Jack Dillon is renowned for his story-telling. He doesn’t mind coating his yarns with a liberal dab of ‘mayonnaise’, but this one, he assures me, is spot-on…..
It’s 1950….Six o’clock closing…The Wang Rovers players have received two or three calls to down their last beers and climb on the bus, after a match at Corowa.
Jack gets distracted in the meantime -yakking as usual. To his dismay, he sights the bus moving off……He can’t capture anyone’s attention……lateral thinking is required……….
He chases after it and manages to get a grip on a ladder at the back, hanging on for dear life, as it gets a full head of steam.
It’s only when the singing begins as they hit the Three Chain Road, and someone calls out for his rendition of the latest Slim Whitman song, that they realise he’s gone missing.
The driver heeds the call, slows down and prepares to turn back. “Was I relieved !” Jack says. “I’ve climbed off the ladder and run to the front of the bus, just as the door opens. I made out I was puffing and panting, and said: ‘Gee, you bastards took some catching !”
“I dunno whether it went over all that well……….”
Jack’s one of just four players remaining from the Rovers’ first-ever O & M side, which copped a shellacking from Wangaratta in April 1950. He’s only 5’5” – about the size of Tony Liberatore – and would surely have played with the same amount of spunk as old ‘Libba’.
My dad, who was his first coach when he joined the Hawks, aged 18, reckoned he was worth a game, even if it was just for the happy environment he helped create………….
Sixty-nine years later, he’s still a bubbly, effervescent personality. He lives by the philosophy, that you’ve got to treat every day as if it’s your last. “One day,” he says, “you’re gonna be right.”
A born showman, who doesn’t need to have his arm twisted to perform. I ask him when it all started.
“I was only a little tacker – about 10. We were at a concert and one of the acts, an Irish tenor, didn’t turn up. The old man piped up and said: ‘That kid of mine will fill in. I’ll get him up’. I think I sang ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’ and it went over okay………”
Jack was brought up in Seymour; at least for a portion of his childhood, anyway. His father worked for the Railways and the family moved around a fair bit. He says their chooks got so used to the sight of removalists’ vans arriving that they would lie down, with their legs in the air, ready to be tied up and bundled onto a truck.
He went to Assumption College for a couple of years, and it was at the esteemed football ‘nursery’ that he developed his love of the game.
The Brothers were impressed with his footy and athletic ability, but also thought he might be a potential candidate for the religious life. Jack gave it consideration. He’d also contemplated a career in the Navy, and ran both propositions past his dad , who quickly put the kibosh on the ideas.
“He said: ‘If you want to wear a uniform, join the Railways. And I can’t see you walking down the street with your collar on back-to-front., I think you’re the marrying type’,” Jack recalls.
So he worked as a railway porter for a while, and starred with his home club. He was a cheeky rover and had the knack of finding the footy. Seymour won the Waranga North-East flag and he was runner-up in their Best & Fairest.
An old family friend, former Carlton player Frank Martin, suggested he should have a run with the Blues. He showed a bit too, but a selector, Harry Bell, took him aside one day: “Look son , you can play alright, but you won’t make it. Get up the bush. Clever little fellahs like you can make a good quid, ” he said.
It coincided with him scoring a job driving a truck to the Victoria Market and picking up fresh fruit and veggies for delivery along the Hume Highway. Later, his boss, Jack Bynon – a champion bloke in Jack’s opinion – bought a cordial factory in Wangaratta, and asked him to work there as a driver.
“Jack Bynon got tied up with the Rovers – and that’s how I ended up there,” he says. His first spell with the Hawks covered three seasons, but he hadn’t been looking after himself all that well, and copped a bout of yellow jaundice.
“They told me I needed a change, so I headed to Yaapeet, over in the north-west of the state, where an old uncle of mine had the Post Office.”
He started having a kick of the footy, and palled up with a team-mate, Len Manson, to buy some land on the edge of the Little Desert, for one pound ten and an acre.
“Heck it was dry country. We came across a 14 year-old frog that hadn’t learned to swim…..the rabbits used to carry a cut lunch !”
“We tried to grow crops, and there was a lot of Murray Pine timber on the property, which we cut up. We managed to eke out a living; then you’d pick up a bit of work on the farms of neighbouring cockies.”
“Yaapeet had a pretty good side; we played in two Southern Mallee Grand Finals. If you went all right one of the supporters might sling you five quid or so. Saturday nights we lapped up the free beer and pies.”
Jack headed back to his driving job with Bynon’s and again stripped with the Rovers in 1954, but the following season, was lured to the Kiewa Valley, driving heavy transports on the SEC’s Hydro-Electricity project.
There were some colourful characters up there, he says, particularly when they’d get together for Games Nights after knocking off work on a Friday. “If you had a win on the two-up you’d catch a taxi down to the races and try to turn it into a fortune, backing something at 33/1.”
He was part of the Bogong side which created history that year, when they won their only Ovens and King flag. They were well out of contention after eight games, then won their next 10 to clinch the double-chance.
The Grand Final was a thriller. Bogong were leading by two points when Beechworth’s coach Timmy Lowe – a good mate of Jack’s – had a shot for goal just as the final siren blew. The ump decreed that, even though he had split the big sticks, the siren had just beaten him to it.
When the Hydro scheme finished, he picked up a job in Melbourne, working on the underground water mains. He was travelling back to play with Milawa each week, mainly because he was now going with Peta, his future wife, and things were starting to get fair dinkum.
“But I decided to ‘snatch’ the job. Here I was, on the verge of getting married, with no job. As luck would have it, there were Country Championships on in Wang that week-end and I ran into Ted Leehane, the Mansfield coach, at Mass on the Sunday morning.”
“He said: ‘Are you still getting a kick…… I want a rover.’ I couldn’t get over quick enough. They got me a job as a tally clerk at Figlan’s Mill, provided a house and asked if I’d also coach the Reserves.”
He played some of his best footy with Mansfield – including starring in a Grand Final – until a ‘gammy’ knee, which he did against his old club, Seymour, began to cause him a bit of grief.
When he and Peta returned to Wangaratta, Jack was coaxed out to Greta. He lasted half a game before the knee went again. “Matty Rohan ( his doctor ) told me my footy days were over, so that was it,” he says.
There was no time to be idle for the pocket dynamo. His working CV over the years has included a lengthy stint as a Welder, a Barman, Wood-cutter, driver of semi-trailers, petrol tankers, graders, interstate transports, and school-buses.
He also operated a Petrol Depot for several years, at about the same that Peta took the plunge and started her own Hairdressing Salon – ‘Top T’ Toe’ – which became a focal point in town.
Of their nine daughters – Jacqui, Peta-Lyn, Bernie, Sue, Gaye, Clair, Monica, Carmel, and Sally – six did their Hairdressing apprenticeships at Top T’ Toe and the other three worked there at various times.
Jack had almost abandoned his long-held ambition that a son might follow in his footsteps and wear the Brown and Gold.
He was tickled pink when the baby of the family, Matty, made his senior debut in 1993.
Three of the grandkids – Darcy and Mitch Booth and Liam Cook – are now with the Hawks, and another, Frazer Elliott, played for two or three seasons.
Now that he and Peta have slowed up a bit, there’s time to keep tabs on the 29 grandkids and the 11 ( so far ) great-grandkids.
And concentrate on his sporting pursuits, which involve golf and bowls. He’s back hitting the golf ball reasonably consistently now, after a shoulder op, but admits he’s never been able to reduce his handicap below 22.
They say he means business on the bowling green, where he has played Pennant for Wangaratta for several years.
It’s probably the only time you’ll see a frown creasing that cheerful countenance…………