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Don Williams – teacher, punter, man of the west, heart of gold

Don Williams (centre) and ASOPA palsKEITH JACKSON

DON Williams ('Old Baldy', he'd call himself) was hewn of the toughest and roughest stuff that they grow in the urban jungles of Sydney’s west.

Of gravel voice and challenging mien, he had a fondness for racehorses, bourbon, fishing and Camels. In no particular order of preference.

Those same cigarettes, he told me in our last conversation three weeks ago, were certainly responsible for the cancer in both lungs that killed him.

Don had called me to explain his circumstances and to say goodbye. We had a long conversation.

There was no self-pity and no regret. Don told me – through frequent bouts with a hacking, shuddering cough and deep uptakes of oxygen – that he was laboriously packing a bag to take with him to the hospice where he would die – and he was making sure he included a big bottle of bourbon and a carton of cigarettes.

“I don’t know where they’ll let me smoke,” he said. “Maybe outside on the footpath.”

He had refused chemotherapy. The specialist told him the drugs might glean a few extra months, but Don was happy to get the whole business over and done with.

“Taddy, I’m spitting blood into a bucket. It can’t be too far away.”

I first read Don Williams' name in February 1966 when, sitting in my school at Gagl, an hour’s walk into the hills on top of Kerowagi, I received a note demanding I disclose the nature of the sporting equipment held in the storeroom.

I sent a note back with the runner telling this Williams cove to sniff off and, the following weekend, walked into Kerowagi to kill the loneliness of the school and to meet this brusque note writer.

I also drank his whiskey, smoked his Camels and ogled my way through his Playboys.

And we became good mates.

Don – rough diamond that he was – was an exceptionally fine teacher; later in his career becoming a headmaster in the Northern Territory and, after gaining a master’s degree, a school counsellor in north Queensland.

He was married twice. The first unmarriage was undoubtedly his fault; the second wasn’t. At the time of his cancer diagnosis, he was engaged in a long distance relationship with a charming Brazilian woman.

Don believed that this time, although relatively late in life, he had found the right person. Then he was whacked by the cancer – a development he regarded phlegmatically as just another of life’s strange and unfortunate twists.

But one thing Don was never unemotional about was politics.

As his good mate Ed Brumby wrote of his last chat with Don about a week ago: “Despite the influence of painkillers which impacted his usual coherence, he continued to display his hallmark irritation and anger about the state of the world.”

Ed added: “But not about his condition, which he’d accepted with uncommon grace and dignity”. Exactly.

Don was a couple of year older than me, so I guess he would have been about 73. Not a short life; not a long one either; but – apart from all those bastards making a mess of the world – a life he enjoyed and devoured.

He loved living in the small hamlet of Taylor’s Beach in north Queensland. And he loved the other folk who lived there. He didn’t love the drive into town to see the doctor which necessitated the negotiation of a series of roundabouts.

“I’ve gone blind in one eye,” he told me in that last conversation, “and going round ’em makes me dizzy. I'm still a good driver, but when the time comes I’ll get the ambulance to take me out of here.” That time turned out to be only a week away.

Don had studied at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in 1964-65 and maintained strong and robust connections with his classmates.

The expressions of dismay at his death have been many and heartfelt.

To mix a metaphor, at which Don would have bridled, the rough diamond from Sydney's west had a heart of gold.

His mate Ken Grant wrote: “Don had a place at the Single Malt Round Table which we will leave unfilled.”

And Don's punting buddy, Bryson O'Malley, with whom he once won $24,000 on a quadrella, has promised to place several bets in his honour tomorrow and on Saturday.

"Though failing in health," Bryson wrote, "Don insisted we provide him with a laptop to enable his punting to continue."

You'll be missed, Old Baldy.


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Jenny Williams

Oh my goodness. Don is my uncle. We have had no contact for years because of his second wife. My family is unaware of his death as was I till just now. Please contact me on j-a-williams1@hotmail.com

Justine Leeder

Don was my teacher at Berry Springs School in the NT around 1982. I also lived with him and Buna while I went to high school in Darwin around 1986/87. He was a good teacher and a person I'll never forget.

I'll always remember him with his pack of Camels and a glass at the end of a hard day of teaching. He certainly was a rough diamond with a heart of gold.

Ingrid Jackson

Don was indeed a rough diamond. He presented as a tough dude, but then you discovered the truth beneath. He was passionate about teaching disadvantaged children, excelled in his university studies, played the guitar soulfully and was loyal and extremely supportive throughout his ex-partner's depressive illness. And it seems, mostly lived life the way he wanted it.

Geoff Hancock

My memories of Don are similar to those already mentioned.We were young folk enjoying the newfound freedom of life in Moresby.
Don showed considerable tolerance towards my somewhat puerile behaviour when i would often crash at his home in Bisini Pde Boroko which he shared with my good mate Dave Box .Great days.

Vale Don.

Gordon Barry Shirley

Don was all the things that folk outlined above. I took over the Gagl School in Simbu from Don in 1969. He had left a very comprehensive and informative file regarding the Gena Tribe on whose land the school had been built.

He also warned me that the Siku Tribe next door might cause a few headaches, as the Genas did not believe that the Sikus should attend Gagl.

I appreciated the warning and we did not have too much trouble.

There were five expat head teachers at that school from 1965 to 1972. Now there are three left. May Don rest in peace.

Richard Jones

Very, very sad to hear of Old Baldy Don's passing. He was a regular e-mail contact of mine. Don was one of the few (like me) who took offence at the sort of pro-Trump, pro-Pauline missives which have been landing regularly into in-boxes of late.

I always perked up when the 'old baldy don' e-mail lobbed because I would be certain of a few laughs and a nodding of the head in agreement with most of his observations.

We'd both hit the 'delete' button, virtually automatically, when the 'isn't Pauline great' e-mails fronted up.

One thing not mentioned above though, Keith. Old Baldy was a rugby league referee of some standing in the old Papuan Rugby League. Its sixties Friday night competition matches pre-dated the very popular AFL and NRL Friday night fixtures of the current era by quite a period.

Judging by his comments on the current crop of refs, especially when State of Origin bobbed up, OBD wasn't best pleased with the quality and knowhow of refs of the 2000s.

He was also an intrepid traveller. We used to get quite lengthy wraps of where he and his wife had been when they arrived back in Oz.

My goodness, though, how the ranks are thinning!

Murray Bladwell

Keith, your pen picture of Don with his rough diamond exterior, gravel voice and heart of gold bring back endearing memories of a teaching colleague who made a genuine contribution to the kids he taught. He was a no bulldust sort of person who took pride in his profession and took no prisoners in his views of the human condition.

I will toast Don with a single malt and think of happy Simbu days.

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