‘…..SPUD……….’

Renato Leonardo Patat…….the name rolls smoothly off the tongue……

But everyone, bar his wife Marie, called him ‘Spud’.

He always reminded me of Nino Culotta, the fictional hero of the popular fifties novel : ‘THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB’.IMG_3827

Both were tradies, Italian immigrants, grappled valiantly with the English language and succeeded in assimilating themselves perfectly into the Australian lifestyle.

In fact, Spud, who passed away just on a fortnight ago, became a true-blue Aussie character………..
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He was born in the hilly town of Gemona, in North-East Italy, in 1927. Because of the family’s precarious financial status, he was required to leave school early, and join the work-force, to support his seven siblings and parents, Maria and Umberto.

Tough times prevailed in post-war Europe, and work opportunities were scarce. It prompted Renato to answer an ad in the local paper, which sought tradesmen in Australia.

He landed in Wangaratta in 1951, and started work on the Housing Commission’s kerb and channel project in Yarrunga. It would, he thought, keep him going for two or three years, before he inevitably headed back home to Gemona.

Fate intervened. One of his regular outings was to the Movies at the Plaza Theatre, in Murphy Street, where he was drawn to a friendly, good-looking usherette.

The attraction was mutual. The handsome Continental swept young Marie Stevenson off her feet and, as their romance began to blossom, he was invited home to meet her family.

Sounds like one of those Mills and Boon novels, doesn’t it ?

But he was a trifle reluctant. One of his countrymen had told him that he’d been invited to meet his Aussie girlfriend’s father, and had been threatened at the door, with a shot-gun.

Again, this drew me to an excerpt from ‘They’re a Weird Mob’: Nino Culotta is invited home to meet Harry, the dad of his girlfriend Kaye. Harry says he doesn’t like Tradies or Dagos. Nino, sitting in Harry’s lounge-room, points to a picture of the (then current) Pope on the wall, and says: ‘If I am a Dago, so is he’. Abhoring the prospect of calling the Pope by that name, Harry accepts Nino…….

Spud had no need for such concerns , though. He hit it off well with Horace Stevenson, and he and Marie were wed in 1954. It was his dad-in-law who recommended him to Bill Parnall Snr, after his contract with the Housing Commission had been completed………..
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When I was growing up, Spud was a familiar figure around the Rovers Football Club.
Someone – probably his future brother-in-law Alf Onslow – had swayed him into following the Hawks, and with his set of skills, he became a valuable acquisition.

The Club had shifted to their new home at the ‘Cricket Ground’ in the early fifties, and Spud was always at working-bees, building this; repairing that.

Along with Harry Armstrong and ‘Doodles’ Dodemaide, he constructed the wooden seats that ringed the oval. Then there was the decrepit, ruin of a building that he helped convert into single-storey Clubrooms, as well as ‘knocking up’ the original wooden Kiosk and Bar.

Initially, he knew nothing about the nuances of Aussie Rules. Alan ‘Dinger’ Bell, a Rovers star of the fifties, recalls him ‘blowing his top’ when the goal-umpire disallowed a certain Hawk goal at the Yarrawonga Showgrounds one day.

He started to straddle the fence and blurted: “I kill you”, before he was restrained. Spud continued to remonstrate with the ump for the rest of the quarter, and was eventually escorted from the ground.

As the years rolled on, he became a connoisseur of the game, and would prognosticate on it from the northern end of the Hogan Stand; with VB in hand; in the midst of the most one-eyed, umpire-baiting Rovers supporters……
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Marie, of course, became a wonderful teacher, who influenced generations of kids at West End Primary. But surprisingly, she was unable to induce Spud to master the English language.IMG_3830

He perfected its slang however, and even conjured a few words of his own, one of which – ‘Blood a Fuck’ – he inserted into conversations as a noun, verb or adjective.
‘Dinger’ remembers calling in to pick up some tomatoes one Sunday. “He was ‘f…..n’ this and ‘f…..n’ that, when Marie interrupted: ‘Renat, go easy on the language. I’ve just been to church……’

“Sorry Marie….didn’t f…..n know you were there,” he said, as he continued to forage around the garden bed.

His use of the vernacular added extra charm to his stories.

I liked the one he told about he and a couple of workmates dropping in for a beer at the Plough Inn, on the way home from a job. He hadn’t been in the country all that long, he said, and was still a touch sensitive about the racist culture of that era.

Also in the tiny bar was a formidable, well-known businessman who had been enjoying a ‘long lunch’. Spud was sure he heard him mutter something about ‘bloody dagoes’, and moved to reproach him.

He menacingly pinned the suited gentleman against the wall. The bloke was that shaken that he managed to wrench himself free, bolted out the door, jumped into his car…..then sideswiped the Tarrawingee bridge, as he headed for home…………
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Spud became part of the furniture at Parnall Constructions. Bill Parnall Jnr, who grew up beside him – and learnt from him – claims that he only took one sickie in the forty years he worked for them.

“It was in 1959 – the day after he became an Australian citizen. He spent the night celebrating. In fact, he turned up to work, but Dad sent him home.”

Bill says Spud received a few offers to depart over the years, always for more money, but knocked them back. “He told one fellah he couldn’t leave because he was the unofficial boss of Parnall’s, and that old Bill worked under him…….”

I used to deliver a Rovers membership ticket to the Patat residence at 84 Phillipson Street. The Blue and White Kingswood HK station wagon was usually nosed into the garage.IMG_3828

Depending on whether he was going – or had just returned – from fishing, craying or camping, a ‘Tinnie’ was attached to the roof.

Spud, clad in his usual garb of bib-and-brace overalls and flannelette shirt, would greet you and conduct a guided tour of the backyard, pointing over here to his tomato patch ( “biggest tomatoes in Wangaratta”) and over there to his lettuce, onions, cauliflowers and carrots.

His next-door neighbor, Mario Solimo, reckons the reason for his ‘green fingers’ was the concoction of cow dung that he’d pile into a 44-gallon drum, let soak for a while, stir, then pour onto the veggies.

“Geez it stunk, but it worked,” said Mario, who claims his neighbour of 41 years taught him to swear. I thought it might’ve been the other way around, but if Mario’s correct, then Spud succeeded spectacularly.IMG_3825

The back shed, meticulously laid out, included jars of relish, pickles and jam. Fishing rods and tools would be in perfect order, and he’d proudly display the items he’d just produced from re-cycled timber.

At the rear of the shed stood a bath, more often filled with yabbies. There was always a stock of fresh barty grubs in cigarette packets, stored in the beer fridge, in preparation for his next fishing trip to Makoan, or ‘down the Ovens’.

You inevitably left, clutching some chutney, tomatoes and, in one case, a couple of ornamental frogs…………..
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John Tanner was playing footy with the Rovers in the late fifties when Spud first started shooting ducks on his Greta South property. He made the annual pilgrimage for more than forty years.

“It threw him out a bit when they introduced new rules about identifying ducks before firing a shot,” John recalls. “Spud reckoned that was nonsense. He said : ‘When I go to put my glasses on to check, the f……n duck’s gone.’ “

“I asked him what he did with all the ducks he shot…….’Give ‘em to the relations,’ he said.”

The Patat’s weren’t able to have kids, but acted as second parents to their nine nephews and nieces and, in turn, their 14 children.

They idolised the kids, who became the beneficiaries of tile-top coffee tables, stools, photo frames and vegetables and thrived on Christmas get-togethers at Phillipson Street.

Spud used to string up a shuttlecock net from the clothes-line to the house and engage everybody in the games. They were keenly-contested and  he was never too fond of losing .

After Marie passed away in 2008, he never really adjusted to life without her in their home they’d shared for 51 years . He was relieved to move into St.Catherine’s in 2016 and felt pretty comfortable there.

His departure, at the age of 91, has robbed Wangaratta of yet another legendary figure……………..IMG_3826

” A FOOTBALL PIONEER…….”

Just before the moths did too much damage, Alan Bell packed away an old Black and Gold footy guernsey. It’s survived a couple of house-shifts, is 63 years old…..and is a reminder of the day he tangled with the greatest ruckman he’s ever seen.

It was July 1954. Proudly representing the Ovens and Murray for the first time, he glanced across the centre circle at the Albury Sportsground, and spotted a lithe, dark-complexioned fellow from East Perth – not overly-tall and seemingly still in his teens.

“He’s proceeded to jump all over me for a half. He was deftly palming the ball left, right and centre, and seemed to have mental telepathy with his rovers. I couldn’t get near the footy.”

“John Zeibarth from Albury saved me at half-time. ‘Give me a crack at this bloke,’ he said. But he fared no better.”

“It was my introduction to ‘Polly’ Farmer………..”
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Alan was a butcher for the entirety of his working life. His dad, Les, opened Bell’s Butchery in Warby Street way back in 1929, and for as long as he can remember, Alan was helping out. At the tender age of nine a basket was fixed onto his bike and he began delivering meat before school.

And when he started working full-time, one of his many tasks was to yoke up the Horse and Lorry and be ready to head to the Market before 6am.

“We lived just around the corner, in Moore Street. I loved my footy, so when I was old enough to play in the Junior League , I joined Imperials, to whom I was residentially tied,” he says.

Imps won the flag in 1948 and Alan took out the League Best & Fairest. His next move, he thought, was to the Magpies.

“But they obviously didn’t rate me very highly on the strength of a couple of training runs. Fate intervened; your Dad ( Len ) was coaching the Rovers and asked me if I’d like a game. Best move I ever made.”

He played at full back in the Rovers’ 1949 O & K Grand Final loss to Myrtleford. The following year he lined up at centre half forward for the Hawks’ debut match in the O & M..

With fellahs like Les Clarke and ‘Demon’ Ottrey, ‘Dinger’ helped to create, and drive, the playing culture of the Wangaratta Rovers in the early fifties.

In tough times, they were the heart of the Club. Wins were scarce in the first couple of years, and when they did cause the occasional upset, celebrated it with gusto.

“Most Saturday nights, after the pubs closed, we’d head up to the Taminick Gap. I’d grab an armful of sausages from the shop, we’d set fire to a Blackboy and have a ‘barby’, washed down with a few cleansing ales. They were good times,” Alan recalls.

For the next seven years he was a constant in the side, playing at either end of the ground, or – despite standing only 5’11” and weighing 14 stone – proving a tough obstacle in the ruck. To coin a  phrase, he was a more than useful utility player.

He spent the entirety of his playing career in Brown and Gold , except for one year – 1955.

At 23, and not long married to Joan, he accepted the coaching position at Whorouly. “I wasn’t hitting it off too well with the Rovers coach at that time, and thought it’d be good to have a break.

“The coaching aspect of it was fine. They were a great club, but it was the wettest winter we’d had for decades.”

“I’d drive Dad’s car out, and had to take the detour to North Wang, because of the floods, then go via Bowman’s Forest to get to Whorouly for training. It proved a long year.”

Bobby Rose had been appointed playing-coach of the Rovers in late ‘55 and Alan was one of many who were swept up in a wave of enthusiasm that pervaded the Club.

He stepped back into the senior side and was inspired, as the brilliant ‘Mr.Football’ weaved his magic, and became the catalyst behind the Hawks’ rise to the top.

Alan again represented the O & M, against the South-West League in 1958, but was starting to struggle for fitness. The long hours at work began to take effect and he was squeezed out of the Hawks’ side on the eve of their glorious 1958 finals campaign.

Like a few other stalwarts, he had dreamed of sharing in a Rovers Premiership. He received some consolation the following week, when he and his mate Keith Ottrey led the Reserves to an easy flag win over Albury.

Alan took over the running of the Butchery later that year , which meant that he’d no longer be able to cope with the hefty demands of footy training. After a couple of senior games early in 1959, he spent his last two years helping out the Reserves.
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His old mates often joked that the biggest contribution he  made to the Rovers, was to sire a trio of star footballers.

Alan admits that the boys gave he and Joan a terrific ‘ride’, as their careers stretched from the Findlay Oval – and beyond……..

Gary was barely 16 when he was thrust into the Rovers senior team upon the completion of a season with Junior League club, Tigers. He’d played just six games when he lined up on a half back flank in the 1972 O & M Grand Final.

“It was a bruising affair, that one,” Alan recalls. “Someone ran through Gary early on, but he bounced back and ended up playing fairly well.”

“The next night there was a knock on the door. It was North Melbourne Secretary Ron Joseph, who’d been at the game, and thought he was tough enough and good enough to be invited down to Arden Street.”

Strongly-built and versatile, Gary spent a couple of years at North, playing 20-odd games with the Reserves, then moving over to VFA club, Brunswick.

He returned to the Rovers to play his part in three more flags. After 107 games with the Hawks, he headed to Milawa as assistant-coach.

Gary was working at Dartmouth, when he was tragically killed in a vehicle accident in 1984. “The saddest day of our lives,” Alan says. “You never get over it……..”
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Graeme and Trevor, of course, are identical twins. They often twisted this to their advantage, particularly on the cricket field. Alan laughs about the day that Trevor -the better bowler of the pair – once sent down four overs in succession ( two from each end).

Graeme, who was regarded as superior with the willow, then opened the batting, and also took Trevor’s spot at number eight in the same innings.

They’ve always had a keen sibling rivalry. When I asked Trev if he agreed with my summation that they were: ’ ….Tall and lean…adaptable…strong in the air…superb on the deck…and with ample pace….’ he said that sounded okay, but suggested I point out that he had a touch more ability………

They’d been part of the furniture at the Findlay Oval since they could walk. And when the O & M’s Thirds competition started in 1973, were the first pair to sign up.

At 17, Trevor slotted in as full back in the Rovers senior line-up. Moved upfield in succeeding years, he received the umpire’s accolade as BOG in the 1977 and ‘78 Premiership wins.

After he had starred in another flag triumph, he was wooed by SANFL club, Norwood.

“ The night before Trev had to make his decision about moving to Adelaide, he sat in his bedroom and, as he mulled it over, drank a bottle and a half of wine. He couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the Rovers,” Alan recalls.

He was lured back to the Hawks in 1980, before clearances closed, in their pursuit of a fourth successive flag, but returned to Norwood the following year.

After three seasons with the Redlegs, he had six years with Athelston, in the Adelaide Hills competition. Trevor still runs his own electrical business in Adelaide.

Graeme also developed into a fine all-round player. His greatest thrill in footy was undoubtedly figuring in the 1978 and ‘79 Premiership teams, alongside Gary and Trevor.

Sometimes prone to bouts of inconsistency, he opted for a short stint with Greta, but on his return to the Hawks, played some of his best football in the ruck, at the back end of his 166-game career.

A Life-Member of the Club, like his dad, Graeme’s involvement continued long after retirement, with the Past Players Association.

It’s been a tough year for Alan Bell, who lost Joan, his wife of 64 years, a few months ago. When the family gathers at Christmas there’ll no doubt be some sombre moments, but you can back it in it won’t take long before they  start to see the brighter side of life………………

’JUST A STREAK OF RUTHLESSNESS…..’

Dad lost a few of the best years of his sporting life to the War. He’s not Robinson Crusoe there, of course. Those of his generation, many of them potential top-liners, had to forsake their careers and head off to tackle the pesky Germans and Japanese. Some never returned………

He was born in 1917 – just a fortnight short of a century ago.

Those bleak times, when the world was still embroiled in its first almighty stoush, bred an era of independent, resilient, homespun characters who learnt to cope with the rigours of life.

Is it any wonder that, having stuck up for himself among a tight-knit mob of 10 kids, and helped the family to keep the wolf from the door when the Depression hit hard, he was well-equipped for anything that was hurled his way.

Which included playing his part in defending Darwin from potential invasion…………….
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Dad played footy with O & K Club Waratahs as a youngster. When he returned from the War, he stepped straight into Laurie Nash’s 1946 Wangaratta premiership team as a key defender.

He had aggravated an old knee injury in that Grand Final and was gingerly feeling his way through the early rounds of the next season when he received an approach from the Rovers. Their coach had walked out after a few heavy losses and he was invited to take over.

After initially resisting, he signed on as playing-coach and made an immediate impact. Players who served under him testified that he was tough and durable, and able to play at both ends of the ground, with a preference for centre half back.

After a slight improvement in his first season, they were staring a premiership in the face mid-way through 1948. They lost just two home-and-home games and when he was chaired off after leading the Rovers to their first flag, he reckoned it gave him his proudest moment in sport.

He handed over the coaching reins when the Club gained admittance to the O & M, but played on for half a season before old age and a ‘dickey’ knee hastened his departure from the playing arena.

He struck a chord with many of the people who had been part of the Rovers since the club’s infancy. Old stalwarts like Jack Maroney, Mannie Cochineas, Freddie Booth, Les O’Keeffe, Jack Stubbs, ‘Spud’ Patat, Alan Bell and the like, became cherished lifelong friends.

For the next 36 years he was at various times a Committeeman, Vice-President, Recruiter, Fund-Raiser, Maintenance-Man, Selector, Past-Players’ President, sounding-board for coaches, and finally – reluctantly – President.

He was behind-the -scenes in all of those magical moments of the Rovers early days, like the recruitment of Bob Rose…..the build-up to the 1958 flag……the construction of the Clubrooms……..the punt on the infamous Ken Boyd to succeed Rosey……and more.

When his boys began to filter through to the playing ranks, Dad eased away from the Selection Committee and followed us closely, without burdening us with advice.

The one pearl of wisdom he would proffer on a potential opponent was : “Don’t be frightened to give him a whack behind the ear…..just to let him know you’re around.”

With that train of thought, it’s not surprising that his favourite Hawks were Ken Boyd and Merv Holmes – both fierce, hard-hitting types.

As an old centre half back, he had all the time in the world for ‘Farmer’ and I detected his unwitting vote-selection method: “When in doubt, go for Holmes.”
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Sport was an intrinsic part of our family. Mum had been raised in a footy environment and was more than handy with a tennis racquet. Dad was a competitive animal and was obsessed by all aspects of sport.

Even when he was deeply-entrenched in business with his Rovers team-mate Frank Hayes, and was toiling away for long hours at Wang. Furnishing Company, cricket and football provided him with a release-valve.

He had a streak of ruthlessness which embarrassed us sometimes. He would fight like heck in a game of table-tennis or darts, and on the cricket field, had a touch of white-line fever.

When he eyeballed someone from 22 yards away, they knew there’d be no easy runs.

Dad had many tricks up his sleeve. He needed to, because he didn’t turn the ball a great deal, relying on flight, guile, accuracy and a bit of bluster, to wheedle batsmen out.

He had his ‘quicker one’ – which opponents argued looked suspiciously like a throw – there was the ‘slower one’, then a ball which he delivered from well behind the bowling crease. If that didn’t catch the batsman by surprise he would, next ball, wheel around and be on the poor devil before he’d shaped up.

Well before extensive research was done on opposition players he’d compiled a dossier of batsmen’s weaknesses in his head, and would painstakingly set his field.

He likened it to enticing a fly into a spider’s web. But woe betide the fieldsman who dropped the catch, or the umpire who turned down the decision which foiled his act of subterfuge.

Dad won his last WDCA bowling average in 1970/71 – 18 years on from his first – and 34 years after he began sending down off-spin in club cricket. He took 584 wickets after his 40th birthday.

Some of his best performances came at the tail-end of his career, when he operated in tandem with Geoff Billman, an excellent swing bowler.

He played his final season, aged 54, but continued to roll the wickets at the City Oval, as he had done since he helped install the turf ‘track’ there in 1955.

Years later, he would position himself under the huge gum tree at the town end of the Rovers ground, directly behind the bowler’s arm. “Put your square-leg deeper”……”You don’t need a Third Man for this bloke”……”Attack his off-stump”, would be some of the none-too subtle pieces of advice offered when one of his sons was captaining the Rovers.

Several years later, he got word we were desperately short in the Seconds and offered to help make up the numbers . The theory was that, at 65, he’d be best-advised to park himself in slips on this stinking hot day. But he couldn’t resist suggesting an over of off-spin. Sixteen overs later, he had five wickets and a complexion the colour of rhubarb.

He played with all six of us at one time or another. The post-mortems over the tea-table could become heated, especially if it had been a gruelling day in the field. It necessitated Mum to step in and diffuse the situation…….
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I admired his tenacity in confronting life’s pitfalls, and envied his skills as a Salesman, Businessman, Communicator and leader.

I thought he was just about invincible……..until suddenly, in 1986, he was confronted by an opponent he couldn’t overcome.

But we were comfortable in the knowledge that the greatest legacy he had left was that of a champion Husband and Father………

Happy Father’s Day, old fellah…………