Pilot Fish Trailblazer Nominee: The Man in Black

I am very pleased to announce that this week’s Pilot Fish Trailblazer post was written by the renowned Australian story-teller, cricketer, and author, Neil Marks—known to his friends as ‘Marksy.’  Marksy, who is a master raconteur, tells us a story about his heroes during his childhood in Sydney.  His choice may surprise you.

Let me take you back to Sydney town in 1946.

At the end of the war Sydney was populated predominately by people who were neither cultural nor urbane.  They were just humorous, easy going folk, comfortable in their beautiful environment, who adored leisure activities and sport.  At eight years of age I was no different and was absolutely besotted with sport.

Surfing in Sydney. From Pinterest.com.ttps://www.pinterest.com/pin/101542166574302123/

Surfing in Sydney. From Pinterest.com.ttps://www.pinterest.com/pin/101542166574302123/

There was only one problem for a juvenile sporting-tragic like me: on Sundays in Sydney there were no competitive sporting events to watch.  Sunday was the day of rest and worship, so said the Bible, and the church establishment of Sydney town did their utmost to make sure that after morning service their God-fearing clientele journeyed home to prepare for grace before Sunday lunch.  In the afternoon, in a subliminal way, the churches forbade any participation in organised sport although a visit to your maiden aunt’s home for a cup of tea and an examination of her newly completed quilt was tolerated.  Thus I would go to St. Jude’s Church of England Sunday School early Sunday morn and for the rest of the day kick a rugby ball by myself in the backyard, an act which, in itself, would probably be regarded as a sin by the town’s evangelical arbiters of public taste.

One Sunday morning, I remember my teacher giving the class a fire and brimstone oration on the evils of alcohol.  When he had ended his ranting he handed us each a copy of The Pledge, told us to take it home, sign it and return with it the following Sunday.

[The Pledge was a pamphlet issued by the Temperance Society in the hope that each recipient would affix their signature and pledge never to drink hard liquor.  As an inducement there was a picture of a beautiful lady with a ‘conversation bubble’ coming from her mouth containing the words, “Lips that touch alcohol shall never touch mine.”]

Of course my parents scoffed at the insolence of the man and sent me back next week with the paper blank.  When I handed it to the teacher the following Sunday, I realised I was the only one not to have signed The Pledge.  I was a cocky little kid and when the teacher asked me why, I explained that there were many characters in the Bible who drank wine regularly and excessively and indeed Jesus had once made His own vintage.  “Aha,” replied the teacher, “but the wine mentioned in the Holy Bible was non-alcoholic wine.”

That incident and the fact that there was no cricket or rugby to watch on Sundays were the reasons I first began distrusting the established Christian church.  As I head closer to eternity and my faith in the Almighty increases, so my suspicion of the church grows deeper.

Yet, ironically, it was the Christian church that gave me the opportunity to watch exciting, competitive sport on Sunday afternoons.  Well it was the Catholic Church actually!  In that era, Protestants didn’t regard Catholics as Christians, while Catholic priests warned their flock not to get too close to us heathens, as we were all destined to spend eternity in purgatory in the company of Jack the Ripper, Ned Kelly and, worse still, people who had signed The Pledge (Catholic priests imbibing as they do).

“Boys’ Town” was a home for orphan boys and the creation of Catholic priest, Father Thomas Dunlea.  Dunlea was a humanitarian who loved all God’s creatures but had a special place in his heart for society’s frail and oppressed and for life’s losers.

To operate an orphanage as large as Boys’ Town was an enormous fiscal and logistical undertaking, even for an organisation as wealthy as the Catholic Church, so Father Dunlea took it upon himself to be responsible for the funding.  He arranged private donations and public appeals but his most consistent and largest income stream came from his association with a bookmaker named George Nathan.  Dunlea and Nathan gathered together some of the best athletes in Sydney and organised a charity sporting carnival at the Sydney Sports Ground on Sunday afternoons known simply as ‘Boys’ Town.’

This sports carnival consisted of athletic events and harness racing but the main event, the major crowd puller, was cycle racing.  Just after the war there were far more push bikes than motorcars on Sydney roads and bike races were big time.  (It is now an almost forgotten fact that there were many cricket test games played on the Sydney Cricket Grounds when the world’s greatest cricket ground was ringed by a cycle track.)  How Father Dunlea managed to arrange for competitive sport to be performed on the Sydney Sabbath I know not.  Admittedly, the proceeds were supporting a worthy charity and it was no secret that the Catholic Church had enormous influence with the Labor Party, in those days the entrenched government in New South Wales (NSW).  Yet without doubt, the prime reason for the Boys’ Town carnival coming into being was the influence and drive of Father Thomas Dunlea.  Not only did his dedication give many homeless kids a start in life but the event itself brought enjoyment to many thousands of sports starved Sydney folk.  The fact that Boys’ Town was a charity event held on a Sunday meant that no licensed betting was allowed in the ground and there wasn’t any – well, of the licensed sort anyway.  Mind you, if you twisted George Nathan’s arm so that it really hurt, he would probably be forced to quote you the odds and take your money.

Suddenly Sundays became exciting for me.  I remember my first day at the Sports Ground as if I was watching it now on digital television.  With my godfather, Os Taylor as my guide and mentor, I walked through the turnstiles into a sporting fairyland and within ten minutes I had a hero!  We had arrived early to obtain a seat near the winning post and sat next to two men, neither of whom were wearing a tie which, if not exactly improper in those days was, somehow, not quite respectable.  “G’day, young fellah, do you reckon he’ll win again today?” one of the men asked me.

“Who do you mean?”  I asked.

He looked shocked, “Billy Guyatt, of course.”

Feeling out of my depth, but not wishing to sound stupid, I answered, “I reckon he will.”  The man made a noise which sounded like “Hmph” and looked away.

The first event of the day, a trotting race, was won by the horse that was in front when they rounded the bend into the straight.  By the end of the day I realised that, because the straight was about the length of Ray Lindwall’s* bowling run up, all the races were won by the horse who was in front when they rounded the bend.  The next event was the first of the handicap bike races.  It was athletically demanding, dangerous and, to the eyes of this little boy, far more exciting than Sunday school or for that matter, the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Clovelly Hoyts Theatre.  Gradually the tension built as the main race of the afternoon came closer and the roar that greeted the riders when they arrived was like you’d hear for a try scored in the rugby league final.

I had never seen Billy Guyatt but I knew instinctively who he was.  He was dressed in black and as he pushed his bike onto the ground he moved with the athletic grace and confident presence that all champions seem to inherently possess.  Yet what surprised me was that some of the cheering had now turned to jeering and it was aimed at the man in black.  Guyatt took no notice as he mounted his bike for a warm up.  Conversely, the idol of the crowd was Ray Brooking, a very fine rider, and all-Australian boy.  In contrast to Guyatt’s black outfit, Brooking was clad in red, white and blue, the colours of the Mother Country for whom, a few months before, Australians had fought and died, fighting a war against evil men wearing swastikas and black shirts.  You didn’t have to be a student of Freud to know who was the ‘goodie’ and who the ‘baddie’ that day at the Sports Ground.

As the riders rode around the dirt track in their warm up lap, I kept my eyes on the muscular man in black and I was mesmerised.  The cheers, for Brooking, and the jeers, for Guyatt, accompanied them all the way round like a verbal Mexican wave and I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world.

The gun fired and Ray Brooking began the better of the two but Billy Guyatt stayed cool, seemingly toying with the field.  In the ensuing laps the lead changed a few times but Brooking and Guyatt were always handily placed.  Then at the bell lap Brooking made his move and Guyatt followed him.  In the back straight the rider in the tricolour gave it everything he had, lifting himself out of the saddle and powering the pedals, but the man in black didn’t seem to change rhythm; he simply followed.  Meanwhile the rest of the field was strung out behind, forgotten accessories to the two magnificent riders duelling in front.  The crowd was on its feet shouting for the brilliant Brooking who, it appeared, had tactically stolen the race from Guyatt.  The tie-less man beside me was shouting, “Ya done him Ray, ya done him.”  Os Taylor, also cheering for Brooking, concurred.  My ineffective shout of “Come on Billy” was drowned by ten thousand voices.

I had never seen a real bike race until that day but I instinctively realised that Billy Guyatt was special. I was right!  Suddenly Guyatt spurted and as the two riders swept around the bend for home, Guyatt swept around Brooking, legs pumping like pistons, wheels burning the turf.  The rest of the journey up the straight was little more than a victory lap for Billy.  When Ray Brooking flashed over the line in second place he was still pedalling furiously.  Ray was a great rider and loved by the mob, but he had met his match.  My hero was just too good. As he passed the post Billy straightened up and signalled victoriously to the crowd and most of them sportingly rose to salute a champion, although boos were still plentiful.

When Billy dismounted, a man in a black suit and clerical collar walked over and shook his hand and the booing stopped.  “Who’s that?” I asked my recently acquired mate.

“That’s Father Dunlea,” he answered.  “He runs the joint.”  I now understood why the booing had ceased.  A protestant might boo a run of the mill priest but not even an atheist would stoop to insult the kindly Father Thomas Dunlea.

“How much did Billy get for winning?” I asked.

The man screwed up his face, thinking.  “I’d say he’d get about ten quid and the winner of the main race also gets a canteen of cutlery.  Not bad, eh?”

“What’s a culteen of cattery?” I queried, nonplussed.

He grinned, but answered politely.  “Well, it’s sort of like …, you know, it’s like a lot of knives and forks and spoons, like!”

I went with Os to Boys’ Town many times after that and once Ray Brooking beat Billy Guyatt but only once as I recall.  As I grew older I became caught up in my own ambitions and a couple of years later the Boys’ Town carnival closed for the last time.  After Billy Guyatt I had many heroes in other sports (and even played with and against a few of them) but I remember Billy with great affection for he was my first.  Later in life I would have liked to have met him, looked him in the eye and told him what he meant to me at that time.  Perhaps he would have asked me in for a beer and given me a canteen of cutlery to take home.  He must have had dozens of them.

Father Thomas Dunlea went through much for Boys’ Town, became an alcoholic and suffered demons of his own.  However, suffering so often breeds strength and eventually Dunlea rejected the grog forever and became one of the founding members of Alcoholics Anonymous.  He later took up the position of a suburban parish priest where he was greatly loved by his flock.  A close friend of mine, who became a friend of Dunlea, once said to the priest, “Will you join me in a drink Father?”

Dunlea replied, “No thank you, mate, I would love to join you, but for me one drink is too many and a hundred drinks are not enough.”

As with Billy Guyatt, I only saw Father Dunlea from a distance.  Nevertheless, he is the other person from that era with whom I would have loved to have a yarn.  If he was alive, maybe the good man would be able to help me through my feelings about the established church.  At least I’m sure he would understand, listen and not be holier than thou.  Anyway, for what it’s worth, I also carry a fondness from afar for this other man dressed in black.

Now, nearly six decades later, I sit back and smile with admiration as I recall the superb sporting prowess of Billy Guyatt who made this time in my life golden.  And I still remain grateful to Thomas Dunlea whose vision and dedication meant that as an eight year old boy I spent sunny Sydney Sundays watching sport and idolising heroes.

∴                    ∴                        ∴                        ∴

This essay originally appeared in the essay collection My Sporting Hero, edited by Greg Growden.  To read more about Neil Marks and sporting heroes from Australia, click on the following links:

*Raymond Russell Lindwall MBE was a cricketer who represented Australia in 61 Tests from 1946 to 1960. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time.

This is the seventh in a series of articles about forward thinkers who are helping to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. These remarkable people are helping to define the future direction of their community, country, and even our global society.   To read more about the Pilot Fish Trailblazer Awards and the nominees Dr. Fred Sanger, Paolo Soleri, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Goodall, Alice Waters, and Swami Vivekananda click on the embedded links.  Suggest new nominees in the comments section below.

14 replies »

  1. Hi, Jackie. That’s wonderful to hear! It’s so interesting that the trailblazers are more regional than I thought. So far, I haven’t heard of many outside the USA. If you think of a blogger from another part of the world who might have an interesting trailblazer, just let me know. I’m really looking for a global perspective. Have a great weekend. 🙂


      • I know it from the American movie starring Spencer Tracy about Father Flanagan who was Irish-born and founded another Boys Town located in Douglas County, Nebraska. I will check out Neil Marks. Thanks so much for always educating me about so many interesting writers. Australia’s history is so fascinating.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a wonderful post! I chuckled a lot at the *cautions* given to Catholics and Protestants alike about mixing with each other-brings back many memories of parochial school days. I grew up in Omaha and remember Boys Town and Father Flanagan very well-he is considered one of the great social pioneers in dealing with juveniles-Look forward to seeing what else you have in store for us this year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Littledogs! I’m delighted you liked this post/series. Yes, it brings back memories of parochial school for me too. We’re working on some more trailblazer posts, which will go live over the next few weeks/months. More to come! Thanks for your support!

      Liked by 1 person

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