‘WANGARATTA JACK…………’

I grew up in the fifties and sixties, in a world uncomplicated by mobile phones and computers.

Personalities abounded……. The driver of the Night-Cart……or  ‘Bubby’ Bell, the Bread-Deliverer, noisily negotiating our pathway, at four, or five o’clock in the morning…… the milkie, whose voice would pierce the stillness of the wee hours:

“Whoa, you bastard,” was the throaty command to his horse, which had continued to clip-clop down the street. The old Clydesdale – and the cart – laden with clinking bottles – would stop abruptly.

If you sauntered down Murphy Street, you could run into a zany electrical retailer named Derek Bruce….the whistling grocer, ‘Coco’ Boyd…..the ‘Laughing Barber’, Jack O’Keefe….and his neighbor, Myra Tipping, who made the best Vanilla Slices in town.

Most of our after-school hours were spent outside, belting a cricket ball or kicking a footy with the neighbourhood kids. When dusk descended we continued on under the street lights.

Friday was ‘Fight Night.’ We’d tune in to 3DB to listen to Ron Casey and Merv Williams describing the 12-Rounder from Festival Hall.

The golden tonsils of the doyen, Casey, still ring in my ears; his voice rising to a crescendo in the exciting final rounds. And Dad, craned over the wireless; lips moving in synch; willed home Georgie Bracken, Max Carlos or Aldo Pravisani.

On Saturdays we’d be off to the cricket. Whilst Dad was engaged in ’warfare’ out in the middle, we played pick-up matches on the outskirts. In winter, of course, we were in the thick of the action, our emotions fluctuating, depending on the fortunes of the Rovers.

It was the era of the infamous ‘six o’clock swill’, when patrons hurriedly guzzled their last couple of seven-ouncers and spilled out of Pubs soon after ‘last drinks’ were called.

The TAB still hadn’t arrived, but I was intrigued by one of its illegal precursors – S.P bookmaking. An uncle – a sporting hero of mine – dabbled as an SP to supplement his occupation as a Stock-Agent. He had to tread a fine line to remain one step in front of the ‘boys in blue’. This only added to his charisma, in my book………..
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A couple of mythical locals featured prominently when we gathered in the schoolyard to swap stories of a Monday morning..

Jack ‘Wagga’ Grundy always rated a mention. Usually clad in an army greatcoat, the dishevelled swaggie could be spotted wheeling his trusty old ‘steed’ around town, laden with items that he’d scavenged.

Where did he live ?…..How did he survive ?……..We added a liberal dose of ‘mayonnaise’ to most stories .

As we did to those involving the unique, enigmatic, colourful, Jack Dick………….
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The town was familiar with his full ‘handle’ – Henry Archibald John – but the name ‘Jack’ seemed to fit better.

He had spent most of his life helping to farm the property on the Ovens flats, where
his parents settled in 1906.

Rather than riding his bike around the side streets to get to footy training at the Showgrounds, Jack often used to throw his gear into a Gladstone bag and take a short-cut – swimming across the Ovens.

He was a handy player, good enough to slot into Fred Carey’s 1936 Premiership side – a line-up which included renowned Magpie stars Charlie Heavey, Jack Ferguson, Ernie Ward and Arthur Mills.

Jack Dick, back row, centre
And in the summer, under the guidance of Marty Bean and Stawell Gift champion Lynch Cooper, he competed with some success in local Athletics Carnivals.

But it was as a swimmer that Jack was to achieve his greatest sporting success. Blessed with a rythmic, effortless style, honed from hours of frolicking in the Ovens River, he numbered several local and O & M championships among his list of achievements.

He was also an outstanding diver and dominated the 10-metre tower events at the Merriwa Park pool.

Well after his sporting career had scaled down, the legend of Jack Dick was perpetuated.

Because he was reared on the banks of the Ovens, and lived most of his life there, he had an intimacy with the bush which made him as close to an expert on flaura and fauna as anyone in the area. Ferreting, fishing and duck-shooting were his pastimes.

They provided much of the fodder for the yarns which are attributed to him. Because he was such a reputed man-of-the-land, they were half-believable.

Like the day someone asked him how he’d fared rabbiting. “Not too bad,” he replied. “But I had to take two or three rabbits out of each burrow to get the ferrets in.”

Or the time he caught a huge cod behind the Sydney Hotel. “It was that big I had to ride it to the junction to turn it around and bring it home.”

And one duck-opening, when he got his gun tangled in the barb-wire fence. “It went off, and down fell 12 ducks.”

He would wander through the long grass on the Dick property, mostly clad in a pair of shorts – no shoes – and scarcely gave a thought to the presence of snakes.

Everyone was aware of his familiarity with ‘Joe Blakes’. The flats were often flooded and Jack was once asked how high the water had come up. He replied that he wasn’t exactly certain, but he’d seen a six-foot tiger snake and the water was up to its neck.

The quickest way to clear a bar in Wangaratta was to see him walk in with a hessian bag, which looked suspiciously like the latest ‘catch’ that he’d brought in to show off to the patrons.

He was fond of the amber liquid and you knew that he was in town when his bike, with its familiar box attached behind the saddle, was ‘parked’ at the front of any of the local pubs.

The bike sometimes cropped up in his conversations. He was riding from Glenrowan one day, he said, when a storm blew in from the south-west. All the way home his front wheel made a dust-trail whilst his back wheel threw up mud. He only just beat the storm home.

And there was the oft-quoted one about him driving a horse float on the Hume Highway, when the police apprehended him for speeding. His excuse was that he was taking two Hoysted horses to Albury and had to be there for the first race. The police checked the float and found it empty.

“Well, trust that bloody Hoysted to give me the scratchings,” he replied.

Usually clad in shorts, a singlet and thongs, he enjoyed yarning with anyone, about any subject, as he wandered along Murphy Street. Most youngsters, instantly warming to this larger-than-life character, would engage him in repartee.

But Jack was also a man of intelligence, sought-after for his opinion on livestock, and well-versed in local by-laws and politics.

He was unable to avoid the five pound fine he once incurred for singing too loudly in the street, but escaped a penalty on another occasion by quoting an ancient piece of legislation. He said he’d ridden his horse to the court-house to settle a fine, but to his dismay, discovered there was no tethering-rail. He couldn’t leave the horse unattended, he explained.

Borough Council elections in the early fifties, were animated affairs. I came across a Chronicle report of one such Candidates’ meeting in 1955, described as the ‘……noisiest, most boisterous meeting in Wangaratta’s history, and attracting an audience of more than 650 people to St.Patrick’s Hall.’

Jack, superbly-shod in a suit, bow-tie and hat, added to the theatre of the occasion.

The report noted that ‘……..Laughter rocked the Hall, as Jack Dick, Wangaratta’s top-notch interjector, arrived late for the meeting, bearing placards fore and aft.’

‘The front sign said: WHERE ARE THE BIG FOUR ? The one at the rear was: REDUCE OUR RATES OR RESIGN.’

‘Jack was unable to take his customary seat in the front row, but room was made for him in the second row, near the Press table. He then revealed another sign: DOWN WITH LOCAL DICTATORSHIP. He was on his feet immediately in Question-Time………’
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In his day he was better-known in Wangaratta than any of the politicians, councillors, or even champion footballers, who dominated the headlines.

Jack Dick – sportsman, scalliwag, environmentalist, story-teller, prankster and heckler, was rarely seen in public in later years, and died, aged 82, in 1997…….

THE BOY WHO LOVED RUNNING

Lynch Cooper was a trainer with the Wangaratta Magpies when I first came across him in the late sixties.

To outsiders he was a mere member of the entourage that surrounds any footy club. An ageing, humble and dignified man with, they proclaimed, magic in his hands. The tales of his sporting  prowess in the days of yore had become the stuff of legend to those in the know.

This is the Lynch Cooper story…………..

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He was born at Moira Lakes, near Tocumwal, in 1905, the son of a prominent Yorta Yorta man and aboriginal activist, William Cooper. Actually, his dad had been named William Wilberforce, but changed his name to Cooper somewhere along the line.

In the ’20’s William, a man of strong principles, formed the Victorian Aboriginal Society, which was the forerunner of the Aboriginal Advancement League. The teen-aged Lynch acted as his secretary , and tried his hand at many other other things, including fishing.

His itinerant parents had moved to Mulwala, where they ran a Fish and Chip shop and Lynch played his part by fishing the Murray River for cod, which would be sold over the counter.

But he had a passion for running. “As a young boy I always wanted to race someone, no matter how big they were. I was a little crank. While other boys preferred to fight , I wanted to race,” he once reflected.

“I won all my events at school and can remember my father telling me after watching me run that I would one day win the great Stawell Gift .”

Despite Lynch’s eagerness to test himself, William Cooper wouldn’t let his son concentrate on running until he turned 21.

So his entry to pro.running came in 1926, and on his debut at the Deniliquin Carnival he took out every sprint race on the program. Excited that they had a champion on their hands, his joint-trainers set him for Stawell and wagered on him accordingly. They were devastated when Lynch lost his heat by inches to the eventual Gift runner-up.

He made 13 finals the following year and was placed in each. This included the Wangaratta Gift, in which he finished a close second to a Queensland policeman, George Bouer.

“I was really disappointed not to have won Wang. It was about the only major Gift in Victoria that I didn’t take out”, he said.

And again Stawell eluded him, even though he was now ranked among the most consistent and successful pro runners in the land.

He set himself to conquer the famous Easter Gift in 1928, gave up his occupation and sold his boat. He had decided that if he wasn’t successful this time he’d hang up his spikes.

Cooper had been in red-hot form that summer and tallied up a list of major Gift wins and placings throughout the country.

He decided to back himself with all the money he could muster. Starting off 8 yards in the final, he ran 4 yards inside evens to pip ‘Peggy’ O’Neill on the line.

He collected 250 pounds and a sash for the win and cleaned out the bookies to the tune of 3000 pounds. “The money didn’t matter at the time. On that day I felt like I owned the world. It will always live long in my memory”, he said years later.

But the money from the bookmakers and the prize-money had certainly changed his financial situation.

He had moved to Wangaratta in the late twenties and was in demand from near and far, as he was a charismatic figure in the athletic community.

Lynch’s successful 1928 saw him win 10 other Gifts and finals besides Stawell and he was selected to contest the world professional sprint championship in Melbourne the following year.

It was a classy field which included Tommy Miles, Tim Banner, Austin Robertson, L.C.Parker and Frank Spurrall, all stars in their own right.

The championship was held over four distances, from 75 yards to 220 yards. When it came to the final race, the experts were predicting that the brilliant Robertson would win the title.

But Cooper held off a strong challenge from the South Melbourne footballer to take the crown and become the first Aboriginal to win a world sporting title.

He only received 150 pounds for the win, but it earned him a trip to New Zealand, to represent Australia in a rich international series of races in 1930. Amidst the publicity surrounding the event, he was asked the secret of his success:

“My diet is mainly plain, hard food. I steer clear of the sloppy stuff. My usual training practice is to train twice a day, running three or four distances, finishing with a flat-out sprint over the last 30 yards. In addition, I believe in plenty of sun-baking in the morning.”

Lynch Cooper admitted that he never made a fortune as a pro. runner, but was successful enough for it to sustain him during the tough times of the 1930’s.

Running mostly as a back-marker for the remainder of his career curtailed some of his success, but he kept consistently making finals and winning major events. Appearance money and the occasional collect from the bookies kept food on the table.

Wangaratta coach Fred Carey made use of the pace and ball skills of the 5’9″ Cooper by playing him on a wing. He was a member of the Magpies’ 1933 O & M premiership team and gave Wang good service, after previously playing with Wimmera League sides Jeparit and Stawell.

Towards the end of the war, after a long break, Lynch made a comeback to running, but, 21 years after his first race he called it a day. He concentrated instead, on looking after a small stable of athletes and was always sought after for his manipulative skills as a football trainer.

He was rewarded for his contribution to athletics by being named as an original inductee to the Aboriginal Sporting Hall of Fame.

At the time of his death, in 1971, he remained vitally involved in representing his people in the Murray-Goulburn area and was a member of the Aboriginal Affairs Council.

The strength of the Cooper sporting genes was emphasised a fortnight ago, when brilliant Murray Bushranger Nathan Drummond was drafted by Richmond and Joel Hamling found his way onto the Western Bulldogs list, chosen at pick 19.

Both are great-nephews of the legendary Lynch.

And, as three of his great-grand kids, Madison, Joel and Kyle Smith now make their way through the junior ranks of Wangaratta sport it is not too hard to imagine that the name of Lynch Cooper will be further perpetuated in years to come.
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