Caption: Kerry at the Club’s entrance with his name [shown inset] among the 160 foundation members.

In our ‘A Drink with Jeff’ series, Campbelltown Catholic Club community liaison Jeff McGill has been catching up with a diverse selection of identities. Club Pioneer, Kerry Hooton, is his latest face-to-face.

“Only 13 of us left,” said Kerry Hooton, looking up at the 160 founders’ names at the entrance of Campbelltown Catholic Club.

I glance up at the timber poles on the wall, that grandiose rollcall of all the pioneers who joined the Club before it officially opened its doors in 1968. Those original members gathered in a timber scout hall that once stood behind St John’s Primary School, playing cards and arranging golf days and fishing trips.

Kerry, 81, remembers signing up in 1965 like it was yesterday — but he’s never been able to solve a baffling mystery. “I’m member 94,” he told me. “But I was standing right behind Kevin Sharpe that day, and he got member 91! So, I don’t know what happened in between [laughs].” Just for the record, number 92 was Ellen Leahy and 93 Kevin Blimm. “No, they definitely were not standing in between us,” Kerry smiled. “Not that it matters much, I guess.”

It was Kevin Sharpe, who only died a few months ago, who introduced Kerry to the Club. “His wife, Margaret, and my wife, Delma, were cousins and we bought the block of land opposite them in Brisbane Road.” That corner of Campbelltown, next to Smith’s Creek Reserve, was a new estate in the late 1960s and home to many of the Club’s early identities, such as John Hill, Peter Barron and Noel Burton.

As Kerry and I walk beyond the foundation members’ names at the Club entrance, we decide to have our drinks at Sage, next to the busy foyer, so we can watch the world go by as we chat. Lesley, our beaming barista, arrives with a cappuccino for Kerry but I’m in a ginger beer mood. I think of the cafe’s name. Sage, as a noun, refers to that aromatic herb of the mint family — but, as an adjective, it also means wise reflection from an elder. I think I got a mixture of both: Kerry’s minty tales are well-flavoured by humour and irreverence.

Caption: Kerry being served his cappuccino by barista Lesley.

Even on the way into the Club, member number 94 had tried to convince me that the distinct rotunda at the top of the club’s roof was supposed to be a revolving restaurant. Ha, no… I’m well aware of the folklore and wasn’t going to fall for that. The story goes that back in 1993, when the rotunda was under construction, a member asked what it was and was told it was a plant room. ‘What kind of plants would they be growing there?’ came the reply. Well, it wasn’t cannabis, but it did start with the letter ‘c’ — chillers, compressors and condensers.

Over our drinks, Kerry tells me he was a boilermaker by trade. But the many yarns he tells about his various employers and experiences tells me he was really a jack of all trades. He fondly recalls attending those first Club gatherings in the old scout hall with his first wife. Delma died in 2004, after a brave battle against breast cancer, and Kerry has since found love again with Lorraine, who he married four years ago.

Kerry remembers with clarity the day that The Catho officially opened on 5 December 1968. “It was a Thursday afternoon, about 2pm, when the doors opened. I’d taken the afternoon off work. It was a big event, Stan Simmons guiding around the dignitaries, and it all went on until about ten o’clock that night.”

“Those early days were special because everyone knew everyone else. You could come in on a Saturday arvo for a few beers and always find someone you knew to chat with. There was only a tiny eatery then, not much choice, but they were good times.

“I can even remember the introduction of swivel chairs,” Kerry laughed. “It would have been in the early 1970s, a few years after the opening. We were sitting by the window one Saturday watching the golfers walk toward us [Park Central used to be Campbelltown Golf Course] and music was playing in the auditorium. I noticed we were sitting on these nice new chairs and I looked around and saw that everyone was swivelling their backsides around to the music.”

The Club had to grow, Kerry admits, not only because of snowballing membership but the mission of The Catho was to raise money for schools, and more members meant more donations. But the trade-off, he said, was a dilution of that close-knit vibe. He said he first noticed the change when he actually had to order his own beer! “In the really early days you’d walk in and the girls behind the bar would see you coming and have your beer waiting for you. Now, you’ve actually got to ask them and then re-educate them every Friday night.” But even that modernisation holds a positive meaning, Kerry ponders. “A lot of today’s bar staff are working here to help fund university studies, which is a good thing, but there are always new faces we need to get to know.”

As a proud old face, Kerry is still a proud regular of The Catho. He speaks fondly of old mates such as Leo Delissen, Bernie McGrath, Des Chapman, Phil Crosland and Pete Barron, to name a few. Table of Knowledge stuff. His grin is infectious as he recalls the night that police officers arrived with sniffer dogs to conduct a random drugs search of patrons. As the highly trained canines moved around the Table of Knowledge, Bill Beatty exclaimed: ‘The only thing you’ll find here is Viagra!’ It still makes Kerry laugh.

He also points out The Catho is not just a social hub but has long been used, unofficially, as a place of business. “Particularly in the early days,” he said. “A terrible lot of work changed hands on the back of a coaster, all done with the shake of a hand.” They call it networking today, I chip in. “Yeah,” smiled Kerry, “we called it having a beer.”

He remembered with particular fondness early staffers such as Chris Vardy-Thomson and Pip Wardell. “Chris’s mother, Joyce, even made my daughter’s floral arrangements for her wedding,” he said. “Her and Pip were both excellent as their jobs, and as well as serving our meals and drinks they were bouncers too. You did not argue with those ladies.”

If there was one sub-culture of The Catho that personified the cheeky and humorous side of life, it was the Cork Club — essentially an extended social group that included stalwarts such as Kevin Nott, Geoff Lamont, David Duff, John Davenport, and Gordon Fetterplace, among others, and enjoyed its heyday during the 1980s. Each member was issued with a cork which had to be carried at all times. Failure to produce it when challenged by a fellow club member resulted in a fine. Kerry can still proudly produce all his old corks.

“It raised money for good causes,” he recalled. “I joined when Paul Noonan said to me, ‘Hey, we’re going on a car trial, like a scavenger hunt, do you want to come along?’ So, Delma and I joined, and this big car rally ended up at Gordon Fetterplace’s house at Kentlyn for a barbecue. I was sitting there and suddenly felt all this wetness on my head — a cracked egg and a beer poured over me — that was my initiation. ‘Congratulations,’ Gordon said, ‘here’s your cork and welcome to the club’.”

Kerry remembers his favourite regular act at The Catho was John Williamson, having attended his earliest shows in the Old Man Emu days, right through to the True Blue and modern era of songs. “John Williamson was great. Delma loved him, and he was the last act we saw together before she died.”

There were strict evening dress standards in the early days, and Kerry speaks warmly of the Club’s first doorman, Fred Eves (father of early Club director Barry Eves). “I’d arrive in the afternoon wearing an open neck shirt, and old Fred would say: ‘Are you staying on for the show?’ I’d say, yes, I probably would, and he’d reach under his desk and hand me a tie — ‘just keep this in your pocket, then.’ That’s what it was like.”

I told Kerry I was just a kid at that time, but as a young newspaper reporter in the 1980s I later interviewed Fred Eves as one of the last surviving Lighthorsemen. Yes, the bloke handing out ties and greeting members at the door was a veteran of the famous charge of Beersheba in 1917. (It makes you wonder how many life stories lay behind each of the staffers who serve us at the Club.)

The old Superstar magazines, Kerry said, were also a wonderful blend of humour and gossip. “Stan Simmons put those together. He circulated around the club, knew everyone, and put a lot of effort into his work. Stan and I were good mates, and we often went to a show or dinner with him and his wife, Pat.”

Kerry strongly supports the reason for the Club’s foundation: supporting and funding Catholic education. “Back in the 1960s parents got sick and tired of being volunteer painters, labourers, and brickies on weekends at St John’s. That’s how it all got going.”

In those early decades, the Club could only afford to grant a few hundred dollars to schools, maybe a few thousand, but things have changed big time with much bigger donations now. Not across the board, mind you, it’s all targeted. I can remember Alan McManus, a former principal of Magdalene College, telling me 20 years ago: “The Club has put in excess of a million dollars into this school alone. At first they were involved in repayment of loans, as well as contributions to technology. Our administration building was also developed thanks to the Club. Indeed, Club funding has been THE difference.”

Kerry tells me his own three children — Kim, Darren and Karen — went to St John’s, then on to St Pat’s/St Greg’s. He urges them to embrace their Catholic Club heritage. “When each of my kids turned 18, I joined them up as members and paid their first three years of fees…and I’ve since done the same thing for all the grandchildren.”

Kerry also admires the Club’s aid to the community. He was there in 1997 when a newly-restored Quondong was opened. The Catho spent $500,000 turning an old ruin into a beautiful heritage site that is now used as Campbelltown’s visitor information centre. Local architect Ron Kydd and builder Eric Hughes had painstakingly restored everything from the wood shingle roof to the polished floorboards. Kerry also heaped praise on Steve Muter, CEO of the Club at the time.

Caption: A shot from 1997 — Kerry with “Sister” in the restored classroom at Quondong’s opening with Kerry Hooton, with a former Club Director (and archives champion), Bernie McGrath, at right. 

I asked Kerry why he, as a foundation member, never put his own hand up to join the Club’s Board of Directors. “No, that’s not for me,” he smiled. “I speak my mind too much; if I see a problem I make sure I grab the duty manager to get it fixed. If I got on that side of things, I’d probably have to bite my tongue.” If the Club’s Board of Directors is the royal court, I suspect Kerry might see himself as a court jester, giving the King bad news no one else dares deliver. “If I see a messy bathroom, or a dangerous broken chair, believe me I’ll have my say,” he said. “I can bloody well say what I think, and no one can sack me.”

In saying that, Kerry has enjoyed close friendships with most of the Club Directors and thinks the Catholic Club’s story is an overwhelmingly positive one. He certainly feels, very deeply, his heritage, and after our drinks he takes me for a walk, pointing out where various things used to be in the old days. Many of his tales are full of winks and nods.

As we walk back outside through the Club’s entrance I take a photograph of Kerry standing in front of the poles on the wall listing the 160 foundation members. As one of the dwindling survivors, he then poses proudly near the main doors with his bag of corks, and original membership key rings.

Caption: Kerry with his early membership keyring and bag of corks.

Kerry Hooton is a colourful piece of fabric in the broader tapestry of our Club. As we walk through the carpark together, I glance back at the Club’s rooftop and laugh to myself about his revolving restaurant claim. The court jester will have to find another mug to fall for that tall tale.


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A Drink with Jeff | Ruth McDonald