Everday Obituaries: John Dalton O’Donnell

Before I start I would like to say, on behalf of the family, how grateful we are for the many kind thoughts we have all received over the past week. It is wonderful to see so many people here today helping us celebrate Dad’s life. 

 

John Dalton O’Donnell. Named John after his father, and Dalton which was his mother’s maiden name, he was born on the 13th January, 1933. Friday the 13th January, 1933. That was so typical of Dad to be born on a day of heightened superstition and impending doom. Right from the start he was battling the forces of the universe, though I think he kind of liked it that way.

 

An interesting aside to Dad’s day of birth is that the previous day, the 12th January, 1933, an athletics meeting was held at a new running ground at Maribyrnong. As it turned out the 100 yards handicap race that day was won by J.L. West from a mark of 10 yards in the unremarkable time of 9 and 14/16ths  of a second.  What is remarkable is that it was the same J.L. (Jimmy) West who would be Dad’s trainer when he won the Stawell Gift 22 years later. There is a certain wonderful synchronicity in that.

 

Dad was born in Brighton, so his birth certificate says, but spent his very early years in Frederick Street, Ormond. As a young child he was a chronic asthmatic, missing weeks of school at a time because the treatment for asthma in those days was bed rest. I can imagine, then, that as he lay in his bed as a little kid, struggling to breath and struggling to understand his forced isolation, that he determined the world to be a harsh place, and that life wasn’t something to waltz through in a breezy, carefree way, but rather something to conquer; something to attack head-on and defeat. I think these challenging early days would have been immensely formative in setting Dad’s path. The fire in his belly had been lit.

 

In his magnificent jottings, some pages of notes and stories that he penned about his life not that many years ago, Dad tells the story of deliberately and provocatively slamming a glass panelled door in the house in Frederick Street, Ormond. He would only have been three or four years old. This resulted in the inevitable hefty smack from his rather fierce father (known to us as old Jack). So what did Dad do? He slammed the door again of course and received the same punishment. At this point I think it’s fair to say that most reasonable people would accept defeat and relent as a way of avoiding further whacks. But no, Dad slammed the door for a third time. His dear old mother, perhaps fearing for his safety and sanity, picked him up and took him out of the room to put an end to the torment. Dad probably regarded that little battle as a draw, but it is a superb insight into his character, his zeal, and his refusal to concede.

 

So while his asthma caused him a lot of grief it also led to a turn of events that would change his life. The doctors determined that his asthma was probably a result of living near some horse stables at the end of his street, so the family decided to shift to Malvern Road, Glen Iris, and shortly after to Belmont Avenue, Glen Iris. Old Jack was the station master at Gardiner Station. St Roch’s became Dad’s new school. He was probably only 6 or 7 at the time, but it would have been at St Roch’s that he first set eyes on Mum. Some years later, when he set eyes on Mum as a young woman, he determined that he would marry her “come what may” (his words). This was another of his great crusades. His greatest crusade! Nothing and no one would get in his way, not even his future father-in-law, Frank Selleck, who once described Dad as being a man “with an unfortunate manner”. Dad and Frank became good friends in later years. Mum never stood a chance. They were married in 1957.

 

But before all this Dad had moved with his brothers and sisters to live above a newsagency at 201 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, that old Jack and Nanny had purchased. It was September, 1945. Fitzroy was a rough town in those days as Melbourne and Australia emerged from the turmoil of the war years. He helped his father run the shop and became a newspaper seller at the age of 12 on the corners of Smith and Gertrude Streets, and Smith Street and Victoria Parade. He reckoned he became quite good at it too, running on and off the local trams to sell papers to the travelling public. This, and the eclectic characters around Fitzroy, would have been quite some education for a 12 year old.

 

 

 

As a young man Dad decided that he would be a world champion at something. He just wasn’t sure what. He tried cycling and took it upon himself to ride to Geelong and back. As you do. Here we see it again; taking on the world. Rather than testing himself with a ride into the city and back, or to the rural outskirts of Eltham, he decided to ride 150 kilometres to and from Geelong. It nearly killed him, but he made it back. Just.

 

He had a crack at the noble art of boxing. That went OK until he was thrown in the ring to spar with a bloke called Ernie Hammond, who was an experienced and well credentialed boxer on the comeback trail. Dad said he was going alright until Ernie’s trainer called out “C’mon Ernie, you’re bludging” at which point Ernie gave Dad a very good dose of leather poisoning. Dad wrote in his journal “He hit me with every punch in the book, and only for the fact that he was a good bloke, he could easily have given me a good pasting.” I love this. “He hit me with every punch in the book but he was a good bloke”. They don’t make them like that anymore.

He decided this experience of leather poisoning was one too many and retired from boxing with a fat lip, black eye and swollen cheek. But importantly his spirit was not diminished.

 

Athletics had never been too far away from Dad’s thinking. He showed a bit of form during his school years. A chap by the name of George Griffiths introduced him to the professional circuit. He had his first pro footrace at the old Maribyrnong Dog Track, the same track, I think, that Jimmy West had won the 100 yards event in 1933, that I mentioned earlier. Synchronicity again. And despite the fact that he couldn’t win a heat spanning the period from November 1950 to January, 1952, he loved the sport, its intrigue, his training mates, and the beguiling opportunity to get at the bookies. He was hooked.

 

He initially trained under the volatile and unpredictable Monty Hurst for a few years then ended up in the capable hands of Jim West, a man Dad came to greatly admire. They trained at the Brunswick Street oval in Fitzroy. Together, they conquered the Stawell Gift in 1955 (and I use the word “conquered” deliberately), and most importantly, they conquered the bookies too. I think I’m right in saying that winning the Gift gave Dad prize money of 700 pounds, but beating the bookies paid over 4,000 pounds. Dad always said that he wasn’t the best athlete in that race, but by golly he was the fittest. Quite simply, I reckon he was the one with the greatest will to win.

 

Perhaps Dad’s greatest ability was his feel for music. His love of music was a life-long pursuit. As a child he learned piano and admitted in adult life that one of his great regrets was not carrying this on. He had an excellent insight into the classics and spent hour after hour listening to and attempting to understand what the composer was trying to achieve. It was a real gift. He would sit in his chair, close his eyes and be completely immersed in it. His favourite was Johann Sebastian Bach. The great JS Bach. I fondly remember Dad putting on Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion on Sunday mornings whenever he could, as loudly as he could. At Christmas it was usually Handel’s Messiah. The day before he died he spent some hours sitting in the front room surrounded by the sounds of his music.

 

He had a keen interest in politics and was quite heavily involved in the local political scene in Melbourne. He reckons this interest was sparked by his Irish grandmother, Mary Dalton, who followed political events closely, especially political events in Ireland. He had enormous regard for three political giants of the 20th century: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Archbishop Daniel Mannix, and B.A. Santamaria. It’s a wonderful thing that one of B.A. Santamaria’s grandchildren is in the church today. I recall as a young teenager going along with Dad to Dallas Brooke’s Hall to listen to a rallying speech by one of Lech Walesa’s Solidarnosc freedom fighters at the time when Poland fought to be free of its Russian oppressors in the early 80s. Dad thought it was important that we boys see and hear this stuff.

 

But although his political views could best be described as traditional Irish Catholic, he reserved the right to be quite politically contrary. He could go from Trotsky to Genghis Khan in the space of one sentence if it suited his argument.

 

He was the master of the sweeping statement, once dismissing Graham Greene, the prolific and politically charged author, as a light weight. And he had an uncanny and rather brilliant ability to come up with nicknames for people that seemed to capture the whole person. One of my favourites was “Pull through” (if you’re not sure what a pull through is, come and see me later) but my absolute favourite was a particular person who he labelled “Mr Caldwell” named after Arthur Caldwell who was a Federal ALP leader in the late 50s and early 60s.  It was brilliant. This particular person was an absolute spitting image of Arthur Caldwell. The only problem was, that this particular person was a woman. And just for the record, I can absolutely guarantee that Mr Caldwell is not with us here today. Neither, for that matter, is Pull Through.

 

Dad mellowed a lot as he got older. I suppose that’s natural. I think he realised that not everything was a fight to the death. It was OK to do a few things just for enjoyment. I’m not sure if he spent much time thinking about life; the meaning of it and why we are here. Maybe he did? If he did I wonder what conclusions he reached? But I do know one thing; when he sat in his favourite chair in the front room of the house, and when he sipped away at a single malt whiskey, and when he turned on Johann Sebastian Bach loud enough to deafen the neighbours, he was definitely a man at peace. At peace with himself, and finally, at peace with the world.

 

 

He was a man of simple tastes. He enjoyed his home, Mum’s company, his music, his sons, his extended family, grandchildren, great grandchildren and friends. He didn’t like or need things. In fact, when I think about what Dad actually possessed, it wasn’t very much at all. What a wonderful feat, to leave this life with barely a trinket to your name. He enjoyed reading, snoozing in the sun, the evening meal, and a glass of wine. He taught me a lot. He only spent 2 days in hospital across his whole life; the day he was born and the day he died. Not bad for a kid who started life struggling to breath properly.

 

The doctors told us when we arrived at the hospital, once we realised that his condition was grim, that he would go very quickly, perhaps a matter of moments. But he didn’t. He hung in there for one last hurrah; for one final battle against the forces of the universe. Perhaps he was slamming that stupid glass panelled door for the final time.

 

Rest in peace my dear old Dad.

 

I’d like to finish with a few beautiful words from a song by The Clancy Brothers called The Connemara Lullaby:

 

“The currachs tomorrow will stand on the shore,

And Daddy goes sailing, a-sailing no more,

The nets will be drying, the nets heaven blessed,

And safe in my arms, contented, he’ll rest.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Damian O'Donnell

OK - which is the odd one out: Love the Cats and flannelette shirts, especially in winter. I get on extremely well with red wine. We just seem to hit it off. Love horse racing in Spring. Used to love cricket. Go to Stawell every Easter and contemplate life around the fire. Love water skiing, especially in summer. Get meaning from catching a beautiful curling wave. Love a great oil painting. Will read most things put in front of me. Thought 'The Sopranos' was the best TV show ever made - by miles. Run an accounting practice in Melbourne's suburbs.

Comments

  1. TG White says:

    Beautiful tribute Dips. You got me it teary thinking about my own Dad, also born in 1933 and named after his father and mother’s maiden name (I guess it was a custom in those days). Thanks for sharing your personal story. My thoughts are with you. On a lighter note, look out for the photo of the Geelong Cats basketball team (Brisbane circa 1991) I recently sent to Harmsy. Most of us were shadows of our current selves in those days. JTH wore number 5 of course.

  2. Neil Anderson says:

    When ever I was about to write something for the Almanac, I was always aware of the Almanac motto “Write From The Heart’. These days I try and write that way automatically because it is in tune with most other Almanackers.
    After reading the tribute to your father, I suspect you might have been the one responsible for that motto which set the tone for future Almanac writing.

  3. Cat from the Country says:

    Celebrations of a wondervul life.
    I can see you remember the good times.
    Travel well, Dips and family.

  4. Callum O'Connor says:

    Great eulogies make you laugh and cry, often in the same stroke. And that glass-panelled door finish delivers just that.

  5. Rulebook says:

    Absolutely superb,Dips

  6. Dave Brown says:

    Wonderful, Dips, just wonderful

  7. Yvette Wroby says:

    Thanks for sharing Dips. Hugs to you all. And strength through this time.

  8. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Marvelous Dips, loved the nicknames bit.

  9. Ben Footner says:

    “What a wonderful feat, to leave this life with barely a trinket to your name.”

    If only more people made this their aspiration the world would be a better place I think.

    For some reason I love reading eulogies – I think it’s because they are so real and raw, and written with a certain love that can only come hand in hand with grief.

    Thank you for sharing this Dips.

  10. Wonderful Dips (and Ben above).

  11. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Stirring stuff Dips. Your dad would be proud of you mate. Love the nicknames – ‘Pull through’ is a beauty. These things stay with us for generations. Vale John.

  12. Superb words Dips.

  13. Well played, Dips.
    Fine words.
    Great to catch up last Friday.

  14. Rick Kane says:

    What a wonderful salute to your father. He sounds like a generous and deep thinking man. Hope all is well with you and your family Dips.

  15. Luke Reynolds says:

    Wonderful words Dips. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Sarah Black says:

    That was wonderful Dips, and really created an image of your Dad. I’m actually one of Therese Hickey’s daughters, meaning John’s my great-uncle – Mum said you spoke beautifully at the funeral, and I’m glad I could read it for myself, and find out a bit more about a relative I didn’t really know. Good to see determination, a love of music and politics runs in the family, even if speed somehow eluded the Hickey side!

  17. Hi Sarah. Great to hear from you. Does all this mean you are my third cousin? I have no idea.
    It was fabulous to see all the Hickeys again, even if the ocassion was a sad one.
    Is that a Richmond jumper you are wearing?!

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