Citizen of the Year 2017: Rob Willis

Mayor Graeme Miller and Australia Day Ambassador Sandra Bates congratulate Citizen of the Year Rob Willis.

Mayor Graeme Miller and Australia Day Ambassador Sandra Bates congratulate Citizen of the Year Rob Willis.

Rob Willis signed up for more than a musical when he joined the Forbes M and D some 40 years ago. 

Through the production Reedy River, he not only got to know wife Olya, but sparked a life's work that would see him receive the Order of Australia and last Thursday be named Forbes’ 2017 Citizen of the Year.

Rob Willis records the “untold stories” of Australia. His audio, video and photographic work is the largest collection of social history and folklore housed at the National Library of Australia.

With Olya by his side, he has recorded more than 1400 hours for the library. And it was all inspired by Forbes and its characters. 

“Forbes is the folklore capital of Australia,” Mr Willis maintains. As well as the best place to live. 

Reedy River contained a number of Australian folk songs collected by John Meredith. Learning them, Mr Willis realised he was surrounded by people who played and sang this traditional music … but they wouldn’t be around forever. 

He grabbed a cassette recorder and went out to listen. He learned the instruments so he could play the songs. 

The man from Cookamidgera - the songs and music of Colin Charlton.

And he discovered that not only did these people have minds full of music, they had stories. Funny stories, sad stories, true stories and stories that might have grown and changed with time. 

In the years since, Mr Willis has recorded Forbes’ story: from Kate Kelly’s final days to the legends of Brewery Lane, right through to those lost in the Bali bombings.

He has captured lost trades such as the cobbler with Harry Cahill; steam engine driver with Ebb Wren and horse team farmer with Wilf Norris.

Ebb Wren sings "The Forbes Flood"

From songs about Ben Hall to the impact of the drought of the 2000s, he is determined to bring history to life for this and future generations. 

These stories are all preserved in the NLA and available through their website Trove.

While Mr Willis was incredibly moved to be honoured by his home town on Australia Day, he’s not driven by awards. He is the richer for all that he has learned – and would love to share the award with Olya and the thousands of people who have shared their stories.