‘THE HELPER….’

Daniel Andrews’ ears would be burning if Jack Prendergast was still around.

There was one thing that old Jack loved more than the Labour Party, and that was the Wangaratta Fire Brigade, which he joined at the age of 16 and served for more than 50 years.

He earned a chest full of medals in that time, including the Queen’s Medal for Good Conduct, and Honorary Life Membership of the CFA.

They used to joke that, if you wanted to find Jack, you just had to light a fire.

I can just imagine him putting in his two-bob’s worth – and a fair bit more – on the subject of the CFA, and arguing that the “bastards should realise it’s the heart and soul of the community………..”

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They just don’t make blokes like Jack anymore.

He was the archetypical ‘Helper’ ; the sort of person who knuckled down and did all the jobs that others would shy away from.

A truly selfless person, he loved people ……. And loved talking.

He once said that the only time he was stuck for words came in his younger days, when he was a member of a debating society. Nerves got to him as soon as he got up on stage…….He opened his mouth and nothing came out.

Bill Findlay, who was his mentor – and an eloquent wordsmith himself – told him not to worry, as it happened to the best of speakers. Jack never looked back, and his wife Pat claims that he didn’t draw breath for the rest of his life.

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A year or so before he met Pat, Jack swore off the grog. He gave it a real hammering, he used to tell us, and some of the escapades he described would make your hair curl.

But once he made the decision to go on the ‘wagon’ that was that – he didn’t touch another drop.

His romance with Pat blossomed literally among the looms, at the Woollen Mills, where they were both working. He acted as a shop steward at the Mill for 29 years, liaising between management and staff. When he finally retired in 1990, he was feted by his work-mates, who had all become firm friends.

One of them joked, not long after his departure, that “Jack did plenty of talking, but we’re still trying to work out what job he actually did here.”

He was mad on sport, whether it was golf, bowls, football or racing. But, frankly, he was short on ability.

He belted a golf ball around when the course was situated on the Barr Reserve, but eventually gave it away because he “couldn’t keep the balls out of the houses in Park Lane.”

So he decided to concentrate his efforts on bowls, which he played, with much enthusiasm, for 40-odd years, becoming a member of Wangaratta’s pennant side and finishing runner-up to Tom Southern in the club’s singles championship one year.

Jack once worked with a celebrated old local jockey called Donny Winzer, and formed a firm friendship which ignited his love of horse-racing.

You would sit with him for a while and talk horses and his mind tracked back over the years, as he described the great nags, their performances, and all the characters of the racing game.

The same with football. He couldn’t kick over a jam tin, but get him going on the champs of bygone eras and you couldn’t stop him.

He had his favourites – old-timers like Tommy Bush, Lionel Wallace and Laurie Nash. And, being a Collingwood man from way-back, he naturally adopted Bob Rose when he arrived up here to coach the Rovers.

It was around that period that Jack started following the Hawks.

Eventually, he became part of the furniture. And by the time the Rovers were winning flags in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s he was on the club’s Board.

But that wasn’t really Jack’s ‘go’. He preferred to be sweeping out the rooms, cleaning up rubbish around the ground, carting soft drinks, working on the gate, calling the Bingo, doing sundry odd-jobs – and selling raffle tickets.

His catch-cry was : “Three for two bucks,” as he moved through the crowd at a home game. He asked everybody, and didn’t get too many knock-backs.

Someone wondered if people might get sick of him asking them to buy raffle tickets. “They can say what they like to me,” he replied. “As long as they part with their money.”

When the Rovers played away games, his modus operandi would be to place a few modest bets and be there in time for the start of the Thirds match. Wandering around, with radio in hand and a form guide in his back pocket, he’d stop for a yarn with anyone who was prepared to lend an ear.

Jack was a regular attendee at 7.30 Mass at Our Lady’s on a Saturday night. As he wandered up the aisle he would lean over and loudly whisper the footy results and proffer a brief summary of the game to those who were Rovers sympathisers.

That was another one of his jobs – vacuuming the Church……. also, helping out at St.Vinnie’s.. .or doing a job at the Sheltered Workshop…….maybe sorting out a problem for the A.N.A, where he was president for 25 years.

A lot of people took Jack for granted. But he was as reliable as an old Grandfather clock and, in the case of the Rovers, vital to the culture of the club.

He was busy, as usual, one Monday night in 1991, when a phone call came through from the city’s Mayor, the late Kevin Gleeson.

“He’s half-way through calling a game of Bingo at the moment,” I explained. “Is it important.”

“It is, really,” Kevin explained. “I’d just like to let him know that he has been named Wangaratta’s Citizen of the Year.”

Jack reacted predictably when he took the call. He had a croak in his voice, flapped his arms and was completely gobsmacked.

It was, indeed, he admitted, his proudest moment.

Jack thrived on his ’15 minutes of Fame’, then, after it was all over, returned to his familiar role – that of being a ‘helper’.

It’s a tribute to one family’s contribution to the Rovers that Jack, his wife Pat and son Pete, have all had Life Memberships bestowed upon them for their countless years of service.

Jack passed away in 2002, aged 77, and was saluted with many words of praise from the organisations with whom he was connected.

Then, in statesman-like fashion this proud old ‘firey’ was driven away to his final resting place on the back of the Brigade’s antique Dodge fire engine…….