Campbelltown Catholic Club community liaison and history buff Jeff McGill is catching up with a diverse selection of identities at ‘The Catho’. His first face-to-face was with Peter Barron.

He’d normally be doing laps — twenty a day!

But Peter Barron can only dangle his feet in the pool for the moment, after having a pacemaker fitted.

‘Before the operation I was doing twenty laps a day, four days a week,’ The club stalwart muttered in a sort of matter-of-fact tone that suggests all 80-year-olds do that sort of thing.

‘Plenty of twenty-somethings couldn’t do twenty laps a day,’ I reply.

‘Yeah, but they wouldn’t need the long rest I have in between each lap,’ Peter laughed.

The retired engineer didn’t join Aquafit when it opened in 2004. ‘My wife did, she was one of the first doing Pilates, but I didn’t join until later. Our son was working in the Australian Embassy at Jakarta, we’d visit him, and I got into the habit of going up to the rooftop pool for a swim. I then just kept it up when we returned. I’d always been a swimmer at school, and I guess I like the convenience of Aquafit — and the camaraderie.’

Peter waved to people in the adjoining pool as we spoke and made a cheeky joke to lifeguard Melissa. Everyone seemed to know him. In fact, my first mistake on arriving at Aquafit that morning was attempting to introduce him.

‘Oh, we know Peter,’ said Leigh at the front desk. It quickly dawned on me that Peter should be the one introducing me to everyone.

‘You get to know people.’ He smiled.

The Campbelltown man has certainly had enough time to. Peter and Anne (who recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary) were part of the first crowds that flocked to Campbelltown Catholic Club when it opened in 1968. Back then, the idea of swimming at The Catho was science fiction… The only laps being done were on foot to the bar.

Peter Barron and his wife, Anne Barron on their wedding day.

That was one of the reasons I chose Peter as my first interviewee, because I knew he was part of the rich fabric of Club life but, personally, we barely knew each other. As we shared a coffee at The Dove & Shears I quickly felt the satisfaction that only comes from finding someone is just as you had expected: a good bloke with hidden depths.

His new pacemaker also needs to keep up with a big heart, evident by the many hours he and Anne have spent volunteering with Angel Flight, driving seriously ill people from rural areas to and from hospitals in Sydney. To the Barrons, I suspect, the Club has always been seen through a similar community spirit. The Catho was, after all, established to help fund local Catholic schools and charities.

So, what does Peter remember of those early days, when the original club was so small it could neatly fit into today’s foyer?

‘We’d come here on Friday nights,’ he said. ‘Or maybe a Saturday arvo, to have a few beers and bit of have a yarn. It was a comfort zone — and still is today. The RSL back in the sixties was a ‘blood house’, anytime you’d go there was a blue on, so the opening of the Catholic Club was a relief.’ A class joint from day one, with strict dress and behaviour standards. They wouldn’t at first even let in men with long hair. ‘There was old Fred Eves on the door… At 7pm he’d come along and hand you a tie. No matter how you were dressed you had to have a tie on. Fairly stringent in those days.

‘We’d play euchre, table tennis and even carpet bowls. They had nine or ten dartboards up on the wall, also snooker tables then. At one stage you’d know fifty per cent of the people who were there, and the regular staff you’d get to know them all.’

Peter insisted a lot of the social side of the Club was bound up in the schools and the Barrons had seven kids. ‘I was president of St John’s P&F for five years, worked on St Greg’s Rodeo for twenty years, was President of St Pat’s College P&F for three years, and also a volunteer organising repairs and whatever. All our kids’ sport revolved around the Catholic Club. We’ve got five daughters and they all played netball — in fact when they got together with Stan Simmon’s daughters they formed a whole team in themselves. My sons played footy for Collegians.’

Peter tells me about the early characters of the Club.

‘You can’t go past Jack Vardy, always installed on Friday and Saturday nights. Such an affable bloke, and any strangers who came in and looked a bit lost, Jack would go up and introduce himself and welcome them: such good public relations for the Club. His niece, of course was Chris (Vardy) Thomson who worked here for years on the bar and in the restaurant, looking after everyone. And there were lots of raffles. I remember Eric Hughes selling tickets for St John’s, maybe a trip away or a colour TV… He’d sell four of five books on a Friday night.’

What is called ‘networking’ today, was also a mainstay of club life. ‘[Real estate agent] Daryl Martyn sold so many houses through the Catholic Club,’ he laughed. ‘We were good mates, Daryl and I.’

I point out that his son, Gavan Martyn, is an old mate of mine who once went to kindy at St John’s with my wife, Trish, and later taught our sons at John Therry. His sister, Katrina, also taught our kids. ‘Yes,’ Peter added, mentioning other members of the clan. ‘Great people.’

Peter also remembers fondly many of the big acts the Club had. ‘I always loved Slim Dusty and John Williamson,’ he nodded. ‘And we were also there when Winfred Atwell performed… She killed ‘em.’

It was Una Winifred Atwell, a Trinidadian-born pianist and the first black woman to top the British charts who famously put the Club on the map in 1970.

Although booked to do three shows, Atwell stayed for eight and she played for 2500 people. Not bad for a club with 900 members at the time. She loved Campbelltown, and Campbelltown loved her back.

Peter also laughed about the time club manager Leo Callaghan infamously dragged Dicky Valentine off the stage for telling a rude joke. ‘Valentine got so much free publicity out of that it’s not funny,’ Peter chuckled. ‘It was on every TV, radio station and newspaper at the time.’

A parade of old names came out as we chatted: Bruce and Ron McDonald, Bill Meehan, Barry Eves, Jack Crawford, Kevin Goonan, Gordon Fetterplace, Deirdre O’Dowd. ‘Most of them gone now,’ he added with a sigh. ‘The intimacy of those days… You’d come down and know everyone.’

‘There were a lot of characters who aren’t always remembered as well as they should be. Like John McMahon, the early car park attendant. When the petrol strikes were on back in the 1970s people would milk our cars, especially when a show was on. Anyway, John stopped a lot of people’s cars getting hit. I also think of Pip Wardell. Before proper security staff, she was a supervisor and if anyone played up, she’d frogmarch them out, no buggering around… She was very well respected and a great club asset.

‘The priests I remember too. Father Tom Grant, the first club chaplain was fire and brimstone up at St John’s Church, but get him away from the pulpit and sit down with him at the Club and it was like two different people; So down to earth and humble. Father Michael Healy is, of course, everyone’s favourite, but I also remember very fondly Father Ryan in the 1970s. What a wonderful human being.’

Peter’s happiest memories often revolve the Communion Luncheons and Search for a Star, or Star Quest, as it was later known, which drew packed houses. Some of the big-name winners have included The Four Trax (later Human Nature), Nathan Foley and Travis Collins.

He also laughs at some of the myths: like the one that claims the late legal eagle John Marsden was banned from the Club because, as a young solicitor of the 1960s, he had opposed its licence. ‘John was actually here quite regularly, a guest speaker for Rotary several times, and would joke about whether he was allowed in or not.’ (Just for the record, John’s brother, Jim, is a vocal supporter of the Catho and Marsdens Law Group’s recently held its 50th anniversary dinner at the Cube. Some ban.)

I ask Peter about the emotional tug-of-war that happened with the Club’s growth: the fact that everyone wanted the Catho to remain an intimate place where everyone knew everyone else — at the same time as snowballing membership applications saw it grow so big. The whole point of the club, after all, was to raise money for education, and the Club now donates millions of dollars to local schools – not thousands.

Yes, Peter, agreed. The Club had to grow.

So, I ask, when was the ‘golden age’ in his mind?

‘When they had the old house down the back with the pool,’ he quickly replied. That’s a reference to the late 1970s when the Club bought up surrounding homes and opened an inground swimming pool and outdoor barbecue area at the side of the Club. ‘It was so great for families,’ Peter said.

‘Kids would get in the pool and we’d have a barbecue and a few beers, a great day out for everyone.’

‘You could have done some laps of a pool then,’ I suggest.

He laughs and says the pool was only small. ‘Yeah, jump in and before you know it, you’re there.’

This corner of the Club remained a popular family spot until the mid-1980s when the land was resumed by Campbelltown Council and demolished to make way for Kellicar Road.

The Catho remains a big part of Peter’s life today. He swims at Aquafit, takes in a show at The Cube, enjoys a nice meal at the Golf Club or Kyūbi, and when his kids and their families come to visit, they stay at Rydges.

He also loves the fact some members of the Catholic Club board today are children of the pioneers. ‘I did the eulogy for Noel Burton’s funeral twenty years ago and his daughter Julie is on the board now. I’ve known her since she was born, the Burtons were neighbours of ours, she’s always been a bright girl. And David McDonald is the chairman of the board now. I knew his dad, Bruce, so well. Dave was a barman here when young.’

As we finish our coffees at The Dove & Shears, more names flow, many of them very familiar to me too. Like the Meehan family, or Dr Tom and June Gardner. Then I mention my wife and Peter replies: ‘Oh, you married one of the Monkcom girls… That means Elaine Monkcom must be your mother-in- law. I like Elaine, a no bullshit lady.’ I agree.

As we leave, I felt I now knew a bit more about this bloke called Peter Barron who I barely knew two hours before. But that, too, is the magic of the Catholic Club — a place where friendships are still made today.


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