I knew him almost from the time I could walk.
This old rough-nut was as tough as teak, had the patience of an unbroken colt and a turn of phrase which could make you blush.
He was John Walter Maroney.
Us kids began our ‘apprenticeships’ at working-bees “down at the ground”, which in those days was an eyesore, but was being lovingly re-shaped to become the home of the Wangaratta Rovers Football Club.
And he was always there. Usually carrying a shovel, shirt unbuttoned, slouching dacks held up by a piece of baler twine around the waist, he would be barking instructions or cursing one of his dogs (Rusty, Jason, or that black and white thing which was always getting into trouble).
He was a man of action and commanded respect, even if, by calling a spade a spade, he fell out with the odd person.
Jack worked at Victorian Producers, where he had earned a sizeable reputation in the livestock industry.
We were a little bit wary of the old fellow and when Dad announced at the end of one school year that “Jack said there’s a job going at VPC and you can start next week”, I was a trifle apprehensive.
Like most of his vintage, Jack had honed his selling technique at the original market-yards, where the King George Gardens now stand.
He was quite an outstanding auctioneer, with a loud and distinctive voice. One cockie said the old yards were ideal: “I can sit in the bar of the Sydney Hotel and listen to Maroney selling my cattle”, he joked.
Another long-standing VPC man, Gordon Graham, warned when I began to pencil for Jack that “he’s a good auctioneer, but a bugger to book to”. Gordon, who used to turn the cattle during the sales, recalled that Jack would sometimes get a bit confused with the come-back figure and mumble the knock-down price. It was up to me to work out what the hell he was saying, but by then he had moved on to the next pen.
The change-over to decimal currency also caused him problems. He would start selling in dollars and cents and often end up in pounds, shillings and pence.
Luckily, he had a good relationship with the buyers; they thrived on his dry wit and repartee. One buyer nicknamed him “Spit and Speck”, because of his habit of spitting, then starting a pen of cattle with: “I speck (expect)) you’re looking at, say, $150 …“.
He knew stock backwards and was a wise counsel to his loyal bunch of clients, many of whom, if they weren’t already Rovers supporters, soon became keen Hawks. His company car was invariably the dirtiest and could sometimes be seen pulling a set of harrows around the City Oval, or with a load of timber or corrugated iron strapped to the roof, en route to the clubrooms.
He was among the pioneers of the Rovers and his first job was as property-steward and general ‘dogsbody’. An old sugar-bag carried most of the equipment in those hard times; there was a mountain of work to be done and a magnificent bond was created, which gave the club the impetus to join the Ovens and Murray League.
Jack never had much time for the Magpies. As single-minded as he was, he got used to seeing them as an obstacle and even 30 years on, if the Rovers had knocked them over by 10 goals, he’d wish it had been 15.
He helped to do a power of work prior to the club moving from the Showgrounds to the ‘cricket ground’ and he never stopped reminding Johnny-come-lately council officers that “if it wasn’t for us, the ground would still be a blight on the town”.
He took over as president from a fellow stock agent, Jack Turner, in 1959. It was just as the Hawks had risen to power in spectacular fashion under Bob Rose’s coaching and everyone was determined to maintain the momentum.
Jack could see nothing but the Rovers. Even issues which were good for the O & M were hotly opposed if the Hawks were going to come off worse. Although he was no academic ( I spent years trying to decipher his hand-writing), he had a mind like a steel-trap and was shrewd on money matters. He had his own roll-call of keen farmers and businessmen who would heed his requests when the club needed a little extra collateral for a ‘special project’.
The Rovers worked feverishly in 1966, building clubroom extensions. A second-storey was added and the facilities were right up with the best of their time. Many people devoted hundreds of hours to the project and when it was completed, the flash new rooms became the Jack Maroney Pavilion.
He had a special rapport with the coach of the period, Ken Boyd, who was a charismatic personality with great feeling for the club. He didn’t mind the way Boydie played his footy either – rough and tumble- and one suspected that if Jack had been good enough, he would have approached it in much the same way.
Although he was a selector at times, I don’t think he knew much about the tactical side of football. He could sense when a player was in good nick, he applauded the fellow who ‘had a go’, and basically anyone who was fair dinkum was okay by him.
He once nicknamed a player Jason. Some said it was because he reminded Jack of the way his dog Jason skirted the packs without getting too close to the action. His favourite player was Merv Holmes, whom he helped to drag away from a Carboor farm to become a country football legend. ‘Farmer’ was probably Jack’s successor as the master of colourful language in the Rovers rooms.
On a cold winter’s day, Jack’s major contribution to the team’s performance would be his secret weapon -the “steam” – a bottle of port which would be produced at three-quarter time to warm the players’ insides and keep them going for another quarter.
Surprisingly, for one who controlled the club with such a stern hand during his 16 years as president and “set the ground rules and standards”, he always got on well with the scallywags.
“Bugs” Kelly, Mick Nolan, Ric Sullivan, Laurie Flanigan, Terry Bartel and Greg Rosser would take the mickey out of him, but shrewd man that he was, he knew their type was important to have around. The Rovers won seven premierships while he was in charge, but at times there would be a fluctuation in form which brought about a worrying slump.
That’s when Jack would be brought in to deliver one of his ‘fire and brimstone’ pep talks to the players.
He once found out that some of the boys had snuck up to Tallangatta for a Ball on match-eve. The air was thick as he gave them a dressing-down and the blokes involved still can’t work out how he came to learn of their escapade.
He had a style of his own as a public speaker and those around the club always looked forward to him taking the microphone, particularly at Premiership Dinners. His no-nonsense address would always finish with “…… and thanks to each and every one of you”.
Jack’s principal advice to an in-coming committeeman would be “a shut mouth catches no flies”. Anybody talking out of turn would be well and truly ticked off.
He retired from the committee in 1977 and worked behind the scenes from then on, cleaning the rooms and keeping the ground tidy. He would walk down to training, from his Turner Street home and sit on a bench in front of the rooms, passing judgement on the new generation of players and having a joke and a yarn with all and sundry.
Then he started to drive the car down because he reckoned he couldn’t make the distance on his walking stick. Eventually, he had to be content with following the boys from afar.
Old ‘Wally’ died in 1993, aged 87. He led by example and left a decent legacy, both in his private life and at the Rovers, where he was long regarded as a club legend.