David Brown competing in the 2001 Australian Masters Road Championships.
David Brown competing in the 2001 Australian Masters Road Championships.

Principal rider excels


THIS Saturday will see the 46th running of Australia's longest and toughest one-day cycling event, the 228km Grafton to Inverell Cycling Classic.

Missing from the great race will be former school principal and late-comer to the sport, David Brown.

He has competed in eight of the classic events in past years but this time he planned to be part of the action conducting the water drop for competitors at the 10km zone, past the top of the Gibraltar Range.

David Brown has conquered the course eight times out of his eight starts, the first in 1989 as a mere novice and has set the record as the oldest competitor to finish the gruelling course within the time limit. A course which takes in the gut-wrenching Gibraltar Range and the many hills such as the heart-breaking Wire Gully climb, as well as the breakaways and the temperature changes as the Classic winds it way from the Jacaranda City in the coastal area up and over to the Tablelands and to the Emerald City of Inverell.

David Brown became a cyclist more or less by accident or perhaps it would be better to say through his dedication to doing the right thing. He is a teachers college and dual universities graduate, principal of his own school at an early age and well known and appreciated in Grafton as principal of the Grafton Public School from 1980 to 1996.

David did not really regard cycling as his chief motivational change. Yet mention cycling in the Clarence area and his name will soon come up.

Not that he has been a champion ? he will be the first to deny he ever has been ? although he has been a champion for the cause of being fit and proving he can take it.

That applies particularly to the tough business of long distance road events.

In reference to cycling, to use David's own words: My career and my bike riding is what I call a triumph of mediocrity ? nothing to boast about but a lot of fun.

Nevertheless he has proven himself in this gruelling sport, even showing at times what he often denied he has ? a good sprint finish.

Besides loving his career as a teacher and his work for cycling, David has been devoted family man, a watcher of birds (the feathered kind), stamp collector, plus a keen and specific collector of Royal Albert china ? that collection always featuring the set of cup, saucer and plate, three sideboard cupboards neatly packed with their display.

He also researched and wrote the text of the Grafton Public School's sesquicentenary history book.

David Brown was born some 70 years ago in the Sydney western suburb of Riverstone. His parents were Bill and Lily (nee Saundercock) Brown, his father a carpenter and his mother a former office manager.

David has one brother, Phillip, whom he describes as the brains of the family and who retired recently with the title of professor of economics.

"We are descendants of English, Welsh, Cornish and Irish stock and as the name Brown suggests, a bit of Moorish ancestry too," David says.

He had his early education at Riverstone Primary School before the family moved to Marrickville to make use of better secondary education facilities.

Next step for David was at famous Fort Street High and from there to Sydney Teachers College.

"At college we had school holidays but otherwise it was 40 hours of lectures each week, plus our home studies," David said.

"I reckon that our face-to-face lecture time in my two years at college was more than current teacher trainees spend in four years at university.

"Teachers' college was an extension of secondary school in those days and we worked hard and entered the teaching ranks as fresh-faced 18 year olds."

David's first teaching position was at Lower Creek, a one-teacher school halfway between Armidale and Kempsey and when I interviewed him, the poet in him came to the fore ? "Lower Creek was on a track never crossed cept by folk that are lost, and Michael McGee's Shanty was just up the road.

"I boarded with a family on a huge beef cattle property, walked a couple of kilometres to and from school and had to row across the Macleay River each way. I was a lonely city boy but was well cared for by a very kind Lunn family, to whom I will always be grateful.

"My approach to teaching was always formal for I felt parents send their children to school to learn, not to play happy families, so I worked the students hard."

At the school there were also a few secondary students who David moved on to the examination program and kept in for an hour after school so that he could provide personal and uninterrupted supervision for extra studies.

"As well, after school I helped two of the secondary boys hand milk 60 dairy cows," he said.

"I also recall doing skirt and bodice drafts on the blackboard with teaching set squares and T squares while the Year 7 girls in sewing class replicated these on to drafting paper. Technical drawing lessons at high school were at last good for something.

"I grew to love the country life and began an early interest in bird watching, an interest which I retain.

"I spent two years at Lower Creek and it was during that time on a trip to Inverell that I met Helen Marchant, the lass who was to become my wife. She was working at Mitchell's Pharmacy which was owned by my uncle, Lance Mitchell. As a matter of interest, two of Lance Mitchell's daughters own stores in Grafton.

"It was several years after our first meeting that Helen, then operator of the MBF office in Inverell, and I were married at Glen Innes in 1964. I was 27 and Helen a year younger.

"We have three daughters, Rachel, Philippa and Elizabeth."

Rachel, now Rachel Baxter, is an ambulance officer at Woolgoolga and has two sons and a daughter who are students at Grafton High School.

The boys Damian, 17, and Shaun, 15, are keen cyclists, among the top in the State in their age group, and would love to be able to compete in this year's Grafton to Inverell but the minimum age limit is 18.

Philippa is married to aeronautical engineer Ben Waters but for professional reasons retains the surname of Brown, and Elizabeth, now Elizabeth Eaton, is a teaching executive at an international school in Hong Kong after teaching in Singapore for several years.

After marriage David and Helen bought a small bungalow at Revesby in Sydney, primarily so he could expand his professional background with university studies.

David went to Sydney University at night and during the day taught at Revesby South and later at Revesby public schools.

After five years of hard slog he graduated Bachelor of Arts with honours in geography and psychology. To help pay off their home more quickly David earned extra income by teaching migrants in the evening.

After two years of that he went back to university at nights for a Masters Degree in Education.

That occupied another two years by which time David was appointed principal of Kendall Central School where there were 550 students in classes from Kindergarten to Year 10.

"I very much enjoyed teaching secondary students and the challenge at 35 years of age of running my own school," David said

People who worked with him at that school have told me that he had an academic approach to education and the Kendall school quickly became a strong and no-nonsense learning institution. This approach was to follow him throughout his teaching career. Three years later David was appointed to a large primary school at Maroubra Junction.

Just up the road was the University of NSW and David enrolled at the university for a part-time Masters Degree in Educational Administration. He completed that degree in time to be appointed principal at Grafton Public School in 1980.

"In the position I followed that wonderful, dignified gentleman Alwyn Floyd, who had followed the almost legendary Lewis Ellem, so keeping the tradition they had set really put me on my mettle, so to speak," David said.

"I wonder how many people realise that in the 1940s Alwyn Floyd spent some of his life's prime years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese.

"My introduction to the Grafton school was greatly assisted by a very dedicated and professional staff.

"When I first came to Grafton I bought a 10-speed commuter bike to ride to and from work and I became interested in what was happening in and around Grafton including the annual Grafton to Inverell bike race."

One year David was at Heffron Lookout on the Gibraltar Range watching the cyclists come through and struck up a conversation with another onlooker, Michael Hennessey.

"By the conversation I found he was in the cycle club and had ridden the race, so I asked him how many Grafton riders were in the field that year and he told me just two.

"When I expressed amazement that such a great race would draw only two local entries his response was ? 'Well, where's your sense of adventure?'

"I knew what he meant and that day the seed was sown.

"My daughters gave me a steel-framed, entry level racing bike and I joined the Grafton Cycle Club and started training, often dropped by the morning riders and arriving at work in a state of physical exhaustion.

"However, club members were always kind to me, offering much helpful advice and complimenting my pathetic efforts.

"I finished last in many races until my novice career came to a sudden stop when I clipped a wheel in a Saturday afternoon competition ride and hit the road, suffering multiple fractures and abrasions.

"After being pinned back together by Dr Bill Costello I spent a couple of weeks in hospital.

"I persevered, however, training hard and long, and I entered the 1989 Grafton to Inverell to prove I had 'that sense of adventure' that Michael Hennessey had asked about.

"I finished last of those who completed the 228km race before the cut-off time at 5pm and felt a great sense of achievement. I was 53 years old and the second oldest to complete the ride that day."

David rode in other events with the club but it was not until four years later, 1993, that he again lined up in the classic and once more was last across the line in Otho Street, Inverell, before the cut-off.

This time, at 57, he won the prize for the oldest to complete the course on time, although a number of riders, some younger, some older, finished outside of time.

Since then David has ridden the race six more times and always has finished within the time limit.

Four times he has won the prize for the oldest finisher of the day.

His best placing was a 17th in C-grade, in which there were 80 starters.

In the year he turned 60 he rode his best time, seven hours 40 minutes, a time that some A-grade winners have found difficult to achieve.

For this year's 46th running the race has attracted 187 male nominations in four divisions, A, B, C and D, including four from the Grafton club, Fraser Chapman, Ryan Elvery, Garry Reardon and Howard Avery, plus ex-Graftonian and former Olympic champion Kevin Nichols. As well, 14 have nominated in the female division on the shorter course from Grafton to Glen Innes, including Nichols' daughter, Australian representative Kate.

David still holds the record for the oldest to do the ride in allotted time, but says this Saturday's race in which he is not competing, could see the end to that, nominating his good friend and Australian road champion in the over 70s veterans' age group, Evan Elliott of Dubbo, as the one who could better the record.

David has won a number of distance handicap road races.

Four times David has entered State Veterans Championships winning a medal each occasion, twice in individual road races and twice taking silver as a member of time trial teams with Kevin Brindle and Barry Roberts.

SINCE writing this feature, David Brown was injured in a post-race fall on Saturday. He suffered a broken collarbone and rib and abrasions, and spent two nights in hospital.

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