Goulburn’s famous postie Wendell Rosewarne turns 80 on Tuesday (December 19). Brown and lean as leather, the veteran sporting legend who helped Tony Abbott complete seven ‘pollie pedal’ rides has terminal cancer. He may not see Christmas. The warmth of his closest mates and memories of his mother Mary, a World War I Legacy widower, is overwhelming him with sadness.
He wants to be remembered as an ordinary man. I remember him for breathing life into a fundraising appeal many years ago for a young man who lost his legs in a shocking car accident. On his red postie’s bike Wendell collected thousands of dollars from business owners for a trust for the injured man. Later named citizen of the year, Wendell became a fundraising celebrity. He played Australian rules until he was 60. In 2000 he rode with politicians including Australia’s future prime minister to raise money for the Sydney Olympic Games.
From Canberra to Sydney with long detours Wendell rode a standard issue Australia Post bike without gears, pushing further than expected. At Moss Vale Mr Abbott, aware of Wendell and his terrier Monty’s rising media profile, asked him to continue to Sydney.
“Abbott came over to me and says, ‘look mate we really need you and although you have just finished, we will get you back (to Goulburn) on a Post Office truck.”
“No, I’m going back with those blokes,” Wendell, then 63, said, gesturing to other riders returning to Goulburn.
“Well mate, where do you live?” Mr Abbott asked.
Having opened an office for Mission Employment nearby, Mr Abbott was familiar with the address and said: “You go back to Goulburn with the boys, get your gear ready and I’ll be there at 7 o’clock in the morning to pick you up to continue the ride.”
“He was there. And we became very, very bonded after that,” Wendall says. In a tent near Wollongong Mr Abbott woke him on another occasion. “I’ve got to fly to Brisbane on political business,” he said in the pre-dawn darkness. “You gotta promise me something mate, you have to finish the complete ride today.” Wendell assured him he would continue to Camden that day.
“He came back that night from Brisbane and woke me up in the bloody tent. He said ‘I got to see you’. I said piss off Abbott, I’m trying to sleep. He says, ‘Mate, did you do what I promised you to?’ I said yes.
“Every inch mate?”
“I completed every bit.’’
In his younger years, Wendell honed his cricket, tennis and squash skills. He often ran squash rivals off their feet. Eminent surgeon John Crawford became a regular opponent and close friend off the court.
“Incredible surgeon and incredible man,” says Wendell, from his bed around the corner from the John Crawford wing at Goulburn Base Hospital. “He said to me once, it doesn’t matter if you live under a piece of tin, as long as you are healthy.”
After one squash game they stepped into a winter’s night and driving rain that left access to the Golf Club where they usually had a beer, under water. Wendell dashed home, where he was looking after Mary who was left with three children under age 5 when her husband Percy was killed in World War I.
“Ten minutes after I got home there was a knock at the front door. It was Doc. Crawford. He sat with Mum in front of the old fuel stove for over two hours, talking to her about her experiences in the older times. They sat there like two old friends. I couldn’t believe his humility, because that was what he was like,” Wendall says, his eyes glassy with tears.
Years ago, about to run onto the field with the Hawks Australian rules team, Wendell was approached by Steve Armstrong, a student at the then teachers college, asking for a game. In the years ahead Steve equalled Wendell’s extraordinary record of 400 games.
In 1968 Wendell, a wiry all-round sportsman, toured the world with Australian Old Collegians cricket team. He carried the Olympic torch in front of 6000 people at Victoria Park in 2000, after almost forfeiting his place when he fought to have Monty by his side without a lead.
One Sunday night in August this year Wendell, alone at home, fell from his chair, breaking his shoulder. In pain he realised his mobile phone was flat. He thought he would die, until he found a spare phone Lance Eccles had given him, with enough power to dial 000. From the emergency ward at Goulburn he was taken to Canberra where doctors found a shadow over his pancreas which led to his cancer diagnosis.
While specialists at Canberra’s pancreas unit have been unable to get a clear picture on the cancer, he has had one round of surgery to give him enough relief to eat.
“I have had a great life, John,” Wendall says. “I’m not frightened of anything, and people have been so fantastic since word has got around.”
He says the Mayor Bob Kirk will see his Olympic torch and Queen’s Baton go to the Goulburn Hall of Fame. His Australian Sports Medal from former Governor General Sir William Dean, and Centenary medal, will be safeguarded too.
“My dad’s medals will go to Rocky Hill war memorial and a couple of letters, which Rod MacLean says my father wrote to the Penny Post, some from others too, about their experiences in the Great War.” Steve Armstrong, who coaxed and supported Wendell through the final years of his Australian rules career, is constantly at his bedside.
Wendell says at school peers would brush him aside. In time he learned the genuine sports stars are not so fickle. One he always admired, cricketer Russell Mills, now deceased, became so close to Wendell he could confide in him. He said to Russell: “You know, after all these years, you and Burnsie, (John Burns) all the top cricketers in Goulburn, I have actually got your respect. And he says to me, ‘You are a bit rough, but you’re a goer.’’