The Gift of Stawell


For my dad George and me, Easter was a time when the fate of Jesus jostled for attention with the fates of the flying Scotsman, George McNeill and the marvel of Madagascar, Ravelo.

Easter meant Good Friday hot cross buns, smoked cod, gloomy afternoons of the Stations of the Cross and the evening Royal Children’s Hospital Appeal ‘Gala’ Event. On Saturday, with shops closing at midday, afternoons were spent watching the many Stawell Gift heats. Sunday was rest day (but not for Easter Bunny, Catholics or Jesus) and then came the day – the Monday Stawell finals.

Dad and I loved everything about Stawell. We ‘robustly’ debated the merits of the handicapping system, year after year. Dad strongly believed that everyone should be given a fair go to win any race at Stawell. I disagreed, arguing it was embarrassing to win a one lap race or a sprint with a massive head start.

Dad would say Good on ‘em at least they’re out there having a go.

My dad was a humble all-rounder – a carpenter/joiner, captain/coach ruck rover, middle distance runner and one-time Victorian country ‘broad’ jump champion.

He was the middle son of eight kids born at the start of the Depression to a battler family in a country town in north-east Victoria, headed by a father who died in early middle age and was barely mentioned again.

A grandfather completely unknown to my generation, a vague outline of a man – appearing to have left no good memories to be ever passed down by his children to their children.

Dad – perhaps as compensation – was a gregarious team man, always in company, always looking for something to do, or someone to connect with. Not content with just athletics and footy, he played saxophone in a local jazz band, cornet in the municipal brass band, and volunteered as a fire fighter.

He never sat still unless he was drinking beer or watching sport or both. Usually both.

He seemed to love being a dad. I think he loved being our dad.

In the late 60s/early 70s, when my brother and me joined Little Aths and embraced running and jumping he turned a backyard sand pit (used in summer as the foundation of a small Clark Rubber pool) into a jumping pit complete with markers for long jump, triple jump and a high jump system he fashioned out of two metal stands and a curtain rod.

Just for fun one year, he built us a mini golf course beginning in the back yard and finishing with the ninth hole in the front yard next to the tap. He took us fishing, yabbying and mushrooming and out for many “drives”.

Some summers he was given the key to the local Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool, granting him out of hour’s access. Dad would get me up at 6am to go swimming with him.

The water was always freezing and sometimes it was still dark. I would swim laps and dad would swim widths. He reckons it helped his painful, arthritic hips worn away by sport and hard work.

When we were finished, now with the sun up, we’d jump in the car dripping wet wrapped in our towels and full of endorphins.

Dad would wind down the window of his lime green mag-wheeled Torana, light up a fag, take a deep breath and say: “Well, wasn’t that just great?”

He’d then reach into the glove box pull out a cassette and fill the car with his “hot rock” – usually Creedence. He’d turn it up full blast and sing, one arm dangling out of the window waving to anyone we passed on the drive home. And it would still only be 7am.

Easter was the time though when I felt like it was just our time, every year. No-one else in the family really cared about Stawell – only the Gift final – so dad and I watched all the heats, finals and other races just the two of us. We talked about handicapping and the form and how people can fox a bit in events leading up to the day to get them a better mark.

We always barracked for the backmarker and on the rare occasion they won, Dad would say it was vindication of the handicapping system. He especially loved George McNeill and was ecstatic when he finally won after nine attempts.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I started to reflect on what dad was trying to teach me about why Stawell was so compelling. And why winning from a head start wasn’t for losers.

It was about the dreams of ordinary men. It was about those blokes who were told they could run a bit and did all right in country carnivals. Blokes like my dad. Blokes who thought with some hard work and a bit of luck on the day they too – just once – might be able to beat a champion like Warren Edmonson or Josh Ross.

The gift of Stawell is the gift of hope. Hope that one day that moment in time could be the moment of your life.

Although it’s obvious I idolised dad a bit, he was of course, human. Resplendent with mutton chops and a Lillee mo, he epitomised all things 70s and 80s Aussie blokey; muscular, stoic, sarcastic, generous, critical, loyal and fun all at once.

He had a short fuse at times and although he loved the cricket, he thought many Australian cricketers were up ‘emselves. He demonstrated his feelings loudly during test matches, peppering his distain with the usual bad dad jokes:

”Bowl him up a banjo and see if he can play that”. Way too many times.

He barracked for Viv Richards.

Dad worked for the same joinery in the same country town for over four decades. When he retired at 65 with a broken body but optimistic about the years ahead, he was given a fridge for a lifetime of service.

In 1994, three months after he retired and two months after singing “hot rock” karaoke at my wedding, dad was diagnosed with bowel cancer. He spent the next five years dying as the cancer cruelly spread to various parts of his body.

His bad health did not stop him though. Even though sick and officially retired he still couldn’t sit still, convincing the owners of a new IGA across the road to give him a job at 67, opening the doors at dawn and doing the early morning solo check-out shift.

He loved it. It kept him connected to the neighbours and the town and took his mind off his body.

His body got weaker, and often in great pain, he tried, but at times struggled to stay mentally strong and hopeful.

In 1999, in hospital again after a dose of radiation to ease the pain and keep him going a bit longer, in a slow, morphine-restricted phone call he told me about his plans for the rest of the day.

“It looks like they’ve got the State of Origin on the telly live this arvo love, think I’ll watch the Vics and then have a sleep”.

Five hours after the Big V beat South Australia, the Big C beat my unforgettable dad.

And Easter wasn’t fun anymore.



  1. Simply stunning Tess. That piece of writing has soul. Like your Dad – and you.

  2. Tess, a simply magical light-heavy, happy-sad story.
    Just grand.

  3. Beautiful Tess. Loved every word. Your Dad was a true all-rounder. Does Stawell still lure you in each year? It seems to get in the blood.

    I also remember the Good Friday masses and Stations of the Cross at St Patrick’s (?) in Stawell when we were kids. It never seemed to end!

  4. Colin Ritchie says

    I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes. What a moving piece of writing Tess. What a fantastic bond you had with had with your beloved dad. Cheers.

  5. Colin Ritchie says

    Sorry an extra “had” in my comment. I should have wiped my eyes!

  6. Colin Ritchie says

    And “with”!!

  7. Just beautiful Tess. You can actually feel the love for your dad in the writing. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Earl O'Neill says

    Glad to know I’m not the only one to tear up a bit while reading that piece. Tess, it may be the best I’ve ever read on the Almanac. Thank you.

  9. Thanks Tess.

  10. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I’ll be driving past Stawell today. I’ll give your Dad a wave.

    Beautiful Tess

  11. Peter Fuller says

    Many thanks for this beautiful tribute to your father. I can’t recall where I saw a reference to “the quiet heroes of the suburbs (or in your case, the country town)” which was an allusion to breadwinners of our fathers’ generation who battled along in unattractive jobs – boring, repetitive, physically draining – because the pay check at the end of the week was critical to their family’s survival, and more significantly to them for creating opportunities for their offspring which they hadn’t enjoyed.

    Sport provided an escape, and it’s easy to relate to your dad’s advocacy of handicap foot racing (or pedestrianism, as I think it was formerly and formally known), as it gave the battler a fair go in a world where that was so often denied.

    So many of us who have enjoyed the gift of committed loving families, and as a consequence of their efforts have had lives which have been rewarding on multiple dimensions cannot ever repay the debt we owe our parents. It’s not only what they have given us directly by their stoic endurance, but that they have provided a model of family life, which, however feebly, we try to replicate.
    You have certainly done justice to your father in this exceptional piece.
    Warmest congratulations.

  12. Steve Fahey says

    Beautiful piece Tess and a lovely tribute to your dad and you relationship with him.

    You have also beautifully captured the essence of pro running- “The gift of Stawell is the gift of hope. Hope that one day that moment in time could be the moment of your life.” Sometimes that moment is just being there, just having or having had the hope.

  13. Thank you all so much for your heartfelt comments. I am eternally grateful for being raised by a humble man who loved sport, community and most importantly, being a dad.

  14. Chris Bracher says

    A magnificent piece Tess. Touching. You are a gifted writer.

  15. Rob Moodie says

    Another lovely tribute Tess. I too have tears in my eyes. Your dad was a real Father of the Year(s). I hope I could write a tribute as touching and loving and insightful as you have! Bravo!

  16. Robert Herrmann says

    Thanks Rob Moodie for sending this post on to me; just love reading stories written with feeling about families, its such a generous thing to do, thanks.

  17. Lee McIntosh says

    Hey Tossa!!!!!!

    Fancy reading you on here!!!

    Would love to catch up

    Lee xxx

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