It was as fitting a tribute as any that followed, either at St Joseph’s Church last Friday were his funeral was held, at the Wonthaggi Cemetery, later at the wake at the Wonthaggi Workmen’s Club or in the general community during the week.
The name of the former family man, farmer and shire councilor of long-standing was synonymous with the operation of the Korumburra Shire’s saleyards and was a familiar face on the stock scene right up until recently.
The South Gippsland Shire Council also observed a minutes’ silence last week in recognition of his 37 years’ service to local government in the area, several times as shire president.
Des was born in Wonthaggi on March 6, 1930 and as family members who presented the eulogy, sister Doreen Storti and daughter Trish Copeland said, “how can you put 88 years into a few minutes?”
He was the first child born in the marriage of Donald and Ellen McRae. He was followed by Kevin, Vincent, Doreen and Donnie. Other members of the family were Jean (Mrs Garnham), Alice (Sr M Elizabeth R.S.M.), Donald, Jack, Joanna, Bess (Mrs Egan), Bob and Cath (Mrs Kent).
Des started his education at the Dalyston State School, and when the bus started from around the area he transferred to St Joseph’s Convent in Wonthaggi till year 8, and finished his secondary education at St Patrick’s College in Sale. He left there after completing his Leaving Certificate, then came home to Cloverdale to be groomed by his father to carry on the firm of D McRae and Sons. He worked at every aspect of farming – milking cows at Powlett River, and working with and understanding the sheep and bullock markets. Along with his father he attended the solicitors and accountants, and all the sales and auctions. He had an uncanny eye for good cattle.
When Bob sold his farm at Mirboo and bought Tullaree, Des and Bob worked together clearing the swamp of 20ft high tea tree and rubbish, and draining the 1000 acres, adding fencing, etc, and making the farm one of the top grazing properties in South Gippsland, from where bullocks regularly topped the sales at Newmarket.
Des was elected to the Korumburra Shire and he educated himself on all aspects of local government and was president several times, in all 37 years in the service of the local community. He became a Justice of the Peace at this time, a position he held for more than 50 years.
His door was always open to anyone who had a problem, and most times he was able to assist them. He was very kind to a number of people who were less fortunate than himself, and helped them through tough times. Many of his good deeds were known only to them.
Des married in 1953 and had five children – Maria (dec), Jennifer, Susan, Danny, and Trish. Later in his life he married Norma Baker and they have been together for many years.
Des made a huge impact on the South Gippsland area when he had a dream of making Korumburra the hub for the biggest saleyards in Victoria, ultimately eliminating the cost of road transport to Newmarket.
It was a struggle but with the assistance of shire engineer, the late Ray Walls, the saleyards were built and grew to become the most important in the state.
Previously he had travelled all over Australia and New Zealand to study what they had done, so he was able to come up with the best scenario, hence the yards in Alps’ paddock. He put a huge amount of work into the project and it created hundreds of jobs and brought a tremendous amount of money into the town, and it put Korumburra market days on the map.
As ill-health was slowing him down, he decided to sell his home and move back to Wonthaggi, as he was unable to use the stairs and steps.
He had a good many years back home where he could manage on flatter ground, and continued to carry out his farming activities and passing on his wealth of knowledge to other members of the family. It was important to him to keep the farm in the McRae name.
As his sister Doreen recalled: “Des played an important role in my life, being my Debutante partner, and he also took dad’s role in giving me away when I got married 65 years ago when mum was recovering from a major operation. He was also extremely helpful to me when our child passed away, and I will never forget his kindness. My grateful thanks to the doctors and staff at the hospital and Rose Lodge for their patience and care of Des. A special thank you to Fr Manny and Fr Howie who took care of his spiritual needs.”
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His daughter, Trish Copeland continued:
To those of you who don’t know me, my name is Trish Copeland and I am the youngest of Des’s children. I have sat in this church and quite a few others around the district over the years and listened to my father do the eulogy and dad was a very good public speaker. Not quite two years ago I stood up here and did the eulogy for my oldest sister Maria and after her funeral dad said to me “you did a really good job, in fact you did so well that in a few years I’ll give you a job if you’re up for it, and you can speak at my funeral”. And I said; “well ok but as long as you give me a good long break in between” and he assured me he wasn’t in any hurry, but here we are all too soon.
Dad always told me when you did any public speaking, you must follow the rule of the three S’s. The first ‘S’ is to stand upright and look like you know what you’re talking about, the second ‘S’ is to speak up good and clear and sound like you know what you’re talking about and the third ‘S’ is to shut up as soon as you possibly can, so I will try and adhere to dad’s golden rule.
We all grew up out at the farm at Kongwak which was called Willombee, which was a name that Dad’s mother came up with, and means meeting of the waters, which was appropriate because the Powlett and the Foster rivers meet on the property. The story goes that my grandfather sent dad and Bob and Kev to the auction in 1955. The property was to be sold in two lots and the boys were told to buy one of the lots, being the lot with the most river flat. Being young blokes let loose with dad’s approval, they purchased both lots and then had to go back and break it to their father that he needed to raise twice as much money. At that time the property was to be owned jointly by the boys under the name McRae brothers. Over the years all of dad’s properties had the Willombee sign, including the holiday house at Cowes. Being as how there are so many McRaes in the district it helped to prevent postal muck ups if the property had a name.
In fact when he first moved in to Graham Street in Wonthaggi, there was a mail muck up because Dennis McRae also lives in Graham Street, but he told me his solution was to tell Dennis that he could keep all the bills and dad would keep all the cheques!
Dad gave me lots of advice over the years and never gave me a bum steer. If I asked him about a particular problem he would often say ‘I’ll think about that and give you a call’ and more often than not I’d get a call first thing in the morning and he would say’ I thought about that overnight and this is what I think you should do’ he often had wakeful times at night and said he did some of his best thinking then. Considering I wrote most of this eulogy in the middle of the night, I may have inherited that gene.
He also had an extremely good legal and financial mind and was a sharp negotiator as many local real estate agents will attest to! The last car he bought, he got up Shepparton way $10,000 cheaper than he could locally and told the local car dealer “you blokes don’t want to sell cars”.
He took an active role in local politics even after he had retired from council and always read the local papers cover to cover as well as the Weekly Times and the Stock and Land. He had a great geographical knowledge of the state and various parts that he had travelled to. When the Greens had cattle banned from the high country he speculated “one day a big fire will go through that area” and a few years later it did.
He was once executor of a will, where two brothers were left some land, but neither brother could agree on how the land should be divided and it was looking like the lot would have to be sold. After some thought he told one brother he could decide how the land should be divided, but the other brother could have first pick. And so, thanks to his clever thinking, everyone was happy.
When my oldest girl was in year 12, there was a lot of talk about enter scores for uni. “Tell her I said not to worry, I never got my leaving certificate because I failed English, but it never stopped me making a success of my life.”
He liked to tell the story of when he was at St Joes they had to do a written report on a book called ‘the little red heifer’. The star of the class stood up to read his report and started with ‘The little red heifer, was a young steer’ whereupon Des laughed loudly and the old nun said: “McRae stand up. What’s so funny?” “Well sister, don’t you know about the birds and the bees?” He got the cane, which wasn’t a rare thing. He met that star of the class many years later in a pub in Dandenong, that bloke ended up an alcoholic and lost everything, so dad felt academic achievement did not necessarily equal success.
Dad was quite a larrikin, had a great sense of humour and was always trying to take a rise out of us kids and his grandkids. Jenny’s boy Luke, who was unable to make the funeral sent me a lovely tribute via email which I didn’t have the time to read out, but I’m going to put it up at the Workmen’s for everyone to read and it puts into words how his grand kids felt about him (see below).
When I was a kid wanting to earn pocket money he told me I could grub thistles and he would pay me a cent per thistle. I looked at the sea of thistles and thought, “I’m gonna make a fortune here!” I put in a concerted effort too, and several days later and blisters upon blisters from the mattock, I earned $5.
Aside from Norma and his family, his greatest love was the farm, and he kept an active interest there till the end, and always listened to the market every day on the radio. In recent times, dad had become prone to falls, and I dropped in there one day and asked him “what have you been up to?” “Oh two fifths of bugger all,” he said. “I fell over in the bathroom yesterday, but lucky this time I didn’t break anything. We had to call the ambulance to get the blokes to pick me up off the floor, they were taking a while so while I was waiting I rang Len. I sent a pen of cattle to the market that day and I knew Len would be there. Len asked me where I was and I told him as a matter of fact I’m lying on the bathroom floor. Anyway, he said my pen of cattle topped the market that day!”
Just prior to Christmas he broke his leg, but didn’t go to the doctors for a few days until I insisted that he get an X-ray. When I asked what he was doing for it, he showed me the tub of ointment he was using on it which was from Murray Goulburn and was for use on the cows, but he said it was real good stuff. He did a short stay in hospital then and told the physio if they wanted to send him to care, he would check himself out. The physio asked me why I thought he was in such a rush to get home and I said “well he has Norma there and he is used to running his own show” she laughed and said “I’m not surprised because he has been running the show here too”.
Now it’s time to refer back to dad’s public speaking rule and finish up. There’s no doubt in my mind that the brothers who have gone before dad will have commenced work on the McRae wing of the big house upstairs, so I’m sure they will all be up there sharing a few beers and planning the next McRae brothers venture and I’m sure St. Peter will nominate him for local council and finance committee!
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Reflections of a Grandson by Luke Kearney
Des McRae, our grandfather was known to us as Pop.
As kids growing up we saw Pop as a huge man, to us he was big and strong in stature and huge in character. We saw him as tough and hard-working with his knock-about humour and that unmistakable infectious laugh of his.
As kids we would always looked forward to the adventures we would have on school holidays when we would stay at Pop’s. He’d put us to work yarding the cattle, cleaning the yards, tagging (mostly picking up all the bloodied bits of ears, as a young boy that was the coolest job ever! Thanks, Pop), polishing his RM’s and that old favourite of ours hoeing thistles. At the end of the week he would give us our keep for the week which was anywhere between five and 20 bucks, it truly felt like a million dollars though. But Pop was always as fair as he was tough, it was always the harder you worked the more you earnt.
He would show us horsemanship and how to work cattle with his dog and with canes and stockwhips. He showed us how to catch the cattle’s leg as it ran away by telling us to run away and flicking the whip round our legs, making us fall flat on our faces, then that unmistakable laugh would follow, then we would run back and say “Pop, can you do that again”.
Then Pop would teach us how to clip the cattle on the backside with a flick of the whip by practicing on flowers, popping the heads of the flowers off, so we went home and mum’s prized daisy bush never stood a chance, sorry mum. But as Pop said to us, “you can now clip any bullock on the backside, especially if it has a flower on its backside”, then that unmistakable laugh again.
Reflecting over the last week, I now realise the profound and lasting effect on our lives this ‘huge’ man has had. We have all grown up and followed Pop’s example of working hard and earning our way, just as Pop did. Probably without even realising it he has passed on many parts of his character to us, including leaving us with a great (and sometimes wicked) sense of humour.
Today we commemorate and celebrate one of life’s true characters, if we can pass on to our kids and their kids half what Pop has given to us, then our lives will be all the better for it. For all those that knew Des, he will stay in our hearts forever.
For the first time in a very, very long time, Pop will no longer have a herd here to look after. However, I have no doubt he will be able to impart his vast experience to help the big boss upstairs to manage a whole new type of herd.
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Above: The late Des McRae was a councillor of the Korumburra Shire for 37 years, several times as shire president. The South Gippsland Council observed a minutes’ silence last week.