Death of Harry Roach - a man for all seasons
25 January 2022
NOOSA – On Friday, they’ll bury Harry Roach in the pretty country graveyard at Cooroy.
Cooroy, 20 kilometres inland from Noosa, had been his and Betty’s home pretty much since they left Papua New Guinea just before independence in 1975.
You’ll have to tolerate my vagueness because, for a man who did so much, knew so many and seemed a permanent fixture anywhere he was, Harry didn’t leave behind too many tracks.
It is vivid memories and stout friendships that Joseph Harold (Roachy) Roach left in his wake.
Soon after he died at home early Saturday afternoon, his great buddy Rob Parer got in touch with me to share the wretched news.
Harry had been ill for a long time, but the last period was the worst because Harry refused to use pain killers. There have been few born more obstinate than Harry.
As we grow old, it’s not really a shock when an acquaintance dies; that’s somehow expected. Death makes its presence felt as more of a crossroads where desolate sorrow meets a damn shame.
Most of the people a bloke would have wanted to share things with at such a time have gone to the place where Roachy’s gone.
And those glorious days have also gone. Days when splendid achievement or frustrated outrage or lashes of danger or preposterous frivolity would be laughed about later over two or three beers too many. And that would be that.
But now we are old and no matter how vivid the memories and animated the spirit that remains, we know those times can never come back.
My immediate reaction upon hearing the news about Harry last Saturday was to write something. That's how I handle grief these days.
It was a brief note to let people know that he'd left us. And to this brief message, bereft of much else, I appended one of his favourite yarns, the saga of ONGU:
“Harry Roach died at two o’clock this afternoon bringing to an end an illustrious career as a Papua New Guinea kiap, a Cooroy property salesman and a Noosa shire councillor.
“Harry was known wherever he went as a can-do man, a thoroughgoing professional, a solid citizen and an inveterate prankster.
“Life with Harry could be eye-popping, hair-raising and mind-blowing, but the saga of ONGU was perhaps his greatest accomplishment – a true tour de farce.
"We express our great sadness to Betty who, with Harry, made one of the best teams of community builders Aitape, Kieta, Cooroy and the world ever saw. Great men and women exist because of what they do, not because of what is said. The deeds live on.”
The deeds live on but the words never quite do it at times like this. Truth is I don’t know the detail of Harry’s personal story. I’m going to have to paint a picture.
Of Aitape, where he is remembered with great affection, Harry wrote:
“There was very little to occupy the ever-enquiring minds of the people who lived and worked in the many and varied outstations of the Sepik District in the mid 1960's.
“And so it was with those who filled the various government and private occupations on the small Aitape outstation at the time.
“There was occasional cricket against the Doggett XI. Tennis on the concrete slab laid down by the AIF for its mess hall during the war. A dangerous surf. A popular game of golf on the ever expanding airstrip…..”
Harry could be fairly quick in his judgement of his fellow humans, once describing his immediate superior, the West Sepik district commissioner, as “a fossilised obstructionist”.
“You have certainly left your mark in a big way in many fields,” Parer commented after Harry’s death. “One of the best kiaps ever to set foot in New Guinea.”
Brother Charles Barry, a missionary in PNG for 26 years, clearly recalled his encounter with Harry in his 2010 memoir, Reminiscences & Recollections:
“I attended a party on Government Hill, Aitape, in the early 70s hosted by senior kiap Harry Roach with many others including Rob Parer, a real identity and great mission supporter, and his wife Margaret.
“Next morning, Sunday, Rob suggested Harry, Lawrence Cassar and me do a spot of sailing in Rob’s new yacht Seksek. We got totally becalmed a mile out to sea.
Harry and Rob, with mild hangovers, succumbed to sleep while Lawrence and I got seasick even though conditions were dead calm. I jumped into the placid sea and a slight breeze came up and the yacht slowly drifted away.
“Being only an average swimmer I couldn’t keep up with it and my yelling went unheeded for some time until one of them became aware I was missing. After clumsy manoeuvering they eventually rescued me. Harry was not very complimentary in his remarks”
Harry was nothing if not opportunistic and in August 1969 he wangled a trip to New South Wales to study the Australian beef industry. Because there weren't too many stud bulls in Kings Cross, the destination for the week-long visit was Bourke in the state's far west.
The Western Herald reported on its front page, Study Tour From New Guinea, that one Mr Roach had revealed that “the meat industry is just coming good in New Guinea” and that “the general atmosphere in Bourke is similar to some centres in New Guinea with golf, bowls and other sporting clubs.”
Warming to his theme, Harry explained that the Rotary Club "had sent pumps, well-making and other materials [and] a humane act was the forwarding of an X-Ray plant to the hospital at Aitape”.
The newspaper also reported that “Mr Roach represented Wewak Golf Club at golf on Sunday and was enthusiastic about the wonderful day’s golfing and the very efficient organisation at the Bourke Golf Club.”
Wherever Harry ended up, he cut a swathe.
Rob Parer, who spent much of his life in the West Sepik, which he knows as no other white man, recalls the time 12 bedraggled Indonesians came ashore in Aitape in a rickety homemade sailing boat.
“They had drifted from the Maluku Group for six weeks and been reduced to eating stinking copra,” Parer says. “They came ashore at night and the Aitape police grabbed them and tied them to poles.
“A map had been found on one of them with PNG marked as ‘East Irian’ and all hell broke loose as the authorities were sure they were spies.
“Four or five intelligence operatives from Canberra came to Aitape to check them out.”
When the tumult died down Harry allowed them out of the local prison to do some grass cutting and gardening around the station and, when he found out they were entertainers, they Maluku 12 were invited to the Aitape Club to sing and dance every Saturday night.
That was an archetypal Roach initiative.
I first met Harry and Betty in Bougainville when they transferred to Kieta from Aitape – arriving on Saturday, 17 April 1971 (where there is precision, there is always Bill Brown).
Harry had been appointed executive officer of the Arawa Municipal Commission, I was running Radio Bougainville and the notorious Bougainville copper and gold mine was just coming into production up in the mountains.
On the coast, at the former Arawa plantation, a substantial township was being constructed for the sizeable population that was to work at and provide for the mine.
While he was still a kiap – and, as an assistant district commissioner, a senior one - Harry was effectively the Arawa town clerk, or the Mayor of Arawa as he preferred to be known.
It was his official role to manage the new town’s development and its affairs. It was his unofficial role to keep everyone he encountered on their toes, to enjoin at every level, to raise morale in every setting and to generally be a highly effective gadfly.
Harry and I didn’t have much to do with each other professionally in Kieta but we were active in the sailing club and would collaborate to perform occasional skits at the Kieta Club:
Jackson: It is said you were the first man to sail from Toromaro Cove to Pokpok Island without making landfall.
Roach: So true.
Jackson: But there is no land between Toromaro Cove and Pokpok Island.
Roach: Yes, that ranks as my most important discovery.
Jackson: Tell me about your ideology of sailing.
Roach: A great Australian sport. It’s catching on overseas I believe.
Jackson: Are you saying that Australians invented sailing?
Roach: It was that great Aussie politician Banjo Paterson who wrote, “I am sitting in my dinghy”.
Jackson: He was a poet but I’m certain he didn’t say that.
Roach: They’re all ratbags.
When Harry and Betty returned to Australia they established a successful real estate agency in Cooroy and once again became sterling members of the local community, so much so that Harry was elected to serve a term as a Noosa Shire councillor from 1984-88.
Harry's funeral service will be held at Drysdale’s funeral parlour in Tewantin at 10am on Friday, followed by a small graveside service at the Cooroy cemetery at 11.15.
Covid has determined there will be no wake.
Harry would not have been pleased about that and would have fixed it.
Thank you, Keith. I got to know Harry in Arawa through a fellow ex-kiap, the late Frank Donovan.
This was when Panguna, Loloho and Kieta were humming with multinational enterprise and Arawa seemed to be the centre of the PNG universe.
Jobs were plentiful, the local economy was booming and a brand new town was growing with the guiding hand of Harry who also had his after hours office at the Arawa Country Club - no doubt for the health benefits of golf and decisions of great import.
I was so pleased to have caught up with him more recently at several of the Kawana Waters ex-kiap reunions.
Harry was one of the many helpful pioneers and mentors of that era; a damn good bloke for PNG and Australia who will be missed by many.
Posted by: Graham Watts | 26 February 2022 at 07:37 PM
Thanks Keith - Harry could certainly make things buzz and explode at times and he was never dull. A loveable larrikin with a heart of gold.
I just checked the dictionary definition of 'larrikin' - a person with apparent disregard for convention, a maverick, a boisterous, often badly behaved young man.
That last bit may have been only when he was letting his hair down after hours. What he did for the West Sepik District was extraordinary and raised sleepy Aitape in many, many ways.
It had one of the best local government councils in TPNG. The council looked after the people and had so many services. One of the most appreciated ones was that most villages had a water supply with hand pumps.
There was a small tax of course and the finances were well supervised.
There were many squatters around Aitape without title to the land they were on and Harry, through the council, pushed long and hard and eventually established a 600 acre land resettlement scheme at Poro 20 km inland across the Yalingi River.
It was properly surveyed and individual settlers had their own allotment.
He also worked with the island people, especially John Pitau of Ali Island and Fr Dom OFM, the local parish priest who in his younger days had been a shipwright and who established a successful boat building business on Ali Island.
They built many pinnaces and sold them to people along the coast all the way to the Sepik River. One pinnace was christened 'Joseph H Roach' to honour him.
Posted by: Rob Parer | 27 January 2022 at 12:37 PM
Celebrated. Australia's award to populace at each of Harry's appointments.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 26 January 2022 at 12:34 PM