‘LOUIE’S 87…….AND STILL KICKING……’

Roma Cesa reckons her husband Lou is still mentally playing footy – even at the ripe old age of 87.

“He watches every game on telly. I’ll look across, and there he’ll be, twitching in the Lounge Chair, kicking and flicking out imaginary handballs.”

“It’s the same when we go down to watch the Magpies play. He can’t sit still. It’s as if he’s out on the ground. I say: ‘Lou, you’re not playing any more, remember’. His one true love is football. I take a back seat,“ she quips………..

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Hardly any of the current Maggies would recognise this reserved little fellah with the swarthy complexion and the trademark peaked-cap. He and Roma sit behind the goals at the Women’s Industries-end of the Norm Minns Oval – have done for more than 50 years.

He’s declined offers to move to more salubrious surrounds; and maybe sample a bit of the Club’s upstairs hospitality. He’s comfortable there, he says, and doesn’t fancy too much fuss.

“I like doing my own thing. I can criticize if I want to…..and no-one will hear me.”

Louie’s from a Golden Era. In his day he was as good as any small defender going around. But he won’t have a word said against the modern game. “I love it; can’t get enough of it.”

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His is the classic story of a lad, born of immigrant parents, who completely embedded themselves in the local community.

His Dad sailed to Australia from the tiny, mountain village of Lentia in Northern Italy, in 1927; Mum followed four years later.

After settling in Melbourne, then Gippsland, ‘Pop’ landed a job out at the Glenrowan Quarry, smashing rocks. It was a tough old gig. Lou still has the sledgehammer he used; says you need to be a muscle-man to lift it.

After they settled in Wang, the old fellah used to ride his bike out to a block he’d bought at the foot of the Warbies, and cut wood all day.

Lou was born at York’s, a Private Hospital just over the Railway line in Rowan Street. It was merely a hop, step and jump to transport him home – the Cesa’s lived just up the road, in Green Street.

Nor was it necessary to travel far for work when he started as an apprentice joiner at R.M.Clayton’s.  He was 15 when he rode to their factory in Mackay Street…….. And that’s where he was to spend the entirety of his working life.

“I started off on 22 shillings and sixpence, and had to hand over a bit of board and pay off my bike out of that. The next year I got a rise to two pounds 13 and fourpence. I’ve still got that bike, you know.”

On the day he retired, his mum, who was 95 at the time, was invited to his farewell barbecue. It was her first visit to her son’s workplace of 50 years. “She didn’t know the building existed, and marvelled at the size of the machines that cost me some of my fingers,” he says……..

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When Lou was growing up, the Wangaratta Junior League comprised just four clubs. They’d introduced a zoning system and, as he was living near the middle of town, Centrals became his club, in 1946.

They were starved of success in his first couple of years. Yet, completely against the odds, they took out the ‘47 flag. I’ll let Lou explain it.

“We didn’t win any of the home-and-away games, and were stone motherless last. Then we happened to take out the First-Semi, Prelim and, amazingly, the Grand Final…… You’ll have to take my word for this, as I’m pretty sure I’m the only one still alive from that side.”

The next step in his football journey was to try his luck with Wangaratta. It was 1949, and the seeds of the Magpies’ greatest era had already been sown. The great Mac Holten had arrived to take over as coach, and duly implement a play-on style of game which was to prove fabulously successful.

Along with many other Junior League graduates, Lou became a member of the Reserves team, which played in the Benalla-Tungamah League.

“I remember buying my first pair of boots at Jack Ferguson’s Shoe Store, and getting old Maurie Adair to hammer some stops in them. Nine times out of ten the stops would be gone by half-time,” he says.

“We’d travel out by bus to places like Devenish, Tungamah, Dookie and Wilby. It was a side of kids, really, but a pretty good standard. We reckoned some of those blokes trained by kicking bags of wheat around. For instance, you had the Lane brothers from St.James who were built like Sherman Tanks-. It was tough footy….and great experience for us.”

The trips back to Wang were rollicking affairs, and Lou admits he’d often be coaxed into providing a rendition of his favourite song: ‘China Doll’.

“When we got home we’d wind down by having a few beers,  then go to the local dance at the Town Hall….a few of the older ones would go square-dancing.”

Mid-way through 1951 he was blooded for four senior games with the ‘Pies. The following season he cemented a permanent spot .

Wang were chasing their fourth flag on the trot, but Rutherglen, coached by ex-Essendon rover Greg Tate, had set the pace for most of the year.

They pipped the Pies by 7 points in the Second-Semi. The decider a fortnight later was a topsy -turvy encounter, with the lead changing several times.

Wang wrestled their way to a seven-point lead at lemon-time, but finished on strongly, to run out winners by 20 points.IMG_4193

Lou had entrenched himself in defence, and performed capably on a back flank in the Grand Final. It was, he admits, hard to get his head around being part of this team of champions.

He was now a key member of the Wangaratta side. When the O & M met East Perth at Albury two years later, there he was in a back pocket.

The following season he represented the Black and Gold in the first-ever Country Championship Carnival, joining such stars of the game as Jack Jones, Timmy Robb and Lance Mann. The side contained eight players who were on the verge of graduating to VFL ranks.

O & M proved too strong for Ballarat in the Final, with the Age reporting that: ‘… Sandral (back flank) and Cesa (back pocket) were crucial factors in the victory, and were responsible for repelling many Ballarat attacks….’IMG_4191

Wangaratta reached another Grand Final later that year, meeting North Albury in a memorable encounter .

Lou’s main focus was on the enviable task of keeping Hopper coach Tim Robb in check . “He and North’s full forward Lester Yensch were the danger-men,” he recalls.

Yensch booted a near-impossible goal mid-way through the final term, then Wang’s Lance Oswald marked superbly, and replied, to narrow the margin to four points. Suddenly, a fiendish gale blew up, with a storm erupting over the ground.

North’s Arthur Pickett, almost from the centre of the Rovers ground, booted a goal with the aid of the hefty breeze. In heavy rain, the Hoppers were content to play out time and hold their 10-point advantage to the siren.

Lou featured in his second O & M flag in 1957 – a classic contest against old rivals Albury – which looked to have slipped from their grasp in the dying stages.

The Tigers held a comfortable lead at three quarter-time, but Wang slowly bridged the gap. With just one minute remaining, Lance Oswald snapped accurately from the angle, to see his side take out a sensational game by two points.

“That was Lou’s best-ever game for Wangaratta, I reckon,” says his old team-mate Bill Comensoli. “ He was named on a wing, opposed to Reggie Gard, who was one of Albury’s important players. He held sway all day.”

“I remember the siren blowing and all the emotion that overflowed,” Lou recalls. “Albury’s Jim Robison was that disappointed that he turned and whacked Rex Allen, who was standing beside him. Poor old Rex happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time.”IMG_4218

The 1958 season proved to be Lou’s last as a player. His legs had been playing up, and he’d been operated on to drain blood from them. Doctor Phillips, and the surgeon, Hal Stanistreet, both recommended that he give it away before he finished up a cripple.

He’d married that year…….“Yes, he also had a nagging wife telling him to give it up,” jokes Roma…….

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Lou coached Junior League club Combined Churches for a few years in the sixties, and took them to the 1967 premiership. Three of the side – Geoff Welch, ‘Manny’ Booth and Russell Stone were to play in O & M flags in the seventies. A few others had handy careers.IMG_4195

When his own two boys, Ian and Colin, became of age they stripped for Centrals. Roma says that when it was her turn to wash the Club’s Brown and Gold guernseys, she had to drape them on the fence.

One of the neighbors – a keen Rovers man – asked why she didn’t hang them on the clothes-line:

“Lou won’t let me !,” she replied.

Ian and Col both followed in their old man’s footsteps and went on to play senior footy with the Pies.

The Cesa’s also had three girls – Cheryl, Karen and Joanne. Sadly, Cheryl suffered an inoperable brain aneurism and passed away, aged 33, after being on Life-Support at the Alfred Hospital for some time.

“It was a sad time. You never forget it,” Roma recalls. “We cared for three of her kids for about three years, before their dad took them back. It hurt us when they left…..We wish we’d kept them.”

Lou and Roma headed over to Italy a few years ago, and made acquaintance with many of the Cesa clan in Lentia. They were treated like,. well, long-lost relations, and had a whale of a time.

Just the same, it was great to get back home. After all, Lou was missing his footy…………….IMG_4194

A LIFETIME AT THE BAR……….

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…………”

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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…..”

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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.

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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)