In our ‘A Drink with Jeff’ series, Campbelltown Catholic Club community liaison Jeff McGill has been catching up with a diverse selection of club identities. Bill Meehan is his latest face-to-face.
Not every member gets personally greeted at the door and taken to lunch by the Catholic Club’s CEO.
But not every member is Bill Meehan.
Aged 90, he is our founding father. Number 1 member.
The legend of how The Catho was founded is well-known: in 1964 a group of tired parents, building much-needed classrooms at St John’s Primary School, grabbed a beer at The Club Hotel. One of the parents looked at the beers they’d just paid for, looked at the tired faces around him, and said: “There’s an easier way to build schools than this!”
Well… Bill is the parent who uttered that famous line.
Campbelltown Catholic Club opened in 1968, and has since poured tens of millions of dollars into local schools and community causes.
Bill is rightly proud of that legacy, but as he walked into the club foyer it was hard to decipher his expression as he glanced up at the names of all the other club pioneers on the wall. People he once knew so well, now mostly gone. Bill posed for a photo next to the name ‘Valerie Meehan’ — member number 25 and his late wife, who died in 2016.
Caption: Bill and daughter Kathy with the pole on the foyer dedicated to the late Val Meehan.
Bill had arrived for our interview with his eldest daughter, Kathy and her partner, Ken. They’d driven him here from the other side of Sydney because our founder now lives in an aged care residence near Kathy (and another daughter, Bernadette). He beamed as he was welcomed by Club CEO Michael Lavorato. There’s an obvious warmth and respect between these two men. For others watching on, Bill might have looked like a frail old bloke with a mobility walker, but to me he has always had a certain grandness. Then again, I’m biased. I’ve known the Meehan family for three decades, Bill’s youngest daughter Christine is one of my dearest friends, and my wife Trish and I are godparents to one of Bill’s grandkids.
Michael guided us through to the newly-opened Harvest bistro, and I explained to Bill this would be more of a ‘Lunch with Jeff’ than the usual ‘Drink with Jeff’. Harvest was packed with families and friends, but we were able to grab a free table and order our drinks.
We checked out the fancy new menus, with meals described as ‘locally-sourced’ and ‘seasonal’. They might sound like trendy catchphrases, but Peter Sheppard (the Club’s Director of Food and Beverage) takes it very seriously. Milk products from Macarthur’s Country Valley dairy, fruits from Cedar Creek Orchard, chicken from Liverpool, pork from the Southern Highlands, and lamb and beef from the South Coast. All the baking and pastry work is even done from scratch by the club’s chefs. The biggest change that caught Bill’s eye was the absence of long queues of people holding trays. Each meal is now freshly cooked-to-order, with a buzzer handed to members. So we made our own orders… Seafood was everyone’s choice except for Bill who went with a good ol’ schnitzel.
As we settled in, our conversation kicked off…
Could Bill imagine this vast and busy Club in his wildest dreams at that school working bee back in 1964?
“No, there was no way in the world,” he said. “Back in the 1960s we would never have thought of building a hotel, or a gym, and so on. But successive waves of leadership have progressed the Club into the next era.”
Yet Bill always had faith the club concept itself would work. “Build it and they will come,” he laughed. That famous line from the film, Field of Dreams, is often used by Bill. We talked about his original vision. “I’d never even heard of Catholic Clubs in 1964, but I got it into my head that a club could raise money to build Catholic schools. It was just a conversation we had at the pub, and that’s where it stopped. However, the next morning Ron McDonald rang me up.” It was Ron – member number 4 —who truly took Bill’s idea to heart and got the ball rolling by organising early meetings. “He arranged a visit to the Illawarra Catholic Club at Hurstville, which had just opened, so we could see what they did.”
Bill said Ron’s experience as an accountant was invaluable. His brother, Bruce McDonald, was also deputy Town Clerk and had a firm knowledge of Campbelltown’s future, so he helped select a good site for the Club. “It was almost like insider trading,” Kathy laughed. Bill said everyone involved in those early days had valuable skills to offer. John O’Reilly was a telephone technician who ensured the best connections during construction, dry cleaner Noel Hill offered small business expertise, banker Jack Crawford offered financial advice, Fred Borg used his vast social connections in selling tickets to aid legal requirements as a club, and so on. “We just happened to have the right men at the right time for what we were doing.”
Caption: Bill Meehan in the early 1970s, at left, with Brother Edmund and one of the early Club Directors, Ted McAnespie.
Not just men, Bill added. “We had to spend a lot of time in meetings getting the Club started, missing out on important family time, so it was our wives who provided the back-up. Without the women, there wouldn’t be a Club!”
For the record, Campbelltown Catholic Club held its first social gathering on 14 May 1965 when 27 people attended a small timber hall next to St John’s Primary School. They played cards, snooker and other indoor activities while golf days, tennis evenings, and fishing trips were planned. Money was raised, land was bought, and the hardest hurdle was getting a liquor licence in 1967, because it was strongly opposed by the pubs in Campbelltown. Representing them was young lawyer, John Marsden, in his first big case. He lost it. The NSW Licensing Court eventually agreed that a Campbelltown Catholic Club DID have a genuine right to exist.
Bill said the strong emotions at the time were understandable. “We have to remember that John Marsden’s parents, Guy and Tibby, owned the Lack’s Hotel in Queen Street, they were Catholics, and John had just opened up his law firm in Campbelltown.” Time heals all wounds. Marsden’s Law Group celebrated its 50th birthday at The Cube and Jim Marsden (who became the law firm’s senior partner after his brother’s death) is regularly seen at The Catho. “Jim uses this place anytime he has a visiting VIP to entertain,” Michael Lavorato laughed. “He was only here recently with former Australian Olympics boss, John Coates. I’d say [the relationship with the Marsdens] had been well and truly repaired. In fact, one of our Club Directors is none other than Peter Crittenden, a partner at Marsdens.”
Fun fact: when the Catholic Club opened, on 5 December 1968, Bill wasn’t actually present! As a magistrate, he had been transferred to the bush for two years. “That’s true,” Bill said. “I was the first Club President, and took part in the first club meetings and bought the land for the club, and engaged an architect to start building it, but I was then moved to Bathurst and wasn’t able to make it down for the opening night.” (In Bill’s two-year absence, Ron McDonald, Ted McAnespie and Stan Simmons took turns as Club President.)
“Clive Tregear, Campbelltown’s Mayor in 1968, was the first person through the doors to buy the Catholic Club’s first beer,” Bill told us. That seems a delicious irony, I noted, given that Clive was not Catholic. But, it also fits neatly into our city’s wonderful quirky history. Campbelltown’s first Catholic mass, in 1822, was famously held in St Peter’s Anglican Church! (Father John Therry had been celebrating Mass in the paddock now known as Mawson Park when a storm forced the priest to lead his flock to the nearest shelter: the unfinished but fully-roofed Anglican church.)
It was in 1970 that Bill returned from Bathurst and was re-elected as President of The Catho… A position he held for the next decade. That was a very important decade, too, as traditions were created, membership grew and endless extensions began. Bill reminisced about how big windows originally lined the original auditorium with sweeping views of Campbelltown Golf Course. “The Club sat right against the boundary fence,” Bill said, “and you’d watch the golfers through the glass. I think this was next to the third tee.” (The golf course relocated to Glen Alpine in the late 1970s, and the original club windows have vanished; even if they did still exist, members would only get a sweeping view of traffic jams along busy Kellicar and Narellan Roads — the twists and turns of progress.)
The most important facet of the growing membership of the Catholic Club in the 1970s was the fact that Protestants were welcomed as social members with open arms. THAT was the whole point, Bill insisted. “My initial idea was that you’d have a club for Catholics, but also let in non-Catholics who would enjoy the entertainment, play the pokies, drink the beer, and generally spend their money.” These were people who, otherwise, might not have donated to local Catholic schools, but they would enjoy a social club.
Kathy regularly added to the conversation, being an eyewitness herself to these events. In the early days, she and her twin, John, worked at the Club to help pay their way through university. (There are photos in the archives of John pulling beers at the old Sportman’s Bar, and of Kathy with other waitresses in the dining room.)
Kathy remembered the fun of Sunday night buffet meals. Everyone was coming in from playing in or watching local football matches, but the vibe of the dining room was a lot more “posh” on Friday and Saturday nights. “I remember the double seatings,” Kathy said. “The first at 6pm, which was a rush with people going to the show, and then a second and more leisurely dinner session at 8pm.” Michael Lavorato then cut in: “We still have that challenge now! To get our people into the shows now, we actually have people coming to dinner at 5pm!” Kathy also recalled the early chef, Wolfgang Schobel, who made delicious Strawberries Romanoff, and she admitted a few went ‘missing’ from the kitchen fridge. Yum.
Caption: Bill and daughter Kathy sharing a laugh with Club CEO Michael Lavorato.
Kathy said people in the early 1970s would come into the Club to watch a show really dressed up, in long dresses with their hair done up. “I can’t remember any people coming in casual clothes.”
Bill quickly responded: “They weren’t allowed!”
Kathy: “Oh, that’s right!”
Bill: “That was one of the things we did from the start. Men had to wear suits and ties to go to the shows.”
Kathy recalled the warm camaraderie between the staff, who’d gather for a drink and to socialise after work. At that exact moment, Michael Lavorato pointed across to the Club’s latest novelty — a robot. “When you thought of the club in 1964, Bill, I’ll bet you never thought there’d be robots working for us.”
“Oh my God,” Kathy exclaimed. Bill looked surprised. Michael then narrated the robot’s progress. “Watch the journey as it takes all those dirty plates to the kitchen.” Bill was fascinated and we all got up to snap a few photos of him inspecting the ultra-modern contraptions – two very different eras colliding.
Caption: Bill investigates the newest member of staff at The Catho – a robot.
As we returned to our seats, and interacted with the amazing staff in Harvest, I was reminded that nothing can replace human beings at The Catho. We were all impressed by the way staffers such as Georgina, Helen, Deirdre, Karen and Perla looked after Bill at different times, also beaming at the surrounding customers, and coming to our rescue with some desserts after I had stuffed up the order. When Kathy had trouble linking her social media to Bill’s, young Braith stopped collecting glasses and cleaning tables to grab her phone and solve all her problems. “Thank you, young man,” Kathy smiled. It was a delightful scene, this young staffer of today helping a former staffer from 50 years ago. The biggest strength of The Catho will always be its people.
After Michael Lavorato left us to return to his duties, Bill made clear to me his deep gratitude to the CEO. Michael has made it a personal mission to keep “Member Number One” up to date with all the latest news and plans at the Club. I certainly loved watching Bill enjoy his meal at the very heart of his creation.
As we discussed the local school facilities and community projects that have recently been funded by The Catho, Bill seemed impressed and happy. Even when COVID forced the club to shut its doors for many months in recent times, it still managed to meet all its funding commitments, plus more, and I reckon that deserves a giant pat on the back.
On our way out again through the foyer, we bumped into Brian O’Brien, a long-time club member who is related to the Meehans. So, another impromptu conservation and hugs and handshaking dominated the next 10 minutes, not an unusual scene in The Catho, a place I like to refer to as a communal campfire of Campbelltown.
Caption: Bill Meegan, with daughter Kathy, chatting with Brian O’Brien in the foyer.
More members passed by us in the foyer and glanced at the old and frail 90-year-old bloke with his walker, perhaps wondering why some people were lining up to pose for a photograph with him.
The answer was simple.
Bill Meehan is the bloke who, after a working bee in 1964, saw more than a beer in his hand… He saw an idea.
A grand idea, that he should always be remembered for.
If you are a member of Campbelltown Catholic Club and have a story to share, you could be featured on A Drink with Jeff. Contact us at email@example.com