Shortly after leaving Leeton High School in 1953 to make my way in the world, a group of guys from the Yanco and Leeton Experiment Farms formed the Leeton Rugby Club, later to become the Yanco Rugby Club. It was envisaged the newly formed club, at that time without a coach or financial backing, would compete in the Riverina Rugby competition. This comp reached from Tumut in the east to Leeton and Griffith in the west and included towns such as Wagga Wagga, Cootamundra and Temora.
Having been thrashed in our early matches we soon learnt that the Riverina comp was of quite a high standard and included two then-members of the Wallabies, full-back Jim Lenehan and center Beres Ellwood. We quickly got to know our new playing group and for the first time I met Harry Penrith. Harry was an Aborigine, originally from Wallaga Lake and after his mother’s death, the Kinchela Aboriginal Boys Training Home. He went from there to Kempsey High School, where he successfully completed the leaving certificate. After training with the NSW Department of Agriculture, he was appointed as registrar of the Leeton Experiment farm.
Harry (right) joined our new rugby team and played at number 10-fly-half while I was number 9-scrum half. Harry soon showed us his great sporting talent, underpinned by lighting speed. In 1957 He was selected to play for Riverina in a match against the All Blacks and excelled, but never went any further up the Rugby ladder. Shortly after that I gave away rugby to concentrate on developing my farm at Coleambally. Because of that I lost all contact with Harry and did not hear of him until a chance meeting many years later.
By the 1970s Australians who had any media awareness knew of a white-bearded Aboriginal sage going by the name of Burnum Burnum. He was adept at getting widespread media attention and support for his articulate and rational arguments on behalf of his people. His most provocative stunt came on Australia Day, 1988, when, with flowing white beard and holding a large Aboriginal flag, he planted his standard in English soil beneath Dover’s white cliffs as the TV cameras recorded his exercise in agitprop theatre as he proclaimed the Aboriginal takeover of England and offered the British a koompartoo – “a fresh start.’ He had journeyed to Britain, he said, ‘to bring you good manners [and] refinement,’ adding that ‘we don’t intend to souvenir, pickle and preserve the heads of 2000 of your people, nor to publicly display the skeletal remains of your Royal Highness, as was done to our Queen Truganinni for 80 years.” The stunt was beamed around the world.
Burnum Burnum became a frequent speaker at schools and colleges and performed as a spellbinding speaker and storyteller to large and small audiences. He played with flair a number of roles in Australian feature films. In Arch Nicholson’s Dark Age (1987), a horror thriller dealing with a massive saltwater crocodile, in which he played Oondabund, the father of David Gulpilil’s character. He also appeared as Yami Lester in Ground Zero (1987), a thriller set at Maralinga that was highly critical of the Australian and British governments’ nuclear testing policies and the treatment of local Aboriginal people. The same year he flamboyantly played a werewolf-type character in Philippe Mora’s satirical Marsupials: The Howling III. In 1992 he was Uncle Albert in the television series Bony, based on Arthur Upfield’s outback crime novels.
Having briefly belonged to the Australian Labor Party during the mid-1980s, in 1996 Burnum Burnum joined the Liberal Party of Australia. After unsuccessfully seeking preselection as a candidate, he resigned, disturbed by the party’s policies on indigenous affairs. Burnum Burnum was one of the most highly talented activists of his time. He died of coronary heart disease on August 18, 1997, at home at Woronora, Sydney, and was cremated.
While I was aware of most of the activities of Burnum Burnum it was not until a chance meeting in I believe 1995 that I was to connect Burnum Burnum with Harry Penrith. I had been to a meeting in Castlereagh Street, Sydney, and when the meeting was over the convenor invited me to meet someone. Sitting there in a big leather chair was Burnum Burnum, whom I immediately recognised from his media profile. We sat and began talking about his work and what he still wanted to achieve.
Suddenly he stopped, stared at me and said, “Did you ever play rugby at Leeton?” I replied in the affirmative and he went on to ask, “Do you remember Harry Penrith? Well that was me.” It seemed so incongruous that the now old man with the flowing beard was the fleet-footed teammate of old
Now with a bond between us, we earnestly discussed many topics regarding Aboriginal issues and their impact on the wider community. He never blamed this generation of Aussies for the problems of Aboriginal people. He was deeply aware that the way forward for his people was for them to have the education and opportunities from which he had himself benefited.
All these years later as I recall that lengthy conversation, I believe that somehow Harry Penrith, Burnum Burnum and Ron Pike were as one. We mutually loved our land. We jointly knew that to love our land demanded we love all of its people. We implicitly knew that unwavering respect for one another was the only road to unity. We were united in believing that moral decency was the greatest force for good ever devised by man. I now know that at least one of us has had an impact on making Australia a better place. It is for others to judge if we all did.
Now in my twilight years, there is one thing I do know. While Harry Penrith played at number 10 on the rugby field, in the game of life, regardless of his moniker, he played at number One.