Becoming a larrikin was easy. The events of his early life conspired against Harry to create a survive-as-best-you-can approach.
Baby Harry was in the care of an older sister in Brunswick, Victoria, following the death of their mother. He was removed from her care and placed in St Augustine’s Orphanage at Geelong in the early 1930s. Harry would not see his sister for a decade.
The orphanage was home to 300 ‘kids’, some of whom were adults with nowhere else to go. Might was right for most of these, so being bashed up and having possessions stolen was the rule. “I went bad in the orphanage because I was frightened – frightened of everyone I came up against.”
One of the Christian Brothers helped Harry survive in a harsh world by teaching him to defend himself. He taught Harry to box. Harry took these skills beyond defence. He formed a gang around him and became something of a champion to others being bullied. He readily intervened with his fists to ‘resolve’ situations.
In his early teens Harry defeated all contenders in a Geelong Boxing Competition. The final was, coincidentally, with an older boy named Gerald Power. After a toe-to-toe contest Harry won on points. Brother Dwyer asked Harry if Gerald was his brother. “I don’t think I’ve got any.” A check of records revealed that they were indeed brothers, and two others had been Harry’s victims in the eliminations!
Harry’s efforts to connect with these new-found brothers were rebuffed. It was not until much later in life that Harry was to enjoy some semblance of family relationships with his many siblings.
Stories about orphanage life run the gamut. Some of the Brothers were brutal. Some were supportive. Some experiences were traumatic, others rewarding. Harry can relate stories with tears in his eyes, and some with a twinkle. He cried when he left.
Resourcefulness was Harry’s legacy from the orphanage. He succeeded in many fields: farm worker, horse-breaker, dog trainer, barman, salesman, bus driver, snake catcher. His fighting abilities took on a more ominous form when he enlisted to fight in the Korean War. With the 3rd Battalion RAR Harry fought in some of Australia’s most gruelling and glorious battles. Following one fire fight ,Harry discovered his life had been spared from a bullet which destroyed the innards of the radio on his back.
There was no debrief after the trauma of war in those times. Harry didn’t know why he drank so heavily and so often. What rescued Harry from the drinking and the fighting that often accompanied it?
That’s where we introduce Pat. He saw her at a party and promptly said, “I’m going to marry that girl.” By this stage Harry had connected with his oldest sister. She had seen enough of her brother’s lifestyle to promptly warn Pat not to get tangled up with that “drunken, fightin’ bastard”. Pat’s mother enlisted her son to scare Harry off. She didn’t want Harry to father fifteen children with her daughter, following his father’s record. The brother may have been lucky to father children of his own after what Harry did to him!
Pat couldn’t resist. When Harry caught up with her at a jitterbugging competition soon after, the future was sealed.
Harry attributes his turn around in life to Pat. “I wanted to make her happy and please her.” His turn around was not instantaneous. With one child, they had moved from Melbourne to the Newcastle area for a new start. When other children came along (only five, not a patch on Dad) Harry knew he couldn’t spend “their money” on grog.
Harry says he knows how the Prodigal Son felt. He attended church and it felt good to be back. He reasoned, “If I felt this good then I’m going to keep coming back.” And so he has. “Then I learned about prayer. If you pray long enough and hard enough and have faith in that prayer, then it will succeed.”
Harry knows about success. In June 2010 he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and palliative care was organised. His weight plummeted from 82 to 39 kilos. I had visited Harry at that time when he looked like a fleshed out skeleton.
But Harry was fighting and praying. It was as if he took up a saying attributed to St Augustine, patron of his orphanage, “Act as if everything depends on you; pray as if everything depends on God.” A chance conversation with a building society teller led to a regime of paw-paw leaf extract, combined with positive thinking and exercise. Prayer to Jesus and “my Father”, and the intercession of St Mary MacKillop and through St Peregrine (patron of cancer sufferers), became Harry’s daily practice.
In March 2012 Harry was pronounced cancer-free. No trace of cancer could be found. Numerous doctors reviewed the original diagnostic material and came away unable to explain. Harry has a reputation now as ‘the miracle man’.
And so to the rosary beads. Harry grows beads on a Job Bush. The slightly tear-shaped beads are ideal for rosaries as they have a natural hole through the middle. Fifty-nine beads take an hour and a half to thread into a rosary. This was one of the few tasks Harry could do when at his sickest.
Thousands of Harry’s rosaries are found across the globe. Special orders in football colours (glass or plastic) are common. The red and blue of Harry’s venerated Knights have featured in his output.
What’s life about for Harry now? “Putting up with me”, chirps Pat. Yes, it’s about Pat, and kids and grand-kids and great-grand-kids, and church and friends and ANZAC Day. “The only thing I would give away is the war and the beer.”