REST IN PEACE: Lex and Lena Essex celebrated their 70th anniversary in 2017.
REST IN PEACE: Lex and Lena Essex celebrated their 70th anniversary in 2017. Adam Hourigan

Maclean farewells a man of the Clarence River

THE Lower Clarence laid to rest one of its river sons on Friday when legendary rower Lex Essex was farewelled by family and community.

Grandson Joshua Duff delivered the eulogy to the packed assembly, saying his grandfather Lex lived a full life, and was "one of those people who was not only an amazing person but was bloody good at everything he did”.

"Whether it was rowing, bowls, work, fowls, being an active community member or the patriarch of our family, he was good at it all.”

Alexander Frederick Essex was born in Maclean on March 20, 1928, to Frederick William Essex and Ruby Florence Rose Essex.

Lex Essex on the Clarence River in 1970s.
Lex Essex on the Clarence River in 1970s.

He was brother to Edwin and two sisters Shirley and Winsome "and by many accounts, was a bit of a rat bag at school”, Joshua told the amused congregation, "but also very switched on”.

Lex's initial encounter with the sport that would ultimately define him came in 1940 when he got in a rowboat for the first time as a 12-year-old Maclean High student. His debut was as coxen with an ex-student crew, a race that they won, the first of Lex's many victories in the sport.

Two years later Lex undertook his first competitive row in what could be described as opportune circumstances.

"The Head of the River was being rowed in Maclean in butcher boats, and two crew members didn't make it to the regatta due to a bus that broke down on the way to Maclean from Iluka,” Joshua said.

At just 45kg and a year younger than the other boys, Lex was the smaller of two options to row for one of the two crews and was picked second. But the lad's competitive nature and resilience, a characteristic evenly dispersed throughout the story of Lex's life, came to fruition on this day as his crew unexpectedly crossed the line first.

Family was everything to Lex Essex.
Family was everything to Lex Essex.

Following his schooling, Lex spent a short amount of time on a dairy farm in Dorrigo where they celebrated in the streets at the end of the war in Europe in 1945 before returning to Maclean where "the greatest love story I know began”, Joshua said.

Lex first met his future wife Lena in 1946. Her attendance at a local regatta to watch her brother David row was the first time their paths had crossed. The pair married the following December, "Lex at the ripe old age of 19, devoted the next 72 years to Lena and their children”.

Apart from his love of family, Lex's passion for rowing and the river remained with him his whole life, stories of his pursuits on the river overflowing with success.

In one of his first major local regattas in 1946, Lex lined up for five races in a day, winning the maiden Gladstone Skiff and the novice race in the morning before getting back on the river in the afternoon to win the Butcher Boats and run second in the Flood Boats (the only time that flood boats were raced on the Lower Clarence).

It was from this point in time that Lex's rowing prowess really came to the fore. He was a three-time NSW Professional Rowing and Sculling League State Champion and was the last to win the Bill Beach Memorial Trophy.

He paced Evan Fischer to three world championships (at times beating him in training), coached Maclean High School in 1972 and 1973 to Combined High Schools Head of the River championships and was a world champion sculler in his own right.

Lex was also the holder of the Lower Clarence Rowing Club Lightweight Championship for a significant number of years and never lost it until he gave it up. His sons Graham and Fred then rowed for the championship, Graham going on to be the next holder of the title.

Age did not weary the competitor though. As a 56-year-old, Lex rowed his last race in 1984 for the Clarence River Championship. He cleaned up the field to win the title, closely followed by his son Graham.

Lex's competitive nature was not isolated to rowing. He accomplished great feats in his working life, spending more than two decades working hard, long hours cutting cane up and down the Lower Clarence, one of his gangs so effective it was named as the best performing out of 25 while another averaged 104 tonnes of cane cut per man per week.

When Lex hung up his cane knife, he bought his own trawler to fish for a couple of years while working at the co-op weighing in catches.

His final two decades of employment were with popular hardware store Schaeffers (later BBC) before retiring in 1993. All this time, Lex and Lena managed their family farm with many early mornings milking cows and late evenings ploughing the field.

Later in life Lex's success continued with his bowls and in breeding fowls.

During his lifetime Lex was made a life member of the Lower Clarence Rowing Club and the Maclean Bowls Club, was president of the Lower Clarence Rowing Club (1960s) and president of the Northern Rivers Rowing Association, club captain of the Lower Clarence Rowing Club (1950s) and president of the Maclean Bowling Club for numerous years.

"He was actively engaged in his community and had strong values. He knew what he stood for and didn't hold back in standing up for what he believed in,” Joshua said.

But despite all the extraordinary experiences and his unprecedented achievements, Josh said Lex was most proud of his family.

"His love for his own and Lena was palpable,” he said.

"Lex was there to support, but also sometimes provide some tough love.

"He had a grit and determination which has been passed down to many of us, but would also spend time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren with the chooks, in the garden, playing sport and helping out however he could.

"Times weren't always easy when he and Lena were raising their family. But much of what they built was possible because of his competitive nature, his unwillingness to give in and his stubbornness to the end.

"One of the last stories he told me was about his physical training sessions he was participating in at Mareeba. In one of the exercises, the trainer was holding bungee cords and Lex had to pull back on them in a rowing motion. Someone mentioned Lex's previous rowing abilities and the trainer didn't seem to think much of it...until Lex pulled him over with his strength and determination.”

Joshua said determination and strength typified Lex his entire life, but he also had compassion and a kind heart, the only thing able to break him was the loss of the love of his life. "These are characteristics he instilled in us and he lives on through our memories. He was my hero and an idol to us all.”

Lex Essex was father to Stuart, Graham, Janelle, Fred and Alison; Pop to 17 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.

He died peacefully on August 11, aged 91, leaving behind an incredible legacy of personal and professional achievements in the river town that shaped him.

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