Goodbye to a national hero

from: Herald Sun (Melbourne) Thursday April 25, 1996.


by John Hamilton
By Geoff Easdown

by John Hamilton

A great cathedral became a little country church yesterday as the nation paused and paid tribute to Hubert Ferdinand Opperman, the telegraph boy from Rochester who became a national hero and died a national treasure. One of his descendants, a tiny baby, howled as a piper played The Flowers of the Forest. And Australians ranging from the Prime Minister to a passing courier on a bicycle stopped in at St Paul's to say goodbye to Oppy.

There was a pile of bikes parked outside the church as the State Service of Thanksgiving began. There were champion cyclists inside wearing the gold and green of the wattle. All that was missing was the noise of the whirring of the chain on the gear sprockets of his trusty Malvern Star to mark the passing of a legend.

The first wreath placed outside a side door of the cathedral was made of banksias and spinning gums and came from the management and patrons of a pub in Geelong.

Everybody loved Oppy.

Inside the cathedral great shafts of sunlight streamed through the high windows and lit up memorials of another age. The cross from the grave of an unknown soldier killed in France in World War 1. The brass tablet to the memory of Edith Cavell, an "English military nurse martyred in Belgium, 1915."

All this happened when Oppy was growing up in Rochester, when he rode his first bike. In many ways the service yesterday marked the passing of another age.

The shafts of sunlight in the church shone on white hair and old champions. This was a congregation of the Menzies generation. Old politicians, Liberal, Labor and National, moving slowly down the centre aisle. Except that in the days when they all served in parliament, the boys from the bush were in the Country Party.

Alan Brown, a politician of the present generation who hails from Wonthaggi, told how his father was born two hours after Oppy in 1904 at the equally small town of Rutherglen, and how the two families became friends and celebrated the old gentlemen's birthday together in the Speaker's Dining Room at Parliament House.

In a moving eulogy, Alan Brown told how he had visited his frail father in a nursing home to tell him of Oppy's passing. "I said to Dad, 'you'll miss Oppy, won't you?' He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said: 'I'll miss Oppy, but Alan, everybody will miss Oppy'."

That was it. It was like a small town saying goodbye to its favorite son instead of a whole nation mourning a person they called a national icon. Alan Brown said Oppy epitomised the Australian dream of being the best of the best.

Peter Bartels, who stilled the congregation with his recitation of Oppy's cycling achievements, talked of Oppy's modesty, his intense loyalty, his sense of duty and how he never quit, whatever the odds. And he told how the statue of Oppy at Rochester was now buried by the flowers sent by those who loved him.

We were back in the country church again, singing the old hymns. Praise My Soul The King of Heaven, Rock of Ages, Now Thank We All Our God. The piper in the kilt and bonnet played the retreat and those with white hair stood to attention and sang God Save The Queen.

And then all Australians present, young and old, across the generations spanning Oppy's 91 years, sang the national anthem with a rare fervor, singing goodbye to a man of the wattle.

Down the aisle, dressed all in black and with immense dignity, came Lady Mavys Opperman, his wife of 68 years. She was in a wheelchair, gently pushed, and with one gloved hand she clasped the hand of Bishop John Bayton from St George's College, Jerusalem, who had given the address.

It was the bishop who summed up this time of quiet joy and thanksgiving for a great Australian in a country church yesterday. Oppy, he said, had quite literally pedalled his way into the kingdom of heaven.

By Geoff Easdown

Australia yesterday honored a hero as the legends of sport, politics and business farewelled Sir Hubert Opperman at St Paul's Cathedral. Sports greats Dawn Fraser, Johnny Famechon and John Bertrand joined Prime Minister John Howard in paying their respects to the champion cyclist who had been a minister in the Menzies and Holt governments.

The mood of the occasion which attracted nearly 800 mourners, including the political greats of another era, was probably best summed up by an emotional Peter Bartels. Shedding a tear and trying to hide a tremor in his voice, the business leader and one-time cycling champion told the congregation:

"Oppy - you were are hero."

Sir Hubert Opperman, who was 91, died suddenly at home last Thursday while riding his exercise bike. He was privately cremated on Monday, but his presence was symbolised at yesterday's Cathedral service by the Opperman trademark - his familiar black beret. It sat beside his many decorations on a presentation cushion.

Mourners at the lunchtime state memorial service heard how the death of the humble giant in Australian sport and politics had closed a lifetime of service to the nation. Mr Bartels and the Victorian Minister for Transport and Opperman family friend, Alan Brown, said Sir Hubert had excelled in whatever role he had chosen.

"He was always a gentleman, in the fullest sense of the word," said Mr Bartels, who succeeded Sir Hubert as the patron of the Australian Cycling Federation. Mr Bartels said Oppy's values were the values that helped shape the Australian ethos.

"In all respects, he had a heart as big as Phar Lap. But he always said he was better off than Phar Lap, who ended up stuffed in the Melbourne Museum."

Sir Hubert was the holder of 101 cycling records, a minister in the Menzies and Holt governments and was the Australia's High Commissioner to Malta from 1967-1972. Mr Bartels recalled how, in 1988, Sir Hubert was named with Sir Donald Bradman and Herb Elliott as one of Australia's top three athletes of all time.

The mourners heard how Sir Hubert also reformed Australia's immigration policy. His Opperman doctrine in the 1960s changed the face of the racist "white Australia" policy that barred Asian immigration. "Sir Hubert Opperman literally pedalled his way into the Kingdom of Heaven," said Bishop John Bayton, of the St George's College, Jerusalem, while delivering the address.

But the pomp of Melbourne's Anglican cathedral service was not reserved for the great and famous during the 75-minute ceremony. Other people, such as Mrs Pam Searle, of Glen Waverley and Sydney high school teacher Dr Eric Aldin, also came and remembered the man world cycling lionised in the 1930s. Wearing a sprig of rosemary, which she said was plucked from a bush near her tram stop, Mrs Searle sat in a side pew shedding a quiet tear. "I admired him because he represented all that was once good about Australia," said Mrs Searle.

Sitting not far away was Dr Aldin, a member of the German cycling team at the 1952 Olympic Games at Helsinki. Now 72 and still teaching physical education at Prairiewood high school, outside Sydney, he remembered Opperman the legend. "As a schoolboy in Germany we would read about the riding feats of the great Australian Opperman," said Dr Aldin.

As the ceremony began, Sir Hubert's 89-year-old widow, Lady Mavys Opperman, led her family into the cathedral in a wheelchair pushed by her only surviving child, Ian. Her grand-daughter, Miss Cathy Laird, read the second lesson, from St John's Gospel.

Afterwards Lady Mavys was wheeled through the nave of the cathedral and into the Flinders St foyer, her right hand help by Bishop Bayton. It was there that this stooped and frail lady sat and bravely thanked all who came and remembered.

Among those whom she greeted were the two surviving members of the 1965 Menzies Cabinet: Ian Sinclair and peter Howson, who held the respective portfolios then of Social Services and the Ministry of Air. Also present were former federal minister Sir James Killen, Mr Tony Staley, Mr Tony Street, Mr Neil Brown, Mr J.J. Webster and Mr Frank Crean, a treasurer in the Whitlam government and father of the present Deputy Leader of the Federal Opposition.

Great names among numerous sporting identities at yesterday's service were former Australian world champion cyclist Sid Patterson, triple Brownlow Medallist Bob Skilton, multiple Olympic medallist Raelene Boyle and International Olympic Committee vice-president Kevan Gosper.

At the back of the congregation was a group of cyclists, dressed for the occasion in cycling togs and who had left their machines chained to the cathedral fence.

Sir Hubert would have liked that.

Submitted by Gareth Coco