Fighters, leaders and workers: Victoria honours inspiring south-west trio

IN the words of the Premier, they were outstanding individuals.

Ted Baillieu was talking about Framlingham’s Banjo Clarke, army officer Reg Saunders and Lake Condah’s Iris Lovett-Gardiner who are the latest inductees onto Victoria’s Indigenous Honour Roll. 

Mr Baillieu paid tribute to the trio and 12 other exceptional Victorians who have played a significant role in the community.

Revered elder Henry ‘Banjo’ Clarke (1922-2000) was renowned for his compassion and wise words. 

He promoted respect and forgiveness between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people long before the term “reconciliation” entered common use.

Mr Clarke was born on the Framlingham Mission, the second youngest of nine children. The moniker ‘Banjo’ was bestowed by an uncle who considered the young Henry’s habit of making up rhymes reminiscent of bush poet Banjo Paterson.

Mr Clarke took up boxing when he was 15 and was recruited by the famous tent troupes of Harry Johns and Jimmy Sharman. 

He toured agricultural shows around the state, won a Victorian title and boxed for more than 25 years.

In 1945 he married Audrey Couzens, with whom he had nine children. He starred in a 1984 film, The Fighting Gunditjmara, which promoted the fight for land rights at Framlingham.

In his role as caretaker of Framlingham Forest, Banjo welcomed visitors from across Australia and the world to his home.

Reg Saunders, MBE, (1920-1990) was the first Aboriginal person to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian army. 

He was also born at Framlingham into a family with a proud history of military service, his father being a veteran of World War I. 

Reg Saunders enlisted in 1940 and after showing leadership potential during training in northern Queensland was promoted to lance corporal and then temporary sergeant.

He campaigned in Libya and then Greece. Forced into retreat at Greece, his unit, the 2/7th Battalion, was put ashore on the island of Crete after its ship was destroyed. 

When Crete was invaded in May 1941, he took part in the bloody bayonet charge known as the Battle of 42nd Street. 

Later, as thousands of Allied troops were evacuated, the rear guard — made up of the remaining soldiers of the 2/7th, including Mr Saunders — did not make it to the evacuation point.

Many surrendered to the Germans and were made prisoners of war. However, a number of Australian and New Zealand soldiers evaded capture, among them Reg Saunders, who was hidden by a local family for almost 12 months. 

He finally escaped on a British submarine and returned to Australia in 1942. 

He later completed officer training and was promoted to lieutenant in 1944 before leading units in New Guinea. 

Post-war Australia was not as welcoming as it had been when he was in uniform and in 1950 he rejoined the army as a lieutenant to fight in the Korean War. He was quickly promoted to captain and became officer in charge of C Company of the 3rd Battalion, taking part in the famous Battle of Kapyong. 

His battalion was awarded a US Presidential Unit Citation but Captain Saunders declined a personal decoration.

Twice married, he was a father to 10 children, with a son joining the army and four of his daughters marrying soldiers. 

Each year, the RSL awards the Captain Reg Saunders Scholarship to an indigenous student and his medals are displayed at the Australian War Memorial. 

Aunty Iris Lovett-Gardiner, AM, (1926-2004) led an inspiring life, from young mission girl to university graduate at 70 years of age, with her proudest achievement delivering improved support services to Aboriginal elders.

She was born at the Lake Condah mission as one of six children.

Diminutive in stature but with an outgoing personality, she is fondly remembered as being heard long before she was seen.

After working on the show circuit and marrying twice, Aunty Iris was involved with the establishment of the Koorie Kollij in 1983. 

Located in Collingwood and run by the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, it was designed to train Aboriginal health workers and offered a range of Aboriginal-focused courses.

In 1987 she founded Aboriginal Community Elders Services (ACES) and in 1991 the Iris Lovett-Gardiner Aboriginal Elders Caring Place opened. Today, ACES operates the 25-bed nursing home and hostel and provides a range of services.

A documentary of Aunty Iris’ life was made in 1997. In 2001, she was inducted to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women and made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2003. 

Her work has been acknowledged by several humanitarian organisations, including Amnesty International. 

Aunty Iris lived out her last years in her mother’s home town of Hamilton. She passed away in 2004 and is buried there beside her husband.

Mr Baillieu said the Indigenous Honour Roll was an Australian first.

“It’s an important recognition of indigenous Victorians instigating change and making lasting contributions that benefit the community at a state, national and international level,” he said.

Inaugural inductees included champion boxer Lionel Rose and leader in reconciliation and former State Governor Sir Douglas Nicholls.

athomson@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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