Wendell Rosewarne reflects on cancer challenge and a sporting life

Like the sporting champion he was, Wendell Rosewarne rallied on Tuesday to celebrate his 80th birthday.

He did do in style, surrounded by well-wishing Goulburn Base Hospital staff, his sister Mary O’Neill and Mayor Bob Kirk.

“I’m absolutely overwhelmed. I’m just an ordinary bloke but I was so determined to make it (to my birthday) in this turbulent time,” he told them.

Wendell has been in the hospital, and before that, the Bourke Street Health Service, since being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in August.

He told The Post it came as a great shock. It also followed a fall at his Montague Street home in which he broke his shoulder. Doctors subsequently found a shadow on his pancreas.

“The doctor told me it could be a short time, but you don’t know mate,” he said.

“...No amount of hardship prepares you – this is a fight. But like Abbott said, this bloody Rosewarne is a fighter – he doesn’t give up and he doesn’t give in.”

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, with whom Wendell rode seven Pollie Pedals, made a surprise visit to the hospital on Sunday to see his mate and Goulburn’s best known former postie, sporting all-rounder and character.

“I saw him coming down the corridor and I said, ‘Christ, Abbott.’ He said, ‘not yet’. It was unbelievable,” Wendell told The Post.

Mr Abbott stayed about 30 minutes chatting about old times and a now legendary pollie pedal in which he asked Wendell to ride all the way. Wendell was true to his word, making the distance on his old postie bike.

Wendell said Mr Abbott’s visit lifted his spirits no end and mused on how a “commoner” became friends with a Prime Minister.

“He’s become like a long, lost brother,” he said.

The popular former postie, with a wiry physique shaped by years of sport, has been overwhelmed by visitors since his setback. Mayor Bob Kirk sees him almost daily.

Could it be any other way for the man who’s found his way into many hearts?

He was raised as a Legacy ward after his father, a World War One veteran who suffered shrapnel injuries, died when Wendell was young. 

His mother Mary struggled to feed three children under five but somehow they survived and thrived. 

Sport was a happy diversion.

“I loved sport,” he said.

“At school (Saint Patrick’s College) I’d get in trouble for being outside. The Christian Brothers gave me the strap but it was good discipline.”

He proudly boasts that he was self taught in all sports. As a youngster he’d bash tennis balls against a brick wall, play against himself in squash, kick and chase footballs and pick them up on the bounce. He was a runner, going in sprints at age 35, a cricketer and rugby league player. Then came Aussie Rules.

“I didn’t even know the rules,” Wendell said.

“They dragged me off the rugby league field because they were short one day. I said ‘I don’t want to play that bloody game’ but someone had broken their shoulder and I went on. It was a new game to me.

“I had a way of getting the ball into the forward zone to allow them to score goals. I became a humorous part of the furniture. I had a peculiar style but I was effective.”

So effective that he went on to play more than 400 games for the Goulburn Hawks, the last in his sixties.

He took up competitive cycle racing in his 50s, winning a road race at Breadalbane. There was also water polo, although he couldn’t swim. It proved a hindrance as a goalie in deep water where Goulburn Evening Post sports writer Peter Peters comically observed him trying to keep afloat.

“Rosewarne has probably played his first and last game of water polo,” he wrote a few days later.

He was promptly nicknamed ‘submarine.’

Among the rich tapestry of sporting experiences, some stand out more than others. Wendell was selected to carry the Queen’s Baton Relay at Canberra’s AIS for the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. He danced through a huge crowd in Victoria Park in 2000 as Goulburn welcomed the Olympic torch. 

Recently, his friends held a working bee at his home to organise all his sporting memorabilia and ensure it’s preserved in local organisations and museums. His father’s war medals, which he proudly wears every ANZAC Day, will go to the Rocky Hill War Memorial. Mayor Bob Kirk said a cabinet would also be included in Goulburn’s Sporting Hall of Fame displaying Wendell’s sporting achievements.

“Wendell is a proud Goulburnian and a local legend,” he said.

If life is throwing Wendell a curve ball, he’s determined to stay upbeat and enjoy the company of a steady stream of visitors from his beloved Goulburn. On Tuesday, he even took time to pay his respects to another local icon, Allan ‘Jockey’ Rudd who died last Friday.

“I’ve been in Goulburn all my life and it’s never been unkind to me,” he said.

“(But) I’m no big deal and never wanted to be. I’ve just tried to help people.

“At school I was a trier and never the star but in the end I outlasted the lot of them. I might be a bit rough but I’m a goer.” 

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