Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Ernie enjoys Melbourne’s win – A chat with Ernie O’Rourke

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Ernie O'Rourke

Ernie enjoys Melbourne’s win

Kirstin Nicholson, The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper

Ernie O’Rourke is one happy man. 

He watched the Melbourne Demons claim victory over the Western Bulldogs in Saturday’s AFL grand final. The Demons won by 74 points; 21 14 140 to 10 6 66. It was the Demons’ first premiership since 1964.

The 95-year-old from Leitchville has a strong connection to the Melbourne Football Club, playing for the Demons in the Victorian Football League (VFL) from 1945 to 1948. Ernie was part of two grand final teams in 1946 and 1948, both games against Essendon. 

His 1946 grand final series saw him kick 10 goals over the three finals games, two of those in the grand final. Essendon won that match. The 1948 match, however, saw the VFL’s first ever draw and resulted in a second grand final game being played. This time it was Melbourne who took out the premiership. 

Ernie watched Saturday’s grand final match from his lounge room with his partner, Gwen, who is a long-time Footscray supporter. 

“I felt happy for myself, but I felt a little bit of disappointment for Gwen. Footscray got to the front, they were 19 points up and then Melbourne gradually took over again. When it actually happened, I’d just gone outside and when I came back, they’d scored three or four goals. That put the shine back on my face,” said Ernie.

Despite their differences in football teams, Ernie says it was a very pleasing weekend.

A chat with Ernie O’Rourke

Ali Bohn, first published 15 October 2020, The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper

I received a phone call from John Brown recently; excited to tell me about a person he wanted to nominate for a chat. “He’s a terrific bloke, sharp as a tac and has a lovely partner. You’d really enjoy doing this one… just don’t contact him.” It was an odd phone call to say the least – build up the excitement and then let me down! It’s like showing me a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, only to tell me I wasn’t allowed to eat them! In actual fact, John just wanted to make sure that his friend, Ernie O’Rourke, was comfortable with me contacting him before I hit him up for an interview. I just had to wait patiently until I got the okay from John, which thankfully came not too long later.

So, today I took a drive to Leitchville to meet with the man of the moment, Ernie O’Rourke, and his beautiful partner of 30 years, Gwen.

Knocking on the door of the gorgeous cottage they share, I’m greeted by the smiling face of a gentleman who, for a moment, makes me think I’m at the wrong house. There is no way that this man is 94 years of age. He’d be lucky to be 70, 75 at the most.

“You must be Ali, I’m Ernie… please come in.”

No, it seems I am at the right house.

Ernie shows me through to the kitchen where Gwen is standing, ready to seat me at the dining table. With a smile to match Ernie’s, Gwen is extremely hospitable and seems genuinely pleased we’re about to unfold the story of Ernie’s life. Many of the stories she has already heard, but as she says, “Ernie is such a great storyteller,” so I’m sure she’s more than happy to hear them again.

“I was born in Bentley on April 8, 1926. I had an older brother, Kevin, who has passed away and a sister, Yvonne, who is 10 years younger than me.”

Ernie goes on to tell me that he was named after his father, Ernie senior, who was a manager with Myer Emporium and that his mother, Elsie May, worked various jobs from the Rosella factory to the woollen mills.

“Mum was a beautiful cook. The best thing she made was Rollie Pollies with homemade custard. Nothing was processed food; everything was made from scratch, and nothing was wasted. My most vivid memories of my mother are of her wanting me to learn the piano, but all I wanted to do was to kick the footy with my mate, Hayden. My first football was made from rolled up newspaper. Mum would send me off for piano lessons and I’d walk past the teacher’s place, and over to kick the footy with Hayden! Mum eventually found out that I wasn’t attending the lessons!”

Straight away I can see that Ernie has a very cheeky streak (Gwen did warn me of this when we first sat down), but for the most part he has a very gentle and considerate nature… the cheeky part he just throws in for good measure!

“On Sundays my mate and I would get on our bikes and head over to the Kingston North Golf Course and get paid three shillings to caddy. That was always good fun. That was my first ‘job’, and then I became a paper boy at 13 until I was 16. I’d sell the papers at the Bentley Train Station. It was the best place to do it because as soon as people stepped off the train the first thing they wanted was the paper, so it was very busy,” Ernie reflects.

I wonder what Ernie thought of school.

“I went… and that’s it!” He laughs. “I went to school to play sport, nothing else mattered to me. I went to Brighton Tech School and all I ever thought about was playing VFL football. I played two years with Bentley Juniors from 14 to 18. I won two best and fairest and two league best and fairest. I was given an invitation to train at Hawthorn, but I was in the Melbourne area, so I went to train with them instead. I played in two grand finals in 1946 and 1948 – one premiership and one runner up. Melbourne changed coaches and that’s when I went over to play with North Melbourne.”

We back track a little, as I embarrassingly confess to Ernie of my ignorance around Australian Rules Football. I apologise that it isn’t my forte, and I can see how badly he wants to keep talking about his number one passion, but I need to find out a little more about what he was doing when he wasn’t playing football.

“Well,” he pauses, “I used to love going to work with Dad of a Saturday morning. While he was busy doing his work, I’d spend the entire morning going up and down in the lift until it hit 12 o’clock when Dad would take me to the footy. Dad had a good friend at the jam factory and put in a good word for me about a job. I was offered an engineering apprenticeship which I loved. Dad knew a lot of people! It was a great job and I had really good bosses, which also helped. A few of us at work were asked to go and pay a visit to the Tally Ho Boys Home to show them the work we were doing, and when we got there, someone mentioned that I played footy. So, I spent the rest of the time there kicking the footy with the lads.”

Right, now we can get back to footy! (Much to Ernie’s delight!)

Ernie played his first VFL game with Melbourne at Footscray, and it was on this occasion that he earned the nickname ‘Irish’. Playing half forward position, he remembers that day clearly as his childhood dream had become a reality. I have to wonder, however, how did the VFL find out about this rising star?

“Once again, that was my dad. I said he knew a lot of people! Dad knew the Cazaly family, as his sister had married Roy Cazaly. He must have told them about me and then it all happened from there. I was just so passionate about footy and would have done anything to play. I just always knew I would play VFL somehow.”

With every memory, Gwen smiles at Ernie as she sees the excitement on his face reliving those wonderful times. She looks on with pride, even though she’s heard these tales many times before, you can tell she never tires of them.

Whilst still an apprentice engineer, Ernie married his high school sweetheart, Shirley, in 1946. Soon after their one and only child, Peter, was born in 1948, Ernie began playing football for North Melbourne. Exciting times for the young family no doubt, and I wonder, did he exchange Peter’s woollen booties for leather football boots?

“Oh yes! Peter got right into football! I was as pleased as punch when he was born. He was a sick baby, so Shirl came home from hospital without him. She used to have to take her milk to my dad who would then take it to the hospital for the nurses to feed Peter. I finished my apprenticeship and then went to work at Centenary Woollen Mills. I also decided to get into coaching, so off I went to Glen Waverly where I was given £10 and a bag of brussels sprouts as my pay! I was there for two years. We were living with Shirl’s parents in those early years, and one day the doorbell rang and a bloke was standing there offering me a job coaching at Rainbow. So, off we went! I coached them for two years and then went from there to Wycheproof for three years. We won two premierships. That’s when I was offered another position coaching Leitchville, so we moved here in 1957. I secured a job doing maintenance at the Kraft factory here (where I stayed until I retired), and from the moment we arrived, everyone was so welcoming. Leitchville had a bit going on back then. SEC was new, there was Kraft of course, a butcher, bakery, hardware store and petrol station. At first, I moved here myself and lived in the back of the café, and then Shirl and Peter came and moved in there too. We then moved into a house in Queen Mary Avenue and then another one there. The accommodation, or housing, was sourced by the football club.”

Ernie really sunk his teeth into the small country community of Leitchville, becoming involved in the birth of junior football in the region along with others. Pyramid Hill, Kerang, Koondrook and Cohuna were all thrown into the mix and Ernie was quite chuffed that Peter would be able to follow in his dad’s footsteps of becoming footy obsessed!

“It was all due to Peter loving footy that I did so much. I had a 1937 Chev that I’d drive 12 kids around in taking them to footy matches. They were wonderful times. Eventually, the league took it over and we became a recognised league. I coached Leitchville for two years and was president for eight years. I also helped get men’s basketball started here at the tennis courts. Through plenty of fundraising, we managed to get the courts built and I was very involved with that for a while.”

Ernie leaves the room for a moment while Gwen makes us a refreshing cuppa, and returns with a rather official looking uniform draped across his arm. It’s his pride and joy – full regalia from his service as a Freemason.

“He looks so handsome in this,” Gwen smiles.

Utterly proud of his work as a Freemason, Ernie says he became a Freemason due to his father, and has been part of the organisation for 70 years.

“I was 23 when Dad invited me in. My boss and two other people were my sponsors and it’s the most wonderful organisation to be a part of. Elaborate dinners and great friendships, some of my fondest memories are from my years as a Freemason.”

We stop the interview for a moment as Ernie gives me a brief description of what all the regalia signifies. We drink our coffees and for a time we are sidetracked talking about anything from the current pandemic to my children’s fantasy of becoming AFL footballers, to tips on how to kick a goal. It occurs to me that we have missed a gap in Ernie’s life of how there came to be Ernie and Gwen. Sensitive to the subject, I approach carefully, although both Ernie and Gwen are very happy to talk about it.

“Shirl got sick with cancer and in 1986 she passed away. We had been friends with Gwen and her husband, Les, and when Les got sick with cancer, I used to go round and cut wood for them because Les wasn’t able. Shirl had passed away and then when Les did, I continued to go and cut the wood and help out with any chores around the yard. After a few years … hang on. Gwen, you tell the story.”

At this point, Ernie asks for Gwen’s version of the story. I think he likes hearing it from her perspective because he continues to smile at her every word. It’s quite lovely to see.

“I had some friends over and we were just sitting there having a cuppa. Ernie came to the door, and I told him ‘I don’t need anything today’. He said, ‘I came to take you out!’ I didn’t know what to say as I was shocked, so I quickly said, ‘I don’t think so.’ So, he left and my friend, Judith, said how awful I was to him! I felt terrible so I called him back to say I would go out with him. Of all places, he took me to the Bendigo Races – I hate horse racing!” She laughs, and Ernie does as well. “I did, however, enjoy the day so it wasn’t so bad! As we were walking out, he took my hand and I pulled it away. I was scared, but he stopped me and said this to me ‘I want to start a friendship with you that will be there for the rest of your life.’ (Cue the water works, as Gwen and I both have tears streaming down our faces!) And from then on, we just continued to enjoy one another’s company. Picnics, holidays, just beautiful times always. All we do is laugh, and he has introduced me to so many wonderful things, like the Freemasons. He is just a wonderful, wonderful person and I love spoiling him!”

Back to Ernie…

“One day I said to Gwen, ‘right, get in the car and drive me to Pyramid.’ She said, ‘but I don’t have a licence!’ So, I told her she needed to learn to drive because she was going to need her independence. She was in her 50s when she got her licence and she absolutely loves driving!”

It’s hard not to feel relaxed when you’re in the presence of Ernie and Gwen. The kitchen has that homely aroma about it, and sitting here at the table with them makes me think of times from my childhood spending time in my nanna’s kitchen watching her cook scones in the wood fired stove. I tell this to Ernie and Gwen, and they kindly ‘adopt’ me as their granddaughter.

What is the secret to Ernie’s happiness?

“Well, Gwen, first of all. Masonry, travelling when we can and spending Christmas with my sister. When Shirl passed away, I saw that as a chapter in my life that I had thoroughly enjoyed but that was now closed. Being with Gwen has been a new chapter and I’m so happy to have her. I make sure I talk to everyone, and smile. I like being around people and I have wonderful friends. It’s funny because our friends are so much younger than us but they really take care of us. I’m happy.”

I politely ask Gwen if she would mind leaving the room for a moment while I ask Ernie what message he would like to relay to Gwen when she reads this article. He thinks for a moment, carefully choosing his words.

“I would simply say to Gwen that I love you, and the friendship we started will remain forever. That’s all I need to say.”

And I think you’ve nailed it, Ernie.

What a beautiful couple I have had the pleasure of spending a few hours with. You warm my heart.

A special thanks to John Brown for organising this chat.

The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper 30 September 2021

These articles appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 30 September 2021.

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