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In memory of Laurie McGrath

By Kyabram Free Press

Deaths always trigger instant memories.

Some pleasant, some not.

So on hearing of the death of a mate from my school days last week, my memory went into overdrive.

That boyhood friend who left us was Laurie McGrath, who had endured a really rough trot with his health in recent times but never dwelled on it.

In fact he was even lighthearted about it.

For me, memories of the good times we had shared in our teen years came thick and fast.

It was a long time ago now, but I couldn’t think of one moment when Laurie and I showed no respect for each other.

In other words I can’t ever recall arguing with him.

Debating — usually on football or sporting issues — yes, but never anything we ever regretted or fell out over.

Yes, true mates.

Laurie was one of the first of the St Augustine’s Primary School students who successfully negotiated the ridiculous Catholics versus Protestants tightrope to do his secondary schooling at the Kyabram High School in the late 1950s.

In the same class we jelled from the start, mainly because we were both sports mad young men who loved our fishing.

Academically, Laurie took his schooling a lot more seriously than I did.

He was one of the brighter lights in our class through those years.

Laurie was from a large, respected Kyabram family and had six siblings — Margaret, Peter, Patrick, Ron (dec), Leonie and John.

John has been a lifelong Kyabram resident.

Every time I drive down to the west end of Kyabram these days my thoughts go back to those distant days and the warm welcome I always received from the inhabitants of the quaint, old red-brick McGrath residence, which still stands proudly today on the northern corner of McEwen Rd and Fenaughty St.

Laurie’s mother, Agnes, was an absolute gem of a woman who would do anything for her family and anyone else who may have needed help or guidance.

His father Mick was an affable man who worked hard as a Telecom linesman to put bread on the table for his large family.

Laurie left Kyabram in his late teens to join the Victorian Railways administration staff in an old 19th century gloomy, brick building in Spencer St, Melbourne, which backed onto the rail tracks.

I remember paying him a visit one day in his small office and immediately thinking this wasn’t for him.

A laid back country boy in a hectic city landscape and workplace just didn’t seem right.

To me Laurie was a born and bred country bumpkin and just didn’t look or act or want to be a city slicker.

To my relief it wasn’t long before Laurie saw the light and joined the police force.

This was a role and profession which lasted for 37 years and I’m sure everyone he brushed shoulders with down those years would testify he was tailor-made for the job.

Laurie was intelligent and understanding with a compassionate nature — qualities I humbly believe all good police officers possess.

After he graduated, country life beckoned again for Laurie and for much of his policing career he was stationed in Mildura.

I have this sneaking suspicion the added incentive of catching an iconic Murray cod or two from the Murray River may have also had something do with his love affair with that part of the world.

For law enforcing officers there are only two scenarios if they nestle in the one place for a long time.

You are respected — both as a community member as much as a policeman — or you aren’t.

And those who attended Laurie’s farewell from Mildura and the police force almost 20 years ago provided the unanimous answer.

To me, the fact a packed house of some 400 people from all walks of life attended that farewell said it all about Laurie the policeman and Laurie the person.

Recalling all the good times we shared all those years ago now, two things jumped out at me.

There was a time when we decided to take a permanent loan — some may have a different word for it — of some oranges from a large and impressive perfectly packed pile that must have taken an eternity to stack in rows on top of each other by the owner — a Mr Croucher — in his cafe on the corner of Allan St and McEwen Rd.

As nervous as we were making that heist we quickly realised it wasn’t a good idea to pull the oranges out from the bottom row.

This triggered an orange tidal wave that almost beat us back to the refuge of the adjoining McGrath household.

Then there was the day all our Christmases came at once.

What a day that was.

It was in fact on Christmas Day in the late 1950s when Laurie, Dick Clay (yes, the Kyabram and Richmond footy champion) and myself thought we would try our luck at some fishing before tucking into Christmas dinner with our families.

At that age when Father Christmas had scratched our names off his places to visit, we headed off early to a favourite spot on the Wyuna main channel, known as Smith’s Dropbar.

Never in our wildest dreams as we biked the seven miles (14 km) south on McEwen Rd to this spot did we imagine what was to transpire.

To say the fish were on the bite was the understatement of the millennium.

The fish — all redfin — were literally on the boil; dozens of them and all of plump, healthy eating size.

To be perfectly honest we didn’t catch them; they caught themselves.

Whether we had rudely stumbled on a redfin Christmas party below the waterline I’m not sure, but they were all there for whatever the occasion may have been and they were ravenous.

I suspect it was a Christmas they didn’t enjoy but we thought we were in fishing heaven.

We even had to get a large grain bag off a neighbouring farmer to transport all the fish home.

The bag was so heavy we each took it in turns of about 500 m to lug it over our shoulders to proudly get home with the haul of about 80 ‘reddies'.

Missing Christmas dinner hadn’t even entered our thoughts at that stage, but when it did we knew we had a waterproof excuse to explain why we were late for it.

After retiring to Victoria Point in Queensland with his wife Lynn, Laurie never lost his thirst for news from his home town.

There was the occasional personal visit over the years and I received regular phone calls from Laurie.

He was always keen to discuss how the town and district and all the sporting teams were faring.

He would often sing the praises of the elite sports people, particularly footballers, that tiny Kyabram had produced.

He always had a deep-rooted affection for his home town and pedalled its virtues to anyone who cared to listen.

Laurie may have left Kyabram but Kyabram never left him.

Thanks for those treasured memories, mate.

You were not only a great and loyal friend but a great person.

Laurie is survived by his wife Lynn, daughters Jo and Nadine, their husbands Gordon and Mark and grandchildren Erin, Jack, Kate, Scott and Liam.

His funeral will be held in Brisbane on Friday and due to current COVID-19 restrictions, the service will be live-streamed for those unable to attend.

Email [email protected] for streaming details.