John Wallace could be forgiven for being bitter.
After nearly 50 years serving the community and helping at risk youth, the retired police officer was distributing communion to residents at a supportive care facility at Brighton when he suffered a stroke.
In an instant his life changed irrevocably.
Severely paralysed and requiring high level care, the once active Brighton parishioner and Neighbourhood Watch stalwart now resides at Eldercare Allambi Nursing Home, Glengowrie.
Last year he lost his beloved wife, Denise.
But John doesn’t want to talk about his hard luck story.
Earlier this year he celebrated his 80th birthday by attending Mass at St Joseph’s Church, Brighton, and from his wheelchair bed he whispered that he wanted me to do a story about the Marist Brothers and the impact they had on his life.
During an interview last month at Allambi, the father of four and grandfather of 10 again insisted that I write about the Marist Brothers.
“Being in here (the nursing home), I’ve had time to reflect and think about how good they were to me,” he said. “That’s what this is about.”
Born in Port Pirie, John and his sister Joan lost their mother at a young age. With their father a shift worker for the railways, they spent long periods at the Sacred Heart Orphanage at Crystal Brook before coming to Adelaide to board at Sacred Heart College and Cabra Dominican College.
The Good Samaritan Sisters ran the orphanage and John said they were “very good to us”, as were the townsfolk who would call in regularly to “say g’day and bring some food for us”.
Somehow John’s father Leo managed to “fork out the money” for boarding school – “it would have cost him a quid,” John quipped. Leo died while John was at Sacred Heart but he continued to board until he left school.
“I was a little bit apprehensive at first, but it was absolutely brilliant,” he recalled.
“The one thing is the impression of the Brothers, how great they were. They were supportive and caring, they looked after us.
“There were 40-odd boarders, they’d get us dressed and tidy every morning at half past six, ready to face the day, then go down to the school to teach.”
As well as “looking after us all day and every day”, John said the Marists taught him and the other boys the importance of God in their life.
“Not only were they preaching the word of God, they were living the word of God all their lives,” he said.
“They spoke every day about God and the Catholic faith, it impressed us so much that God’s been my best friend ever since. I pray to Him every day.”
A talented all-round sportsman, John said there were also some “very good coaches” amongst the Brothers.
Told he would make a good Brother, John went to the juniorate at Wangaratta but after a few months the head Brother tapped him on the shoulder and said he would be on the bus back to Adelaide that afternoon.
“Just like that, end of story,” he said.
John’s only explanation for this is that he was “a bit noisy” as a young lad. “I was pretty lively, used to kick around a bit, nothing serious though.”
On his return to Adelaide he met Denise Ryan at her local Parkside parish. “I saw her at church a few times and I thought she was alright,” he said. The couple was married by Fr John Swann at St Raphael’s Church, Parkside.
Around the same time John joined the police force and played footy for West Adelaide. Proudly displayed on his bedroom wall is a photo and line-up of the 1961 premiership team with his name at centre half forward alongside the great Doug Thomas and Neil Kerley.
John said he “sent a novena to God” that he wouldn’t go too far from Adelaide because Denise was a ‘city girl’ and his prayers were answered when he was posted to Mount Barker.
But he ended up doing 16 years in the country – at Gladstone, Clare, Port Pirie and Yorketown – as well as eight years as patrol sergeant at Darlington. He was instrumental in establishing the Blue Light Disco in Adelaide and in 1990 he was awarded the Australian Police Medal for outstanding police and community service. In 1992 he was named Father of the Year by Lions Club for his work with ‘at risk’ children in the city area.
Asked about his career, John’s cheeky sense of humour comes to the fore: “The main thing about being a police officer is you’ve got to be good looking.”
On a serious note, he said his main aim was to “starve the justice system, not feed it”.
“I found that the police force was a great occupation for helping people. God talked me into that, I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said.
In their years in the country, the family was closely involved with the community with John coaching the local footy team in several places.
His innate desire to help others didn’t stop when he retired. In 2018 he was recognised for 16 years of service as local coordinator of Neighbourhood Watch SA with a special ceremony held at Allambi in front of a large group of family and friends, as well as SAPOL’s Dixieland Band.
John said the Marists taught him the importance of helping people and that’s one of the reasons he entered the police force. But he also said God pointed him in that direction.
A police officer’s lot
“God told me, he spoke to me and said I want you to be in the police force and I agreed,” he said.
His faith continued to be a big part of his life wherever he lived and worked.
“In my 16 years in the country we were very grateful to have The Southern Cross – all the churches would get some copies and so we knew what was going on in the Church and in Adelaide,” he said.
John and Denise were actively involved with the Brighton parish where John served on the parish pastoral council and volunteered in various ways.
He also continued his close connection with the Marist Brothers by visiting them at their Somerton Park residence and taking part in Old Collegian activities. “We’d have a good yarn about the old days, they were excellent,” he said.
Brother Pat McInerney is a regular visitor to the nursing home, bringing him communion, and other Brothers visit as well. While John still gets to St Joseph’s Church at Brighton when he can, he attends a weekly ecumenical service at Allambi, and Glenelg parish priest Fr John Herd says Mass there once a month. John’s good friend Jim Clark, from Brighton parish, also brings him communion.
Asked if his faith in God had stayed strong since his stroke, John gave an emphatic “absolutely, God’s all we’ve got”.
“I thank the Brothers for that.”