Bernie Grealy was just 8 years old when his dad Frank, drove he and his brother Laurie in from Eldorado to watch their first Wangaratta Carnival.

It was Australia Day, 1950; and like the thousands of other fans who had jammed into the Showgrounds that night, he was excited about the prospect of watching the American sprinter, Barney Ewell.

The reigning Olympic Gold Medallist, was dubbed ‘The Ebony Flash’, and had been heavily promoted as the Carnival’s feature attraction. As the unbackable favourite, off scratch, for the Gift Final, all eyes were trained on him when the lights dimmed and the runners crouched to await the starter’s pistol.

Barney, and another champion, Frank Banner,  appeared to break, but the field was recalled…which only added to the dripping suspense of the occasion.

He got away perfectly in the re-run, to edge out Carlton footballer Laurie Kerr by a matter of inches, in a run timed as one of the quickest and most memorable-ever on the Wangaratta track…………..

If Bernie still needed any convincing that athletics was to be his chosen sport, it was pretty much decided for him that night.

And over the next forty years or so, he was to place his own stamp on Carnivals such as his beloved Wangaratta – and beyond……….

“I was no great shakes at footy or cricket at school – even though I liked them both. But I found out I could leave most of the kids for dead when the running events were held at the school sports. So that’s the path I chose,” he recalls.

A few years later, when he was about 16, and working at the Woollen Mills, he set himself for the Mill Gift, which was held as part of their Christmas break-up. He won, and a couple of months later, went out to Easter Saturday’s Milawa Sports, and took out that Gift as well.

His dad advised him: “If you’re going to run, you ought to be fair dinkum about it.”

So he measured out a sprint track on the Eldorado sports ground and spent hours honing his talent.

“There were about 30 or 40 blokes who used to run at the unregistered Meetings which were held in February-March each year during the early sixties. Places like Whorouly, Moyhu, Tatong, Hansonville and Thoona, “ Bernie says.

“Then the Harriers started up in Wang and a fellah called Bill Eaton got onto me about turning amateur. I’d won something like 10 pounds as a pro, which seemed to be a bit of an obstacle, but he managed to get me re-instated.”

“After about two years – and competing in country championships and the like, I discovered there were a few blokes a fair bit better than me. I thought, gee, I might as well see if I can earn a few quid. “

That’s when he decided to turn professional, aged 18.

Not that prize money was ever his sole objective.

“I think the largest purse I ever got was $1,500 for winning the Oakleigh Gift. There wasn’t that much dough around.”

The biggest plus you get out of the running game, he says, is the friendships you cultivate.

Although, on the face of it, running appears to be an individual sport, there’s a unique camaraderie among the athletes.

It’s what inspired Bernie to keep going for all those years…………

That – and the support of Robyn, his wife and greatest fan.

Bernie’s got an affectionate country drawl, which adds a bit of flavour to the stories he tells. He loves a yarn about sport. So does Robyn.

She used to follow him around the circuit and sit up in the stands, jotting down every race result – the times, scratchings and any other incidentals. When the runners gathered around the camp-fire of a night to chew over the day’s happenings, they’d refer to Robyn for the finer details.

Bernie’s always had a fascination for Stawell. He first went there in 1963. He and Robyn have hardly missed a meeting since.

He won his Gift heat for seven successive years and reached two finals – which still sit indelibly in his mind.

In the first of them – 1967 – in front of a crowd of nearly 14,000, he came up against the great Bill Howard, who stormed to his second successive win. Bernie ran strongly to finish third.

“People were coming up to congratulate me and say how well I’d run. To tell you the truth, I was shitty…Thought I could have done better…….”

Four years later, when Fitzroy footballer Treva McGregor took the honours, he hit the line in fourth place.

“I’d won the Yarroweyah Gift the week before, and took a few days off work, to keep off the concrete floor, and give myself the best possible chance. Did okay too…. I didn’t miss out on third place by much and was pretty happy with my effort.”

Bernie diverts to chat about Jack King, the wise old running coach, whose brother Chris won Stawell in 1908. Jack apparently lived for running and had trained five winners of the famous Gift on a cinder track he’d constructed at the family property, just off the Three Chain Road.

“Jack walked into the bank in Rutherglen one day, where Bill Howard had just been transferred, and said to him: ‘Son, would you like to win a Stawell Gift’. He’d seen him playing footy and reckoned he had the makings of a runner. “

“Bill was backed in from 100 to 1 when he won his first Gift. He was pulled about 3 yards the next year and ran 11.6, to win it again. I picked up the princely sum of $140 for finishing third.”

“One thing I regret, in hindsight, was not going over and training under old Jack when I was about 16.”

Bernie’s first-ever victory in pro ranks was at Maryborough, in 1967, when he took out the quarter-mile ( 400 metres ). He saluted again in 1970.

The 400 turned out to be his specialty. He won it on four occasions at Wangaratta – 1970, ‘74, 1980 and ‘84. The event is now called the ‘Grealy Family 400 Metre Handicap.’

A framed photo, depicting each win, takes pride of place on the Dining-Room wall. It’s about the only show of pretension from the illustrious Grealy running career.

“Robyn doesn’t like displaying too much of that stuff,” he says. “But it is special, winning a race in front of your home crowd.”

Bernie first started coaching around 1980. Greg O’Keeffe was his first ‘recruit’.
Greg recalls the day he was jogging along Edwards Street when a car pulled up alongside, and an instantly-recognisable voice called out: ‘….Ow ya goin…..’

It was Bernie, who asked him if he’d like to start training with him.

They hit it off straight away and became great mates, sharing countless memorable sporting moments over the years.

“There were a fair few who trained with us over the years. I think all of them won a race at some stage.”

“I remember Wally Pas coming down with his Rovers team-mate Nick Goodear. The first time he came out of the blocks I thought: ‘Wow, this bloke’s got something.’ “

“Of course, he won a Wang Gift, as did Greg and Jason Boulton. They all became pretty-well infatuated with the sport.”

Bernie was also a finalist in four Wang Gifts. The closest he got to bringing home the chocolates was in 1976, when he finished a close third to Warren Vines.

He retired from running when he was 55, but still remained heavily involved. For quite a few years he competed in Veterans Games.

Then he took up cycling and enjoyed the competitive aspect of Hume Veterans events.

But a couple of heavy falls, the last of which badly damaged his shoulder, broke some ribs, and caused a stint in hospital, convinced him that it was time to give away the bikes.

With the Carnival looming, he’s been doing a bit of work on the Showgrounds track and will be there in an official capacity next week.

He thinks back to those days when the Carnival attracted 140 bikies and something like 300 athletes, and the town would be buzzing for weeks beforehand.

It’s just that, with the passage of time, circumstances have changed, he says. Regardless, it still gets the adrenaline of this sporting junkie rushing, just like it did 68 years ago…………..

2 thoughts on “‘THIS RUNNING LIFE……..’

  1. Greg Rosser

    Great local familiesthe Grealies and the Hoysteds. Always proud of Bernie, a Wangaratta icon…and always pleased to have a chat beginning “ow ya goin”. Did Bernie carry the torch through Wangaratta for the 1956 Olympics? My memory was standing at the end of Sisely Ave with the Welchs and Corneliuses, we all had jam tins nailed to sticks with a camphor soaked rag burning in the tin, we then returned to get in old Henry Richards (Len’s dad) way as he was excavating the Olympic Pool…the Hills were probably there too. By the way Kev, did you happen to hear the one about the Wangaratta kid who has captained his adopted country’s national cricket team in ICC fixtures for the last 10 years? Done lots of other interesting stuff as well…reckon you should have a chat to another local kid doing Wangaratta proud, give me a buzz on 0418 364828 if you would like to have a chat with him – Greg Rosser

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