For half a century Jack Daffy has been helping people in need.
Whether that be providing food, clothes, furniture, paying bills or booking in holiday accommodation for those needing a break, his 50 years of service with the St Vincent de Paul Society is being recognised in Melbourne this weekend.
But it was a life-changing event at age 16 that the now 83-year-old says shaped the way he has lived his life – a lifetime that has included three terms as a Warrnambool councillor, mayor, probation officer, bail justice, bookmaker and a career at Guyett’s Funerals. In 1949, Jack’s father Patrick was killed in a car crash on Battarbee’s corner (near the Turn-In Motel in Warrnambool, when the old highway used to run along Verdon Street).
“To make matters worse, and I suppose that probably hardened me a little for what was to come in later years that I wasn’t aware of then, I did come across that scene and the bodies were still there,” he said. “The ambulance had just arrived as I arrived. I got shoved out of the road pretty quickly. It’s something you don’t ever really forget.”
Jack had ridden his bike from his parents’ dairy farm in Wangoom to the movies when he came across the accident between a car and a truck carrying empty petrol drums that claimed the lives of five people.
“The survivor was heading down towards the river and, as I knew them all, I went after him. He was looking for his hat of all things. He was totally confused.
“I know my mother and two brothers came in to Warrnambool after the accident. I don’t know where they went because I went home. We had to get up the next morning and milk the damned cows didn’t we.”
At midnight on the night of the accident there was knock at the door.
“There was a fellow there who was nice and drunk, and he had driven there I might add. He had a 10 pound note in his hand and he said ‘you need this’. I said ‘no we don’t’. He had a family and I knew they never had a lot. I said, ‘you’ll need that more than we do’,” Jack said.
The man was insistent. “He threw it on the ground and walked off and that was that. That’s always stuck in my mind that when you needed something, there was someone there to help you. It’s still applicable. I think I’ve always been one that if you’ve got a hurdle you just get on and front the next one.”
Jack ended up working at Guyett’s funeral homes years later “quite by accident” and said the death of his father also helped him in his role there.
“I’d seen bodies but I’d never really touched one. In those days when someone died, kids were banished. Now kids participate, which I think is very good for them education-wise,” he said.
Those killed in the crash were Jack’s dad, Tommy Pickett, Michael Wall, Ted Kermond and his son Francis.
“Hence that’s our association with Kermonds hamburgers. They’ve been there since 1949. All nine of our kids have worked there and I have a daughter still working there and two grandkids work there part-time,” Jack said.
Times were tough growing up on the farm.
“The places weren’t big and no one ever had any money,” Jack said. “I’d been offered a couple of jobs by people and, rightly or wrongly, I thought that they were sympathy jobs. So I went my own way and went out to Nullawarre to one of the Kermond’s for a fortnight only...and wound up staying there for five years.”
He joined Albert Kermond – a bookmaker – on a trip to Ballarat races on a freezing cold and snowing day. “I learnt things in a hurry. I had a clerk’s licence when I was 17 to work at races and I retained that right up til 1993-94 when bookmakers started to disappear and computers started to arrive,” he said.
Jack was earning as much in a day at the races as he made in a week on the farm – three pound 10 (about $7).
Jack’s grandfather was a bookmaker in the 1920s, and Jack’s eldest son Gerard also became a bookmaker and was one of two who created Australia’s first off-course bookmaking service.
Jack met his wife, Margaret, in 1954 and after they were married, they moved into one of Warrnambool’s original houses at 94 Merri Street – a property that was embroiled in a long-running saga over heritage listing after the couple sold it in 2000. Margaret passed away last year.
After leaving the farm, Jack worked at the Woollen Mills in South Warrnambool before going to work for Guyett’s Funerals – but only on the condition he got Saturday afternoons off to go to the races.
“I was there for 43 years. I grew into it. That taught me a lot of things that I still do today. In those days, the funerals would be arranged at home around the kitchen table, and that’s where you do the St Vinnies thing – around the kitchen table,” he said.
Warrnambool has three St Vincent de Paul groups attached to the St Joseph’s, St Pius and Our Lady Help of Christians parishes.
While people initially phone St Vinnies looking for food, there are often more needs that could be met.
“I’ve been to places and seen kids sleeping on floors and mattresses. Well they need a bed. They need some chairs maybe. You see things they haven’t actually asked for that are readily available,” Jack said. “We do assist with gas and power bills.”
Jack still takes the bookings for the St Vincent de Paul holiday house in Warrnambool which allows people in need the chance of a free week-long getaway.
“Everything is confidential. We get no funding from the government.”
Funding is sourced Fairy Street op shop and donations. “Last year we spent in excess of $300,000 in Warrnambool. Accommodation has become another issue. I think even this week we’ve probably got four in motels around Warrnambool,” he said.
And as well as visiting people in their homes, Jack still attends St Vincent de Paul meetings every Tuesday. Jack said he only joined St Vinnies because a fellow probation officer suggested he should, and he’d been talked into becoming a probation officer by a church minister at a funeral one day. As a probation officer he would be called to the police station when someone under 16 was being interviewed by police and offenders would also report to his home.
In the mid-1970s, the local MP at the time Ian Smith encouraged him to give up the probation work and become a Justice of the Peace/bail justice. He said all the bail applications were after hours and “for some unknown reason the coppers always wanted to do it at 3am. I think over the time I probably had about 2000 bail applications.”
He recalled one incident where some youths were in court for smashing toilets at Albert Park. “When I went into court I was the mayor. So you have the policeman complaining that he was a ratepayer and they had broken a council toilet. You have the mayor representing the offenders and I look up and there’s the council parking officer and the shire secretary, who were sitting on the bench.”
Jack said he had decided to join council over “a petty argument over Flagstaff Hill with the engineer of the day”.
“It was just a cow paddock and there was some horses in there and they were continually out on the road and the fences were always falling down,” he said.
He said he didn’t get much of a hearing from the engineer, so he decided to start attending council meetings. When he learned of plans to build new council offices on Swan Reserve, he made a successful bid to run for council campaigning in opposition to the move. That was in 1968 and the new council offices were eventually built in the mid-70s in their current location.
Jack had three stints on council – 1968-84, 93-94 and 2004 to 2008. He was involved in the planning for the art gallery, development of Lake Pertobe and, during his first term as mayor, the city had its biggest ever rate rise of 13 to 14 per cent.
“Everybody was was up in arms at the time, and I don’t blame them,” he said.
“That fella who used to do the current affair program for the ABC came down here one day and he was carrying on about it that we were going to put all these poor old women out on the street because they couldn’t pay the rates. He turned up at work and I was cleaning the hearse and I told him to get out. So he waited out in the street with the cameras until I went outside.”
Jack’s interest in all things politics hasn’t faded. The self-confessed newspaper junkie said he still reads papers from all over Australia...the old-fashioned way. His truck driver friend will collect papers on his travels and bring them back for Jack to read.