Where are they now – Brian Gleeson (SPC 1947-52)

March 25, 2018

The College reconnects with College Legend Brian Gleeson (SPC 1947-52) who is busy writing his memoirs and shares some of his favourite memories of his time at SPC, including his friendly sporting rivalry with contemporary and fellow Brownlow Medallist, the late John James (SPC 1948-52).

Brian Gleeson.


-After seven years at Villa Maria, Ballarat East, my older brother Gerald and I were keen to start school at St Patrick’s College, Ballarat. We had been well conditioned by our admiration of their sporting teams. We had been permitted to see them at the Ballarat Public School Sports at the Ballarat City Oval where they were successful and resplendent with the green shamrock on their white singlets. We also saw their 1st XVIII play some football games, wearing the famous vertically striped green white and blue. Furthermore our Dad was an SPC Old Boy. He had been schooled there in 1916 and 1917. On our first visit with Dad, he walked us down the corridor and identified people we knew, including himself, his brothers, cousins, and several friends such as Joyce family members. One cousin, Hugh Devine, was on the very first roll call in 1893 and his extra large photo featured him as Sir Hugh Devine. He was knighted because of his extraordinary contribution to the advancement of surgery in Australia.

It was Mum’s idea that I should go on to St Patrick’s College at the same time as my brother, in 1947. I was a -‘bright’ student in primary school, so it was arranged at Villa, that I should complete grades 7 and 8 in one year. I did so and achieved the Merit Certificate, as was the goal of their grade 8 students. However, their school curriculum was limited and did not teach any of the so-called secondary subjects of algebra, geometry, Latin or French. Education was in a transitional stage and these were standard subjects in the curriculum of the more academic schools, for Year 7 and 8 students. So, on arriving at St Patrick’s for Year 9. I lacked two years of foundation in those subjects. I was put into what was called the -‘Scholarship’ class with 44 other students and expected to pick up three years of algebra, geometry, latin and french and win a junior government scholarship. There was only one teacher who was totally harassed with his impossible task. In his frustration he turned to anger so often that he was nick-named -Basher’. He was not there in the following year; who could blame him?

The outcome for me was a humiliating disaster and I never did catch up. Thereafter, I suffered a major loss of confidence in my ability in the classroom, and suffered the pain of embarrassingly poor academic results. However, there were other non-academic opportunities on the sporting fields at St Patrick’s.

I found that I could do well at football, athletics and handball and also enjoyed cricket. From an early stage, I obtained selection as an SPC representative in inter- school football, cricket and athletic teams. I won running and jumping events and handball events. This restored some of the dignity I lost in the classroom.

One of my contemporaries, John James, who was year older than myself, excelled so much at sport that he is regarded as the best ever at St Patrick’s. In first term students were compelled to make a choice between rowing and cricket. But John James was an oarsman in the first crew, and concurrently a member of the first XI cricket team. He won both the bowling and batting averages. He was our best footballer and kicked 35 goals in one game against Ballarat High School. He was our best athlete, proven by winning five events at the Ballarat Secondary Schools sports. He broke the record in two events, the long jump and the shot put. I was John’s bridesmaid at football and athletics. I was seen as the second best footballer. In athletics I came second in each of those two record-breaking field events, and I won the high jump.

When John arrived at St Pat’s as a 14-year-old, he was built like a mature man.- At that stage I was a runt. I grew seven inches in one year when I was 16.- How fortuitous it was for me five years after leaving St Patrick’s, i.e. 1957, when we were both playing VFL football, John for Carlton and I for St Kilda, that I won the Brownlow Medal. I scored with 24 votes, averaging 1.6 votes per game played. Dual Brownlow Medallist, Roy Wright came second with 20 votes, and John James was third with 19 votes. That would never have been predicted when we were at St Patrick’s. In fairness to John, I must advise that he won his own Brownlow Medal in 1961.

What an amazing happening that, from one school, two boys who sat side by side in the classroom at St Patrick’s in 1949, should each go on to win the highest individual award in Australian Rules football, the coveted Brownlow Medal.

One by-product of being a boarding student at St Patrick’s was that we became part of a community of young men who spent our most formative years together. As colleagues at school, we shared our lives deeply in the classroom, on the sporting fields, in the dining room, and in the chapel. We may have teased and tested and fought with one another from time to time, but through the milieu we developed friendships and respect for one another. We can always take up our friendship, whenever or wherever we meet. We always have plenty to talk about, lots of enjoyable memories to share. Most of us seem to have forgotten the hard times endured and appreciate the good things engendered in our lives.

There were some wonderful men who served on the staff at St Patrick’s during my period there. One standout was the Principal, Br John Healy, who excelled in leadership, affability, positiveness and encouragement. Although he was of a corpulent build he took regular exercise by umpiring football games or supervising swimming lessons or training. Our teachers at that stage were all consecrated religious men of the Confraternity of Christian Brothers and were addressed as -‘Brother’ or -‘Sir’. But, as disrespectful students do, we had a nickname for each of them. Br Healy was -‘Jack’.- One day he shared with his Matriculation class students the knowledge that we should be aware that not everyone liked Catholics. He said he had learned recently that some such people were perpetrating a malicious, and of course untrue story, that there was an underground tunnel between St Patrick’s College and the Loreto Convent, a kilometre or more further up Sturt Street, through which the Brothers went to cavort with the Nuns.- The lunchtime bell sounded soon afterwards and the class reassemble after to find Br Healy was late. Someone called out -Where’s Jack?- The class comedian was quick to respond to the laughter of the class. -He’s stuck in the tunnel-.

I had ongoing contact with Br Healy after schooldays, especially during the 1970s, when we were both in Sydney. I was transferred there with my work in 1973 as the national sales executive for a life insurance company. He had moved to Sydney in 1953 as the Congregation Leader of the NSW/Queensland Province of the Christian Brothers, after his term at St Patrick’s, Ballarat. He was then in retirement and would have been aged in his late 70s or early 80s. Despite his advanced age, and waddling like a duck with his two early model hip replacements, he continued to be helpful and supportive. In 1976 when he learned that I was making a business trip to London with a stopover in Rome, he arranged for one of his confreres, an historian by training, and who was on the Pope’s household staff, to collect me at my hotel and give me a personally escorted tour of St Peter’s Basilica, in the Vatican. What a wonderfull experience.


Brother Healy sometimes visited our family home in the Sydney suburb of Bayview. One day, he came for lunch with three of his retired religious friends. They were a blind Christian Brother, a lame elderly priest, and the former Archbishop of Sydney, Sir Norman Cardinal Gilroy, who by that time was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. -‘Don’t serve peas to the Cardinal’, said Jack.- It was a real joy and privilege for my wife Mary and I to share our food and our family with these time-worn, gentle, humble, appreciative, old men.

Another standout was Br Justin Linus Kelty. He was the best teacher I experienced. His subjects were languages and history. He was a well qualified, no nonsense man, who seemed to know his stuff. He would make us search for information so that we would better understand our subject matter and develop the appropriate answers to questions.

Br Kelty also possessed the psychological skill to get us to do his homework first, without the use of the strap, as was the way common with many of his confreres. He was also a talented sportsman. As a younger man I believe he was of interest to the Essendon Football Club as a potential player, but he chose teaching and the religious life instead. During his time as a teacher at St Patrick’s he introduced us to the hitherto unknown sport of basketball. He set up two courts, and a competition, and taught us to play. He also managed the -‘Hill’ competition for football and was very encouraging to me.

Br J.L. Kelty was to later become an outstanding Principal, first at Rostrevor College, Adelaide, then at St Patrick’s, Ballarat. In 1957, he arranged for John James and I, who were in Adelaide with the VFL Representative team, to visit Rostrevor and address his school community. After six years as Principal at St Patrick’s, Brother Kelty was elected Congregational Leader of the Christian Brothers in the St Patrick’s Province of Australia, and after a further six years, he was elected Superior General of the Christian Brothers for their worldwide operations and resided in Rome. In his retirement he was archivist at the CFC provincial office at Parkville, Melbourne. I would sometimes call in and have a cup of coffee with him and tap his knowledge. In this capacity he was helpful with some Irish information for my deeply researched 493-page family history book -‘A Gleeson-Butler Story’.

No story or reference to St Patrick’s College Ballarat would be complete with mention of Brother William Theodore O’Malley who was the doyen sports master for most of his life and the entrenched old-fashioned teacher of -‘Inter A’. Because of his coaching success on the sporting fields, especially football and athletics, he has since been formally acknowledged as one of four -‘Football Legends’ of St Patrick’s College. John James, Barry Richardson and I are the other three who share this honour at the same time. So influential was Br O’Malley in my life that I intend to devote a separate writing- exclusively about him in my memoirs.


I marvel how quickly transport changed and advanced during the few years I was at SPC. In 1947 whilst we were living on the farm at Willaura, our best option was to travel to school in Ballarat was by steam train. By mid 1952, my parents were hoteliers at Berrigan in the Riverina district of New South Wales. My best travel option from St Patrick’s to Berrigan became taking a train from Ballarat to Melbourne, then catching a DC3 airplane from Essendon Airport to Tocumwal, NSW. I was then picked up and driven the final 25 miles to Berrigan. This was my first air travel and as such a pretty exciting event.

My last trip home from school to Berrigan was also different and a somewhat interesting exception, created to solve a problem. My parents had visited me late in the last term of my schooling at Ballarat. They planned that on their way home from a car trip to Melbourne, they would divert to Ballarat and Ararat, then head to Berrigan. However the engine of their Standard Vanguard -‘blew up’ and they were forced to leave it for repair at the town of Beaufort. I did have a driving licence, obtained at age 17 as was permitted in New South Wales. I was delegated to collect it when repaired, drive it to Ballarat and garage it until end of term. I obtained a garage at the St Peter’s minor Seminary, courtesy of Fr John Shelley. When the term ended I was then to drive it home to Berrigan, a challenging mission for a school boy in those days. It was made even more exciting because I had to drive to Melbourne, negotiate the city traffic for the first time, collect Mum who did not hold a driver’s licence, and bring her home to Berrigan.- Our safe arrival declared -‘mission accomplished’ and the end of my school days at St Patrick’s College, Ballarat.

Brian Gleeson and Tony Fry catch up at the Boarders Reunion in the old dining room at the College in 2017. This room has now been transformed into the Year 12 Study Centre.