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Lester Marks – a quiet gentleman
When the Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll arrived in Horsham in June, it brought home to the Western District the story of one of CFA’s first Aboriginal volunteers.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains images of deceased persons.
Lester Marks (1920–2010) was a proud member of the Dimboola brigade and a sportsman who took the brigade to competition success as both a runner and a coach.
In 2011, Lester was posthumously inducted into the Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll. The roll is kept at Parliament House, but is taken on a regional tour each year to highlight the achievements of inductees.
Lester was well-regarded in the community for his service to town and country – as a sportsman, a returned serviceman and a Wotjobaluk Elder.
Dimboola brigade’s Bill McCann still remembers Lester with fondness.
Now 80 years of age, Bill recalls joining the Dimboola brigade around the same time as Lester. He estimates they were volunteers together for more than 35 years. Both were runners for the brigade but, although competitive, Bill said there was no rivalry.
“You couldn’t have any rivalry with Lester – he was such a thorough gentleman,” Bill said.
In fact, so good were the pair – who ran for the brigade from the early 1950s until the team folded in 1968 – that they helped the brigade win and hold an Australian record in Ladder 5. Lester later went on to successfully coach a young team.
Lester was one of the first – if not the first – Aboriginal CFA volunteer. This was never an issue in the brigade at a time when Australia still had a White Australia policy, ‘assimilation’ was the focus and Aboriginal Australians still did not have the right to vote.
“Lester was held in high esteem,” Bill said. “He was a mate and a member and if anyone tried to degrade him, he would have the whole town backing him."
Lester’s widow Aunty Leila Harradine said Lester was known for his endurance, speed and accuracy as a hydrant runner in Dimboola’s CFA team.
“Competitions were held in many places, including Mildura, St Arnaud, Bendigo, Ballarat, Ararat and Maryborough, and they also ran in Tasmania,” Aunty Leila said.
“After competitions, there would be a torchlight procession where all teams, dressed in their CFA uniforms, would be present, which was wonderful to watch as they marched with the torch flares.
“It was always great to go down to the park to watch the men of a training night and take the children for a fine summer’s evening; there would be a lot of people there.”
According to the Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll, Lester left school at 13 and spent most of the Depression era working in vegetable gardens which lined the Wimmera River at Dimboola. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) in 1940.
After completing training with the 19th Machine Gun Regiment in Bendigo, Lester was sent to Darwin. He was there when the Japanese dropped their bombs in 1942. He also spent time at Tarakan off the coast of Borneo.
Bill said Lester did not talk about the war – however he was interviewed for a Victorians at War oral history project that records the experiences of 20 Victorians through a series of interviews and the presentations of related material held in the State Library of Victoria's special collections.
Lester became actively involved with Legacy after his retirement as a train driver from the Victorian Railways in 1980. He worked for the widows who lived in and around Dimboola and helped them secure the support they were entitled to after their husbands passed away.
Sport was a big part of Lester’s life in Dimboola. In addition to his fire brigade running competitions, he was a talented footballer. Today, the player awarded best and fairest as part of the Wimmera Football League's Indigenous Recognition Round receives the Lester Marks Harradine Medal on behalf of the Dimboola Football Club.
Bill, who also worked with Lester in the railways (as a fireman, keeping steam up to the engine) said the 1950s/60s was a time of great comradeship in CFA.
“Regardless of what brigade you were with, we were all one and worked as one.”
Aunty Leila said although Lester’s three sons were not in CFA, they had attended and fought bushfires through their jobs.
“CFA was certainly a big part of Lester’s life for 40 years or so, and something he was dedicated to, as an important and necessary role in the local community,” she said.