For my first story at the Southern Highland News, I was sent out to a small town to interview one of the last survivors of Tobruk, and it has been one of the most memorable stories I have written to date.
I had the privilege of speaking to Ernie Walker OAM on multiple occasions, and felt humbled every time I looked back over my notes to do justice to his life, experiences, and attitude.
This sentiment still rings true after hearing of his passing this month, at 106, with his wife Bev by his side.
When I spoke with him, I got to meet other members of his family, and Bev, where I heard of the fond memories they made at their Penrose home in NSW's Southern Highlands.
I got to put my fingers to the keyboard for his 105th and final birthday, telling his story to readers in the Highlands, and nationally.
When he led the Anzac Day march in Moss Vale this year, with his daughter Joy and granddaughter Kylie, when he saw me, beaming, and said "g'day". When he got to meet a horse named Tobruk in his honour, I got to be there.
Ernie enlisted in the Australian Army in 1940 and was under siege in Tobruk for 241 days. Three days after he returned to Australia, he was sent to Kokoda and also fought in New Guinea.
My first encounter with Ernie is still clear.
When I finally navigated across many bumpy and dirt roads to his home on my first day in 2021, unfamiliar with the region's towns and villages, lost several times, but I was warmly welcomed to his home.
As I sat on a couch and spoke to the veteran and Bev, I was struck by Ernie's candour, humour, and wit.
At the time, I was there for his 105th birthday and he said that he was celebrating "life itself" and that "everyday is a bonus".
His desire to live in the moment and find happiness was a valuable lesson and reminder, I think not only for me, but for everyone.
Throughout the interview, the couple sat near each other lovingly, and bounced off each other when I asked them questions.
One moment during this interview particularly sticks out for me - when I asked him what he loved most about his life? He admitted it was difficult to pinpoint one thing, and pondered.
Bev jumped in and quipped "me", to which Ernie saved it by saying his beloved wife was "very high-ranking".
Bev and Ernie got married in 2001 and were best friends for more than 45 years.
Ernie always spoke about her fondly, especially when I ventured back to his home for his following birthday, when she was in hospital. Her coming home was his priority, and when he reminisced about their many adventures, he wanted me to walk over to a photo of them together.
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It was taken at a country show, and candidly without their knowledge. In the photo, they smile lovingly at one another, Ernie with an arm around his wife.
"We didn't have anything to distract us, it was just Bev and I, and the rest of the world just didn't exist," he beamed at the time.
"I don't think you can pose for photographs like that, that's the true life.
"I'm very fortunate to experience a moment like that."
In the photo was a glass of whiskey, and when asked if he would have one to celebrate 106 years, he said "several". Although I am not a fan, I raise a glass and toast Ernie for his service to Australia, passion in the local community and love of life.
I feel honoured to have known Ernie if only for a short while. That first interview will stay with me a lifetime.
Ernie's funeral will take place on December 1 at the Anglican church in Bundanoon, followed by a wake at Moss Vale Services club, where he was named a patron.