PROUD MOMENT: Uncle Roy ‘Zeke’ Mundine was appointed the Australian Army’s inaugural Indigenous Elder in April this year in Canberra. He turns 75 next Sunday. Photo: Department of Defence
PROUD MOMENT: Uncle Roy ‘Zeke’ Mundine was appointed the Australian Army’s inaugural Indigenous Elder in April this year in Canberra. He turns 75 next Sunday. Photo: Department of Defence Department Of Defence

SATURDAY SPECIAL: A man of substance, Roy Mundine

WITH his 75th birthday just around the corner, you would imagine Roy 'Zeke' Mundine OAM, or Uncle Roy as he is known, might be ready to hang up his army boots after a distinguished and often life-threatening, 36-year career with the Australian Defence Force.

But those thoughts were put to rest once the loquacious, Bundjalung man answered the phone from his Sydney home to talk about his appointment as the Army's first appointed Indigenous Elder.

"You were lucky to catch me," he laughs. "I've been all over the place lately. Turkey (Lone Pine Commemorations), South Australia, Alice Springs. Everyone wants me to go to everywhere now. The Defence Force, Aboriginal organisations, the Government. It's been flat out."

Born in Grafton's Runnymede Hospital, to Roy 'Fardi' snr and Olive 'Dolly' Mundine, 'Zeke' as his army mates know him, grew up in the family home in South Grafton attending St Joseph's ("on the old site") and Grafton High School.

His father was a road grader with the then Department of Main Roads while his mother (who also worked as a lab attendant at the University of Technology when they later moved to Sydney) raised 11 children, both parents determined their off-spring would be well educated.

During that period in the 1950s and 60s Roy's mother and father were ground-breakers, managing to achieve things that member of the 'white' community took for granted including securing a loan to purchase the family home in suburbia, work a government job for regular wages and drink in the pub with his workmates. But none of that came easy and their determination inspired Roy jnr and his 10 younger siblings.

Now Uncle Roy is doing the same to several generations through his new role and a distinguished career. And when inquiring about his other siblings he rattled their names off with military precision - "Graeme, Warren, James, Phillip, Peter, Charlie, Djon, Anne, Olive and Kaye. You don't want to know what they've all been doing now. That'll take all day." (The Mundine children have worked in politics, government organisations, the arts, publishing, armed forces, the church, and greatly contributed to the rights of Australia's Indigenous people.)

After graduating from Grafton High School young Roy Mundine worked in a timber sawmill for a short time before the opportunity came along that would change his life forever.

"The lady from the employment office told me the army was recruiting and suggested I join so I took the exam and passed. Then I caught the North Coast Mail train to Sydney to sign up and went to Wagga Wagga for training and never looked back."

During his long career with the army, Uncle Roy encountered life-threatening injuries, and performed acts of heroism during active service that gained him the respect of those around him (read more about this in details in our excerpt from Army News), a respect that continues today and the impetuous behind his recent appointment.

"I got a phone call from Lt Gen David Morrison (Chief of Army) and he said what are you doing? I said 'having a cuppa and reading the paper what are you doing?' Then he said to me 'why don't you come down to Canberra. I want to talk to you'.

"Next thing I know there was some conference going on down there and then they were saying congratulations to me," he said.

While Uncle Roy said it was a real honour to be appointed the inaugural Indigenous Elder of the Australian Army, he wasn't going to let all the new attention faze him.

"I don't mind doing all these things, sometimes I have to bite my tongue at some events but nothing's a problem after being in the army where they were trying to shoot me and blow me up. I never thought I'd get this far and be able to do something like this."

Uncle Roy said he did try to retire and "get a hobby and go to the RSL" but said they (the army) "said I'd be bored."

Now's there no chance of that with the Army's Indigenous Elder in demand all over the place by people chasing his honourable presence.

"They make jokes that Justin Bieber must be around whenever I'm out doing things, lunch with the governor, opening this and that."

But among some of the pomp and pageantry that goes with Uncle Roy's new role, he said one of the most important aspects of the job was visiting schools and justice centres.

"I'm there to encourage the kids to get an education. And if you can't go to uni, get a trade. Without those people a country can't go forward.

And it's that kind of plain talking that earns Uncle Roy the resepct he enjoys from all generations.

"Sometimes they (kids) complain because they have to make hard decisions. I just say to them some people fought in two wars and lived through a depression. You reckon you have hard decisions to make."

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