Caption: Ruth McDonald enjoying a coffee at Rydges, a place she reckons the Club founders couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams

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. Ruth McDonald is his latest face-to-face.

We often hear about the founding fathers of Campbelltown Catholic Club, so I decided to catch up with a founding mother — Ruth McDonald.

Ruth was there in 1965 when the first ‘official’ club meetings were held in a small timber hut next to St John’s Catholic Primary School. Ruth was also there in 1968 when the ‘proper’ clubhouse opened. Ruth has seen it all. Well, almost. The momentous growth of recent times has passed her by a bit, so we decided to have our drink at Rydges.

“I’ve only ever been in here once before,” Ruth said as we walked into the hotel. “I came here for Delore McDonald’s 80th birthday, it was a lovely high tea.” A look of sadness suddenly crossed Ruth’s face because it was only a couple of months ago that Delore died in May. “The best sister-in-law you could hope for,” Ruth nodded.

We sat at a window table, the morning sun warming us both. Ruth gazed around at the elegant four-and-a-half-star decor and told me her late husband, Ron, and his mates couldn’t have imagined a place like this back in 1968. “Not in their wildest dreams”.

Time, however, is a traveller and Ruth seems particularly chuffed by the numerical significance of this year. “I just got my invitation to the Communion Luncheon in August — the 56th annual event,” she said. “And I just happen to be member number 56!”

Yes, that’s what a pioneer Ruth is. (Don’t know about you, but my membership number is in the thousands.) She dearly misses her “Ronnie”, who died in 2015, calling him the rock of her family. “I love him and appreciate him more with every day that passes.” Ron, member number 4, was one of the five blokes who famously hatched the idea for a Campbelltown Catholic Club after a working bee at a cash-strapped St John’s Primary School back in 1964.

The story of those parent volunteers helping to build new classrooms in the heat of summer has now acquired a mythical aura. After one hard day’s work, some of the parents ended up at The Club Hotel in Queen Street. Five of them — Ron and his brother, Bruce McDonald, Bill Meehan, John O’Reilly and Noel Hill — looked down at the beers they had just paid a publican for and imagined a licensed club for Catholics that would use its profits to help fund local Catholic education.

“I can still remember Ronnie coming home and telling me they had come up with a better way of doing things,” Ruth smiled. “He was wonderful with figures [an accountant by profession], and had been doing audits at the RSL and Golf Club, so he was familiar with the club industry. We also went on bus trips to other clubs around Sydney to see how they operated.”

The Catho started small… Gatherings of maybe two dozen people to play cards, or go on a fishing trip or play a round of golf, but membership reached 120 people by 1966 and the first AGM announced a net profit of $182. Ruth remembers Ron, as Club Treasurer, being involved in every step forward. Such as the interest-bearing debentures taken up by members that raised enough cash to buy a block of land and build that first clubhouse on 5 December 1968.

Ruth also recalls her husband was instrumental in arranging for non-Catholics to be admitted as members, from 1971, greatly propelling the growth of the Club. “Before then, it was only Catholics… And I think you even had to have the approval of Father Grant in Campbelltown or Father Whitty in Camden… It seems ludicrous now. But look at what the Club has become, and how many members there are, coming from all walks of life.”

Ruth gets nostalgic as we talk about the foundation years. “They were great times,” she smiled. “Everyone knew everyone else and we had some really good acts. Barry Crocker, Little Patti, Col Joye, Frankie Davidson, Delltones, and John Williamson. I was there the night Leo Callaghan [the first club manager] ordered Dicky Valentine off stage for swearing. But the guest we all remember most was Winifred Atwell.” In 1970, this Trinidadian-born pianist (who had been the first black woman to top the British music charts) was warmly embraced by Campbelltonians. Although booked to do three shows, she stayed for eight and played for 2500 people. Not bad for a Club with 900 members at the time. “Ronnie arranged to take Winifred up to meet the nuns at St Patrick’s College and they were ecstatic, and she was so good to them.”

“The food at the Club was always great — Mrs Purcell in the early days. I don’t think she was a qualified chef, but she was a great cook and always made this dish… I can still taste it… Duck a’ la orange. Ronnie loved it.”

Ruth knew well all the other ‘founding women’ of the Club such as Val Meehan, Pat Simmonds, and Pat Hill. I recall Bill Meehan, Club No 1 member, once telling me: “We had to spend a lot of time in meetings and getting the Club started, missing out on family time, so it was our wives who provided the back-up. Without the wives, there wouldn’t be a Club!

Ruth admits the creation of The Catho did eat up a lot of family time, whether it was meetings, or Ron spreading paperwork all over the dining table at the end of the financial year, but the family was committed to the educational support the Club would offer — and Ron was always a loving and involved father who was adored by his five kids. “Ronnie was our rock. Even if he got caught up in the Club when we arrived to pick him up, he’d make sure hamburgers and lemon squashes were brought out to the car. They were good times.”

Ruth bursts with pride as she speaks about their five children. “Stephen is an engineer with Qantas, Mark and Andrew were both in the police force for decades and now teach driving safety, Anne works in aged care, and Jacinta works with children with moderate to severe intellectual disability.” It’s certainly a family of helpers and supporters. Ruth also points out she has 16 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren “with another three coming!”

Caption 2: Ron and Ruth McDonald in the late 1960s with their five children.

Ruth doesn’t have to convince me what good people her family are. I’ve always had a warm spot in my heart for the McDonalds, and Ron was something of a mentor to me for many years, often sending a message agreeing or disagreeing with one of my columns in my previous life as a newspaper editor. I dearly miss our conversations, and Ron’s generous intellect and cheeky sense of humour. Also his deep principles.

Ruth’s late brother- and sister-in-law, Bruce and Delore McDonald, were also fantastic people, and Ruth talks with pride about her nephew, David McDonald — now the Club’s Chairman of the Board. “It’s so nice to have the second generation there, and David is such a quiet achiever. He does a lot, but he doesn’t say a lot. I was once on the phone to [his sister], Leisel, and I found out Dave hadn’t even told her he was the chairman! They’re all gorgeous people, and Ronnie was of course David’s godfather.”

Ruth’s own siblings include Club stalwarts such as her twin sister, Beryl White, and brother Des Chapman.

As we finished our drinks and settled in to play ‘do you remember so and so’ we bounced through a lot of familiar names, from Gordon and Barb Fetterplace to Heather and Kevin Goonan. When I mentioned Don Nash, Ruth recalled he was not only their milkman, “but had travelled up from Canberra to attend Ronnie’s funeral — such a nice man.” I laugh when she told me about Ron’s close mate, Michael Fitzgerald, because I’m presently working on a big history project with Tony, his son.

We speak a lot about the community work Ron was known for, whether it was doing the accounts of local schools and sporting groups, or being the first chairman of Campbelltown Hospital in the 1970s. (When Campbelltown Council launched its 10 Faces of Campbelltown community artwork project a few years ago, Ron was included on a list that included other icons such as Ron Moore, John Skandalis and Uncle Ivan Wellington).

When Ron died seven years ago, son Mark McDonald delivered part of the eulogy and described his father as a compassionate, humble, dignified, generous and caring man. “He was loyal to his family, friends, his faith and had a very rare commitment to serving his local community in many capacities.”

Ruth, of course, knew Ron’s qualities better than anyone.

In fact, she shares them. As we leave Rydges together, she stops to have a chat with the young front of office manager of the hotel, Lachlan Haidle, asking him questions and encouraging him. “What a nice young man.” She said as we left.

Ruth told me there were sometimes ups and downs with Ron’s involvement with The Catho, but he always regarded it as his proudest community achievement. So much so, he was buried wearing his Catholic Club blazer. “He was our rock,” Ruth tells me a third time.

But, as I drop Ruth home, I realise there were two rocks in that family. Because, I know how much Ron adored Ruth, and I know how much he relied on her for support, advice, encouragement and love. Ruth, the nurturer, was the one who made it all possible for Ron to do what he did.

Even rocks need rocks. She was his.

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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 marketing@cathclub.com.au