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.