The lure of Forbes

It was a humbling experience to be nominated for the Forbes Citizen of the year and many thanks to the person who dobbed me in – I will find out who you are.

Joe Willis in his Rankin Street jewellery store.

Joe Willis in his Rankin Street jewellery store.

The recipient of the Young Citizen’s Award, Aiden Clarke (good on you mate) put it very nicely in his explanation of why we do these ‘things’. Not for self but for the benefit of others. I think it was the American folk singer Woody Guthrie who advocated “WE not ME”.

As I mentioned on the evening I am going to divide my ‘award’ into three sections. One for my wife, Ollie, who has put up with my ideas and projects for over 40 years and kept me in the middle when being mentally up or down. Without her nothing would get done.  

The second segment is for the 1,500-plus people, Australia wide, who have shared their life stories with me for The National Library of Australia’s archives. Particularly the hundred or so from the Forbes area who were the basis of our collection. I learnt so many lessons of life from these people – Paddy Godden, Ebb Wren, Biddy McClenehan and those who followed who shared sometimes tragic stories – Barb MacKinnon and Yvonne Shaw come to mind. There are many, many, others as well, all contributing to the way I look at life and a strong factor why we choose to live and stay in Forbes.

I’ll keep the third bit for myself.

A few early memories which might explain why we have chosen to stay here.

My grandparents came to Forbes and opened a Jewellery shop in Rankin St in the 1920’s, the business remained in my family until the 1960’s. Our residence was above the shop, this is where I spent most of my early life and it certainly gave me a great insight in to the characters of our town and probably inspired me to record life stories in later years.

My playground was the back lanes, my friends ranged from the Greek kids whose parents owned the cafes, the children of the ‘New Australians” who lived in the three storey flats in Lachlan Street to the drunks who frequented our lane at the back of Flannery’s pub. In retrospect this gave me an understanding of multiculturalism, class and racial discrimination. So the lanes became my ‘school of life’ and I loved them and still do.

But what about real school? Well, sad to say I was always bent on enjoying myself rather than learning and can remember a particular science master yelling at me over the Bunsen burner “you will NEVER make anything of yourself, Willis”. Our man is still alive and 103 years of age so I could not have scarred him that much.  

I do feel that we all have one teacher who has an influence on our lives. In my case it was in High School and a history teacher who came from South Africa to escape apartheid. He explained not only history but the stories behind the written history (particularly apartheid). I’m sure that this gave me my insatiable thirst to record the social history of Australia, the reason people did things and how they felt about it. Another good reason to like and stay in this place as it has a lot of history and stories.

I stayed in Forbes after completing my education, there was plenty of opportunity to get out and I certainly enjoyed life and different experiences but, I stayed and got a job. My first boss was one of nature’s gentlemen and a family friend, Merv Hawke. It was the beginnings of TV broadcasting in Forbes and we were flat out putting up aerials and fixing sets. Merv gave me my love of electronics, technology and most importantly MUSIC. A musician of many years standing, he could belt out any tune he heard. We followed his band, Collits/Hodges, to all the country halls, Bedgerabong, Warroo, Wirrinya to name a few and listened to the life stories told by the local characters. Employment with the general retail store of Arthur Hughes and Co followed until the early 1970s and this again was a wonderful lesson in life. It was a fun time with more characters – Hector May, Cocky Smith, 2GZ (Jack Antram), Noel Rath, Billy Crowe and the wonderful women and girls in the store and office. All had a marvellous sense of humour and sense of community. 

Even though Australia is our backyard these days and we could be recording stories for The National Library of Australia in Darwin one week and Hobart the next, Forbes will always be home. So a big THANKS to the people of this town for keeping me here.