Over the years, I’ve written a number of tributes. They’ve been dedicated to former Eels players or people close to the Cumberland Throw.
This time, I’m writing about my own father, Leo Keith Hawkins.
Dad was the reason for me becoming a passionate Eels supporter, but of course he was so much more. My full eulogy is best left for the service and for those who were part of his life. But right now I do want to share something about the man, his love of the Eels, and why my heart is breaking.
Leo Keith Hawkins, known affectionately as “Bubby”, was born in 1929. You can probably guess from his nickname that he was the baby of the family. He had two older sisters, Norma and Betty. On his mother’s side of the family, he was a direct descendant of Captain John Grono, an historical figure in western Sydney who also named a number of geographical features on the South Island of New Zealand.
The family home was beside the train track at Harris Park. Dad’s playground was the Harris Park streets, Parramatta Park and in summer, the Parramatta River. He and his mates would jump off Noller Bridge into water that was somewhat safer and deeper to swim in than it is today.
Times were different back then. Another childhood pastime for Dad and his mates was joining the tramps and swaggies at their camps in Parramatta Park, throwing potatoes into their fires. To them, the swaggies were characters with stories to enjoy as they chewed on fire roasted spuds.
Parramatta’s Junior Rugby League didn’t come into being until 1946, but when it did, Dad and his mates entered a Harris Park team in the C grade. The club didn’t last long. There was apparently an “incident” that may or may not have involved a referee and the river. The team came back as Parramatta South but it was not long-lived.
From there, it was on to more established clubs, especially in the 1950s. There was Merrylands, East Parramatta, and some pseudonym appearances for Guildford. Dad played halfback and if the weather was just right he could stretch to a height of maybe five foot four. When people used to ask him how someone my size was his son, he would reply that he put in an extra big effort for his first born.
Dad played until his mid 20s, only giving footy away due to knee cartilage problems. In 1953 he enjoyed premiership success in the A-Reserve team at East Parramatta, a strong club under the guidance of Norm “Bubbles” Sivyer, an Eels stalwart who was awarded life membership in 1972.
I never saw Dad wear his premiership blazer. Back then the Parramatta Junior League had many A grade teams and so the League was split into conferences. When the two conference premiers were brought together for a special grand final, East Parra lost. In Dad’s eyes, they didn’t win the match that counted.
But that blazer was special to me. As a kid, I would sneak into the cupboard, put on the blazer and imagine myself being part of a winning team.
Supporting the Eels was a no-brainer for Dad. When Parra entered the NSWRL competition in 1947, he was on board. After all, his childhood playground was the river and park behind Cumberland Oval. And he was a local footballer in the junior league.
Dad took me to my first game as a very young kid, and I was then rusted on. My father was no prude, but I never heard him swear. Nor did I see ever him get emotional at the footy, with one exception – his reaction to the Eels 1975 semi final loss to Manly at the SCG. He wasn’t a fan of Bob Fulton.
Mum and Dad held season tickets until around 2004. Night games were too challenging as they got older. In recent times they became non-ticketed members.
Away from footy, Dad met Mum in 1946 and they married in 1950. They both worked and saved and went through challenges for a long time before they started a family. I was born in 1961, my brothers Grant and Darren followed in 1963 and 1970 respectively.
Dad worked as a mechanic, beginning in his teens at Harris Park Bus company. For a short while he even owned/operated a service station. From there he was a lorry owner driver delivering concrete building blocks. During school holidays, I would spend time at work with him. I can only conclude that OH & S laws were somewhat relaxed back in those days as my brother and I would ride in the truck and “help” to unload the pallets of concrete building blocks.
The Eels connection was still there even at his work. Dad worked from the same depot as Parra legends such as Bob O’Reilly and Barry Rushworth. As a kid I was in awe of seeing them in the lunch room. When Keith Campbell purchased Dad’s truck and visited our house for beers before and after the sale, I was so proud.
After Dad started driving a concrete agitator truck, we saw a bit less of him. He would often work long hours, six days per week. So when he was at home I used to hang on to his every opinion about the footy. He finished the last five years of his work life putting his Jack of all trades skills to use as a general assistant at the Catholic Teachers College at Oakhill.
In recent years, as cancer and heart disease took their toll, I became his carer and we became closer. The NRL and the Eels were always at the forefront of our discussions. I didn’t want those footy talks to ever end.
Much of what I’ve shared here is from years long past. There was so much more to Dad’s life than this limited eulogy. He was a father, a grandfather, a friend and an advisor to many. A fuller tribute to his life will be told at our final farewell.
Leo Hawkins lived a long life, but that doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier. Despite a challenging last decade, and no shortage of pain, he wasn’t ready to leave. My mother Noreen, his wife of just on 73 years, wasn’t ready either.
I’m proud that such a good man was my father. He will always be dearly loved and sadly missed.
Craig Hawkins (Sixties)