Remembering those we lost in 2019

EACH year the Clarence Valley loses a little of its identity when the residents that make up this great community see out their final days here. As a new year begins we reflect upon these people and pay tribute to a few of those we lost in 2019:


January: Brooms Head Brumby

While technically not a person, Brooms Head's Brumby as he was affectionately known, captured the hearts of the Clarence Valley.

He wasn't just any wild horse. Brumby, as he was affectionately known among his many names, was part of the community of Brooms Head and the greater Clarence Valley.

His story captured the hearts and minds of people far and wide, a lone soldier who defied the odds and went on to live his life the way he wanted, free to come and go as he pleased in the place he knew as home, Yuraygir National Park.

While he cut a lonely figure out there after his mob was killed in the 2000 bushfires, he was never too far from fellow members of the animal kingdom, kangaroos and birds frequently keeping company with the roguish piebald pony.


Brooms Head Brumby.
Brooms Head Brumby.


Of course he did all of this under the watchful eye of villagers and visitors, Brumby's curiosity and desire to graze on domesticated pastures as well as what nature provided in the park meant you never quite knew where he might pop up.

Whether it was on the scrubby horizon or in the lake, outside a backyard fence or on the grounds of the local bowling club or sports ground, Brumby was a wild horse who had an air of sociability about him.

With that in mind, the grounds of the local bowling club that embraced his presence, is where Brumby was laid to rest.

After declining health over recent months culminated in a decision to ensure his suffering didn't amount to cruelty, a team of professionals and supportive locals monitored Brumby until their last goodbyes were exchanged on January 16.

This solo surveyor of the park, the inquisitive stallion who watched its comings and goings for more more than two decades, had left his post.

Back with his pack once again, this free spirit will always remain a part of Yuraygir National Park and the village of Brooms Head.



January: Allan Cameron

For A man who taught many of his students to look at the stars, it seemed entirely appropriate for Elton John's Rocket Man to being a celebration of Allan Cameron's life.

The well-known Maclean High school science teacher died in January this year aged 81 years.

At a celebration of his life was held in the packed Anglican Church in Maclean it seemed that no matter how many stories you knew about Mr Cameron there were many, many more.

People of all ages gathered to pay tribute to a man who stood out from the crowd, paying tribute to Allan's unique dress sense themselves which ranged from hats, loud shirts and many sporting a handkerchief tied over their heads.

"Because of dad I'm wearing this outrageous outfit," daughter Sue-Ann said with a loud pineapple patterned shirt and handkerchief over her hair. "And I don't care."

"I've learned that an ordinary life can be lived extraordinarily, and that remarkable people are everywhere."

Teacher Wayne Rice paid tribute to his long-time science colleague, remembering him as a man who was the first to volunteer to help with anything to do with the school, and a mentor for staff and students alike.

Mr Cameron's career spanned such time at Maclean High school, that he worked alongside many students he taught at the school in later years, and went on to teach their children, one who paid tribute via text message to the inspiration he provided her.

A believer in discipline - "you'll meet worse bastards than me boy!" one of the many one-liners remembered by those present, his teaching and manner with all instilling a love of science and passion that saw students get through regardless of their ability.


February: John Allen

Around 500 people gathered at Barry Watts oval to pay their respects to Bobcats legend John Allen, who passed away on February 5.

The man whose words had "no filter", the Maclean community turned out to honour a man who had a love for his family, his community and his football club.



John Allen.
John Allen.



Growing up on the Gold Coast, John left school at 14 and began working in the family butchery, moving around Queensland working between butcheries and abattoirs.

On the Sunshine Coast he met his wife Joy, and after the death of John's parents sold the family business and moved with his family to Maclean, purchasing Maclean Variety Meats.

Renowned for their sausages, which won awards every years, and their sought after smoked hams, John became a well respected member of the Maclean business community.

He supported many sports through the shop, but it was his love of the round-ball game which saw him on the sidelines cooking steaks, and giving motivational speeches urging his players to "bleed green" made him synonymous with the Bobcats.

Such was impact that Bobcat president Matt Farrell called him "irreplaceable".


March: Helen Smith

In March Grafton lost a quiet achiever with at least one world first to her name.

Helen Margaret Smith, who died on her 71st birthday on March 6, was a much-loved as well as an eminently qualified palliative care nurse, who made a reality of creating comfort for people when comfort seemed impossible.

Mrs Smith began her training as a nurse in 1965 at St Vincent's Hospital, later working in a variety of specialty fields of nursing including orthopaedics, spinal injury rehabilitation and working with mentally and physically disabled children in Sydney and Western Australia.

After marrying and having two sons, she discovered the deeper passion of her working life and enrolled in a Graduate Certificate in Palliative Care.

It was a trail blazing course at the time and she emerged as an early graduate from one of the first formal postgraduate degrees in palliative care in the world.

As the first clinical nurse consultant in palliative care at Saint Joseph's Hospital in Auburn, Mrs Smith played a major role in the development of quality palliative care services in western Sydney. She was instrumental in building a community around palliative care at SJH.

She found a medical equivalent in Dr Michael (Mick) Barbato when joined SJH as medical director. Together they formed a team that influenced and developed palliative care services.

They believed care was about the people in their care, meeting the patient or family's needs first.

Helen made a significant contribution to palliative care in NSW, to her colleagues both nursing and medical, in rural and city settings.

Mrs Smith's restless search for a better way to care for people at the end of life continued after she came to Grafton in 1994 as the first clinical nurse consultant in the Clarence Valley.

She began to co-research a project looking at the effectiveness in reducing palliative care hospital admissions, proposing an after-hours telephone support service and leading the team of nurses to undertake the project.

Success resulted in funding and an afterhours telephone support service for the Clarence Valley, the only such service in regional NSW, at that time.

The Community Nursing Team received a Palliative Care NSW award for excellence in the provision of services.

Mr Smith demonstrated her ongoing commitment to the community through her volunteer work with St Vincent de Paul while quietly battling a period of ill health.

In her final days her dedicated colleagues repaid her lifetime of work supporting her and her loving family who were by her side when she passed.


March (2015): Sharon Edwards

The sentencing of her former husband John Edwards for her murder in November this year is cause to reflect upon the life of mother and school teacher Sharon Edwards who disappeared on March 14, 2015.

At a memorial held in her honour at Christ Church Cathedral in 2017 Sharon Margaret Edwards was remembered by her family and friends as a devoted mother, sister, aunty, daughter, wife, cousin, friend, teacher and colleague.

Mrs Edwards' sons, Eli, Josh and Zac, were among the some 150 people who came together to share their thoughts and feelings that day about the woman who had been missing for the past two years.

Friend Rex Green described Mrs Edwards as a fun loving woman who brought joy into the lives of everyone around her saying "of all the amazing things Sharon did, her greatest achievement of all was mother to her three boys, the loves of her life."

He said Sharon grew up saying she only wanted boys and that the dedicated and loving mother and would tell just about anyone how proud she was of them.

Humourous anecdotes about Sharon's time travelling and a particular story about her dad picking her up from the school dance in his pyjamas, were shared as her love of teaching, travel, her life long friend Christina and, in particular, her granddaughter Harlow were confirmed.

"When Sharon heard she was going to have a granddaughter, she (was very happy), she told her family she was told by a psychic that she would have a little girl with blonde hair," Mr Green said. "And she loved to tell everybody that she was right."

He said anyone knew Sharon would know that her phone and her computer were full of pictures of Harlow. "Sharon's unconditional love, smile and infectious laugh would be missed by everyone."

Vale Sharon Edwards.



April: Lin McSwan

Lin McSwan wrote what is considered to be the definitive history of the early years of Maclean, but her contribution to the town over the years will make sure she is included in any future retrospectives.

Mrs McSwan passed away at Mareeba Aged Care in April this year at the age of 100.

Born Eleanor Hope Gibson on September 13, 1918, in Walcha, she attended the local primary school before completing her secondary and tertiary education in Sydney where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Hons History) and a Diploma of Education.

It was her first teaching appointment that brought her to Maclean, appointed to the Maclean District Rural School in 1940. She began to play golf and at the course met Colin McSwan. He enlisted in the RAAF in 1942 and soon their war-time correspondence blossomed into romance.


Lin McSwan.
Lin McSwan.


Lin left Maclean in 1943 to teach on the Central Tablelands, and they were married in Sydney before Colin was discharged and they returned to the Lower Clarence settling into a dairy farm at Woodford Leigh, where they had three children.

Successive flooding saw them move back into where Lin was offered three weeks' work at Maclean High. That turned into a 20-year career until retiring in 1974. One of her students at the school was well-known artist Ken Done, who sent her a painting of a flower arrangement especially for her 100th birthday.

Lin was a founding member of the Maclean District Historical Society in 1970 and completed a Graduate Diploma in Local History in 1986. She was recognised in the Australia Day Honours in 1995 with an Order of Australia medal for her Services to Local History and was made a life member of the historical society. She contributed to a book Ferries of the Lower Clarence with D. Stuart Towne, and wrote books including The Historic buildings of Maclean, A History of Yamba and Iluka, Maclean's Scottish Connection and a History of the McSwans in Australia.

However, it is her book Maclean: The First Fifty Years, 1862-1912 that is considered one of the most concise records of the early years of the Scottish town, and again, Ken Done provided artwork for the dust cover of the book published in 1992.


August: Lex Essex

The Lower Clarence laid to rest one of its river sons in August when legendary rower Lex Essex was farewelled by family and community.

The former world champion and life member of Lower Clarence Rowing Club was a passionate advocate and supporter of the sport his whole life.

Mr Essex was one of the last vestiges of the region's rich professional sculling history, beginning the sport at school in 1940, a pursuit that a spanned five decades until his final professional race in 1984.


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


He held the world lightweight championship and state championship during a period that saw the Lower Clarence host a world rowing championship.

After spending a lifetime out on the Clarence River as a competitor including five years with the Grafton club when he lived at Swan Creek, he continued to encourage and inspire the next generations of young rowers for many years after hanging up his oars.

The former president of Northern Rivers Rowing Association and man behind a coveted competition trophy that bears his name.

Grandson Joshua Duff delivered the eulogy to the packed assembly at St James Anglican Church in Maclean, 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".

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


August: John Joseph 'JJ' Fahey

Grafton has lost one of its leading figures in the fields of health, local politics and sport with the death of John Joseph "JJ" Fahey in August aged 89.

The dentist left a lasting public health legacy in the city with a successful campaign to fluoridate the city's water supply in the 1960s.

After spending time working with the Albert Sweitzer Foundation in Africa, he was appalled at the standard of dental health in his home town, and was determined to something about it.

"We used to have a clinic every Saturday at the Grafton Base Hospital and we'd work there all morning pulling rotten teeth out of kids' heads," Mr Fahey told The Daily Examiner in a 2004 article.

John JJ Fahey.
John JJ Fahey.


He used his position as an alderman on Grafton City Council in 1964 to push for fluoride in the town water supply.

The opposition in the community was so fierce that on the first night the fluoridation system was to begin operation, a home-made bomb exploded in the plant, destroying it.

The determination of Mr Fahey and fellow dentist and alderman Mr Burt Dawes, along with a £5000 grant from the State Government, enabled the plant to be repaired.

It was a major public health success, quickly making the Saturday clinics unnecessary.

A noted schoolboy athlete, Mr Fahey competed successfully in running, shooting and rugby league for his school, Woodlawn College.

He married Barbara Dougherty and together they raised six children: Mary-Anne (Watson), Peter, Brendan, Andrew, Daniel and Joseph.

A requiem mass was held in St Mary's Catholic Church, Grafton, where family and friends remembered the man who enjoyed nothing more than seeing a beaming smile from a set of well-tended teeth, and there were many of those on display at his funeral.


September: Stephen Lees

One of the more memorable funeral processions this year, mourners were clad in black leather and with the growl of engines from Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the family and friends of Stephen Henry Lees gathered at the Salvation Army Citadel to say their final goodbyes.

A character described by many as larger than life, his funeral was no different. Close to 50 motorcycles joined the hearse, made from a specially modified Harley-Davidson, to form a cortege at the conclusion of the service to the Clarence Lawn Cemetery.

Led by Stephen's niece, celebrant Sharon Hibberd, Stephen's family and friends remembered him as a man who lived life to the fullest and was generous.

Stephen's love of motorcycles, Jack Daniels and his footy team, the St George Dragons, were on display on the coffin too, which was spray-painted by South Grafton artist Overdose.


September: Gary Whale

The Clarence has lost a well-known educator and community member with the passing of Gary Whale in September.

Mr Whale became a teacher of English and history, first teaching at Woodenbong Central School before moving to Casino High where he able to put an end to corporal punishment.

He moved to Maclean to teach at the high school in 1987 where the head of the English/History department remained until his retirement in 2000.

Mr Whale was an exceptional communicator and spread his love of the subject through the founding of the Inner Wheel public speaking competition for students at Maclean High School.


Gary Whale
Gary Whale


An active member of the teacher's federation he also kept busy in broader social issues, an advocate of the peace movement, he was also committed to reconciliation with indigenous Australians.

He lived out his later year in Yamba continuing his community work, including leading the U3A discussion group for more than a decade, and committee member of the Port of Yamba Historical Society.

He also ran the informal bird watching group "Clarence Valley Birdos", supported his wife's Landcare and Uniting Church commitments and brought classical music to the Lower Clarence Music Club.

He said one of his proudest achievements was to be part of the Clarence Valley Council climate committee and seeing the council declare a climate emergency.

And fitting for someone committed to the environment around him, one of his last outings was to attend the Climate Strike at Gosford on September 20, and still kept a close eye on the developments at the UN in the following days with interest.


November: Judy Breckenridge

Aunty Judy Breckenridge, an elder of the Yaegl nation passed away on November 24, and was laid to rest after a service at St James Anglican Church at Maclean on December 4.

Hundreds turned up to pay tribute to a devoted family woman, a respected educator and a leader in the Lower Clarence community.

Her life was devoted to her community and bridged the divide between black and white nations, keeping the torch of reconciliation lit and will be remembered for her strength of spirit and selfless manner.

In the eulogy written and read by her niece Susan Parker, along with nieces Frances and Catherine Parker it was clear Aunty Jude did everything for her family, without question.

A woman of many talents, she was a great athlete, an excellent swimmer and would win the Maclean public swimming competitions to be crowned 'Grand Champion Athlete' at the school titles.

She inherited her strength of character from her mother Jessie, often using inner strength to help shape the reconciliation movement in Maclean and the Lower Clarence. "Aunty Jude did this, in her own way, constant and unwavering, simply by participating." the eulogy said.

She was a strong advocate for education, the first Aboriginal worker to be appointed at Maclean High School. Offering support to all students, many of whom have acknowledged the important role Aunty Jude played in their lives. The impact she had on so many students and teachers was profound.

"Aunty Jude was comfortable walking in both worlds. She showed kindness to everyone she met. Kindness defined as 'loaning someone your strength, instead of reminding them of their weaknesses."


November: Jessica Birk

A strong Yaegl woman, Jessica Birk was a well known artist both in the Clarence, and in her home in Sydney.

Her work, found in buildings, installations and galleries across the country, reflected her individual flair for art, combined with a deep influence of Yaegl land, and the influence of the elders.

Partnered with cousin and fellow Yaegl artist Frances Belle Parker, they formed Dyinda Designs, the name reflected their relationship, Dyinda being the Yaegl word for sister.

In her eulogy it said "she saw the world in different ways and found that she enjoyed expressing herself through her art."

Educated in Sydney, Jess obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts at UNSW COFA but was diagnosed with a brain tumour before graduation. She endured emergency brain surgery, then months of radiation and steroids attending graduation between treatments.

After going into remission she embraced her artistic endeavours gaining commission work and continuing her creative journey through community workshops, evolution of preferred media, prints, paints, prints, sculpting, photography, painting.

After a new cancer diagnosis three years ago, Jess battled the aggressive cancer with mum by her side. After multiple fights with the disease, Jessica passed away aged 35 years on November 10, surrounded by friends and family.

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