.

“Because I probably hadn’t matured as a person until I was 50, 51 or 52, I really hadn’t come to terms with all these things. That’s only really happened in the last ten years and these last ten years have been the most peaceful and best years of my life,” he says.

“I’m not sure why, there’s been no catalyst, and maybe it’s been more a case of getting older. I say ‘life begins at 50’ and I wouldn’t have been able to talk about these things beforehand. I wouldn’t have even been able to walk into a coffee shop to say ‘hello’. This was because I was too self-conscious and I had all these complexes everywhere.

“But they were these same complexes that allowed me to kick a football 18 hours a day at Boystown and to find the strength to achieve something. It’s like the hungry Afro-American who goes without and becomes a great fighter and my time at Boystown moulded me into achieving later on. I became so resilient to the knocks of life because of what happened to me growing up.”

In respect of all that he has been through, it’s of no surprise that Ian Stewart cites the raising of his family as his greatest success, notwithstanding his own business achievements and of course the glory days of his garlanded football career.

“I wouldn’t have achieved if I hadn’t been through all these experiences in all these places, if I hadn’t laid in bed every night dreaming of playing football,” he says. “It was a way out and I knew that as young as 13. I knew that football would be my theatre, my stage, that it could get me to Victoria and that it could get me out of this shithole.

“In one sense I missed out when God took something out, but in another sense He also put something back. I don’t go to church, but God has been so good to me, so good to me, and I do believe that it’s all balanced out.”

© Tony De Bolfo, May 2006


[i] According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, George Victor Joseph Baldessin, painter, sculptor, printmaker and Ian Stewart’s first cousin, was born on May 19, 1939 at San Biagio di Callalta, Italy, son of Venetian-born Luigi Baldessin and his wife Carmela, née Cervi, a naturalized Australian who returned to Victoria that year. The family, separated by war, was re-united on February 17, 1949 when father and son arrived in Melbourne. Living at Carlton, the parents worked in factories while George attended St Brigid’s primary school, Fitzroy, and the Christian Brothers’ school, St Thomas’s, at Clifton Hill. Luigi and George were naturalized in 1954.

In 1958-61 he studied painting at the Royal Melbourne Technical College, but turned with more enthusiasm to sculpture and printmaking. Fired by descriptions of the latest trends in Europe, Baldessin worked a passage to London in 1962. He attended printmaking classes at the Chelsea School of Art, then journeyed to Spain. Goya’s etchings, films by Ingmar Bergman and Luis Bunuel, and Fred Williams’s ‘Music Hall’ prints inspired Baldessin’s first etchings of performers and acrobats. Their taut outlines and areas of aquatint introduced the ironically interpreted human figure which remained his favourite subject. Studying under the sculptor Marino Marini at Milan’s Brera Academy of Fine Art, Italy, in 1963, Baldessin was warned against excessive elegance.

He returned in July to teach printmaking at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and to prepare his first solo exhibition which was shown at Melbourne’s Argus Gallery in 1964. Next year he had the first of many exhibitions at the Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney.

In 1966 he won the Alcorso-Sekers traveling scholarship award for sculpture and went to Japan.

On January 26, 1966 Baldessin had married Alison Patricia Walmsley at the office of the government statist, Melbourne; they were divorced in 1970.

He married Shirley Anne (‘Tess’) Edwards on April 10, 1971 at the Presbyterian Church, Kangaroo Ground. On their St Andrews property, site of his gabled, bluestone studio, they hosted an artists’ cricket match on Boxing Day 1972.

At his city studio, established by 1968, Baldessin attracted a following of younger artists. Having invented silver-aluminium foil prints in 1970, he won the 1971 Comalco invitation award for sculpture.

Following his 1974 retrospective at the Mornington Peninsula Arts Centre, the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, acquired 279 of his prints and etching plates. In 1966-75 his works were shown in the United States of America, Yugoslavia, Poland, England, South East Asia, New Zealand, India, Japan and at the XIII Bienal de Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he represented Australia with twenty-five silver laminate etchings entitled ‘Occasional Images from a City Chamber’ and a sculptural installation, ‘Occasional Screens with Seating Arrangement’.

From 1975 Baldessin and Tess lived in Paris where George attended the Lacourière printworks, befriended Imants Tillers and became interested in medieval images of Mary Magdalene. Returning to Australia, he explored this interest in the ‘Tympan’ which he painted with four other artists at the Realities Gallery, Melbourne, in 1977.

Baldessin died on August 9, 1978 at Heidelberg from injuries received in a motorcar collision and is survived by his wife and their two sons.

A memorial exhibition was held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1983.

Comments

  1. Rocket Rod Gillett says:

    Brilliant story from The Beast – so well researched and beautifully told.

    There is terrific footage on the Saints history DVD where Ian Stewart is announced at a function as St Kilda’s greatest-ever player. He gets up and tells the assembled punters that this is embarrassing because we all know who the greatest is – and that’s my hero, Darrel Baldock.

    And if you’re a true Sainter (i.e., highly emotional), the best-ever was the Doc.

    The combination of Stewart in the centre and the Doc at centre half-forward propelled the Sainters to great success in the 60s including that one marvellous premiership. Their combination particularly in the wet was uncanny.

    So glad that Tony did not get type-cast from his time writing for Caravan World!

  2. Hi Ian my mum told me all about your mum in the days of queenstonwn my mums name is is flora Motea But she was flora boff in queenstown My mum is your god son when you where baptized mum still alive and would love to here from you mum lives in kew mums ph is 98537742 my ph is ‘0418300088 cheers Ian Paul flora motea

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