Lou Cesa casts his mind back, as he peruses a grainy photo from his junior football days.
He went on to enjoy a fine career as an erstwhile defender for Wangaratta, but this Centrals premiership team of 1947 still remains a highlight for Lou.
“There were only four teams in the Wangaratta Junior League that year, and we went right through the home-and-away rounds without winning a game.”
“Then something must have clicked. Somehow we won the First-semi and Preliminary Finals before taking out the Grand Final.”
Lou goes through the names and, with the help of a razor-sharp memory, provides a pen picture of how most of the players’ lives panned out. He concludes that, besides he and another local – Dave Dent – the lad in the front row, Brian Bourke, might be the only other survivor.
“Had the makings of a handy player,” says Lou. “Brian was one of the biggest in the side….. Went on to become a pretty well-known legal man……….”
Indeed, I tell Lou, the same Brian Bourke was honoured in the recent Queen’s Birthday list. Awarded an Order of Australia for: ‘…..Significant service to the Law and the legal profession, to Australian Rules and the community’.
“Wow,” says Lou. ” The boy sure kicked on…………”
Brian’s 88 now, and is still practicing law. In fact, he holds the record as the state’s longest-serving continuously-practicing barrister.
His family were steeped in the hotel trade. At various times, he tells me, they ran Wangaratta’s Albion, and other pubs around the area, such as Glenrowan, Wodonga and Seymour.
When they returned to Wangaratta, he attended Brigidine Convent for three years and was influenced by a ‘wonderful nun’, Mother Columbanis.
He’d finished Year 11 and moved to Melbourne for work, but she encouraged him to get his ‘Matric’ Certificate and study Latin if he wanted to fulfill his ambition to do law.
So the kid who ‘showed a bit of promise as a footballer’, shelved his aspirations of footy stardom, in preference for a lifetime in the legal profession.
Brian started his Law articles in 1948, and was a solicitor from 1953 to ’58. He came to the Bar in 1960, thus commencing a 57-year unbroken stint as a barrister, that has produced a million and one anecdotes.
He reflected on his experiences in an interview conducted for the Bar Oral History, several years ago:
“I think I was a bit of a wild boy in my very younger days and that gave me an insight to the other side of things. I mixed with fellows who were pretty rough and tough. I didn’t drink, which was a salvation, I think, but it gave me a view of life. The years I spent with clients, and out at Pentridge gave me an insight as to the fact that there’s good in everybody.”
“The late Jack Cullity once told me: ‘Never get too close to them (criminals)’. Graham Kinniburgh and I used to have lunch now and again and I got to know him pretty well, and a few other blokes, like the Kanes and the Morans that I’ve known; they’re just names now……Blokes like ‘Mousey’ Baker………”
“I did a trial for Mousey once. He was charged with some factory breaking down in East Richmond. We had to have a view on the morning of the trial.”
“We’re driving down this little street in Richmond and we’re in a truck. He says: ‘Do you like oranges, Brian ?”
” Yes, Mousey, I do,” I replied.
“He stops the truck beside another truck – just completely blocked the street. He hops up, chucks 6 or 8 oranges down into the truck, knocked them off, and off we go.”
“I said: ‘You can’t steal other people’s oranges.’ ‘I know,’ said Mousey. But he wasn’t real bad. I liked him a lot,” he said.
One client was so moved, after Bourke’s final address to the jury that he confided to him : “I didn’t think I was innocent of this thing, but after listening to you, I reckon I am……..”
It was in defending another for detonating explosives, against an overwhelming prosecution case, that Brian opened his final address to the jury with: “Well, we’ve all played with matches haven’t we…..”
Brian was Junior Counsel to Philip Opas at the murder trial of Ronald Ryan, the last person to be legally executed in Australia. He appeared for both Ryan and Peter Walker at their committal hearings in 1966. ( Ryan was found guilty of the murder of prison warder George Hodson in their break-out from Pentridge Prison).
“I was in communication with Ron when he was on the run and went out to see him when he was returned to Victoria. I said to him: ‘You know, Ronnie, if you go for this you’re in for the big jump.’ He said: ‘You don’t need to tell me.’ ”
“Ron wasn’t a big-time crim. He was a thief and burglar. I got pretty close to him over the last 12-13 months and we became friends. He was the toughest and most courageous bloke I ever met. He faced the gallows without fear.”
Days before Ryan’s death, Bourke broke down and ‘cried like a little kid’ as the condemned man comforted him in his Pentridge cell.
“I’ve got this bloke holding me by the arm. ‘Look you’ve done everything you could for me. Don’t worry. I know how to go to the gallows,’ Ryan said. ”
Over the years he appeared for many of Victoria’s most notorious criminals, but these days he’s more likely to be appearing ‘pro bono’ for lesser-known figures.
Brian became involved in League football in 1960, when he was asked to join the South Melbourne committee.
He initially served as the club’s delegate to the VFL , a role for which his skills as a lawyer were well-suited. Besides this, he stepped into one football’s hot-seats when he became President of the Swans in 1967.
Undoubtedly the highlight of his ‘reign’ was his role in the appointment of Norm Smith as coach, in 1969.
The Swans had been perennially unsuccessful. In fact, their previous finals appearance had been way back in 1945. But they stunned the football world with the announcement that the six-time Premiership coach had been persuaded to take over at the Lake Oval.
Smith explained that, due to his health, he was unable to get out on the ground like he used to. He suggested to Bourke that, if he was able bring along three of his former Melbourne players as assistants, he would accept the coaching position.
“I told him ‘ the job is yours.’ “The deal was done within about 20 minutes of arriving at Norm’s house. I had no idea Norm Smith was interested in coaching again, so it was a complete fluke that we got him,” he stated in the Smith biography, ‘The Red Fox’.
VA year later, South completed a remarkable transformation when they played in their first final for 25 years.
Brian Bourke held the reins as President until 1972, but has remained a committed ‘Bloods’ supporter and is a VFL/AFL Life Member of over 30 years duration.
He continued his involvement in football as a Tribunal member from 1976 to 1982 and has sat on the AFL Appeals Board for 15 years, but admits that he doesn’t get to the footy much these days.
He jokes, though, that if he “fielded a team of footballers I’ve represented over the years, they’d win every Premiership.”
This man of many hats has co-authored two books – ‘Bourke’s Liquor Laws of Victoria’ and ‘The Australian Debater’ – and was the first member of Amnesty International and the Doxa Youth Foundation. He represented Victoria as a debater on five occasions.
He shows no sign of slowing up and is adamant that retirement is “not on the agenda yet.”
It’s been a remarkable life for the former Centrals ruckman…….
P.S: Brian Bourke’s brother, Kevin, played in Wangaratta’s 1946 Premiership team, under the great Laurie Nash and also figured in Wang.Rovers’ Ovens and King flag in 1948.
(With help from: The Bar Oral History, and Victorian Bar News)