Even towards the end, Gary Poile was full of ideas and focused on ensuring a Collector community project reached fruition.
Perched up in his hospital bed, he was phoning people about the town's pump track, a project he suggested using remaining funds from the now defunct Collector Pumpkin Festival.
If it wasn't the Pumpkin Festival, it was the town's SES, Memorial Hall and a multitude of other projects that absorbed Mr Poile during his enduring commitment to community.
The 61-year-old died in Goulburn Base Hospital on Wednesday, September 6, following a year-long battle with oesophageal cancer. He was surrounded by family.
Tributes have flowed from community, the SES, of which he was a member for 26 years, friends and the bee industry, in which the family's Poile's honey was well known.
Wife, Felicity, said Gary was forever striving for the community, right to the end of his life.
"Leadership was in his bones and he was always thinking outside the box on how to do things better and prevent (disasters)," she said.
He was the middle of three children - including older brother Ian and sister, Heather, born to George and Maureen Poile. At age three, the family moved from Nowra to Collector and initially settled on the property, High-Knoll, before shifting into town.
Gary attended Collector Public School and showed an early interest in bees. His father built the town's first honey shed. Gary helped out and later took on the enterprise with Ian, travelling around NSW chasing the honey flow and selling the product locally and in bulk sales to Capilano.
At age 17, he embracing his parents' community service ethos, and "didn't stop," Felicity said. He became Collector Memorial Hall secretary and later started markets to raise money for its upkeep.
After a small group suggested a pumpkin festival for Collector, he jumped on board and together with a committee, helped run it for up to 17 years until its cessation due to COVID in 2020. The event attracted thousands of people to the small town and raised vital money for community projects. Its organisation absorbed months of work by the committee, of which Gary was president for several years.
Later, he and good friend, Tim the Yowie Man, dug out a huge pumpkin and crafted a boat that could float on water. Felicity said Gary and a few friends 'sailed' it on Lake Burley Griffin, leaving nearby rowers "wide-eyed."
'The perfect match'
The man she described as "a jack of all trades" caught her eye not long after school. The girl from Cullerin met her match through tennis and mutual friends and Gary proposed on his family's property. They married in 1987.
"I thought he was a wonderful person and an amazing man," Felicity said.
They had three children - Belinda, Jennifer and Bradley - all of whom embraced community service. Felicity said they learnt early on that if you couldn't beat Gary, they had to join him. The family also joined the SES and attended training weekends which Gary organised.
He joined the RFS in 1978 and became the town's captain. While still a member, he joined Gunning's SES unit in January, 1997 and rose to unit controller in 2013 and principal trainer. In 2003 he was awarded he Emergency Services Medal, the highest national meritorious service award available for SES members. Gary also received the ACT emergency medal after his deployment to the ACT bushfire emergency in 2003.
Felicity said her husband worked long nights at the 1997 Thredbo disaster, his first major rescue, and the family didn't see him for weeks.
"It was a big thing for him but he took every challenge in his stride," she said.
His local knowledge served him well through numerous flood events and rescues. Good friend, John Gorman, said Gary organised regular training weekends away and always made them fun.
When Gunning and Collector SES merged in 2015, Gary was appointed unit controller. In 2017, the NSW SES commissioner appointed him an emergency officer.
He was awarded the National Medal for 15 years in May, 2018 for diligent service including risk to life or safety to protect or assist the community in times of emergency or natural disaster, the SES said.
Gary was also awarded the NSW SES long service and good conduct medal with two clasps for his service.
"Inspector Poile was a qualified trainer and assessor and highly regarded for his skills and instruction in working with chainsaws," the SES said in a statement.
"He was a dedicated advocate of the volunteer members. He also made the Collector Unit a family affair by enrolling Felicity, Bradley and Jennifer and other members of the local community, and we know that they will miss him immensely...Vale Inspector Gary Poile, and thank you for your dedicated service."
From his hospital bed last October, he helped to manage the SES response to flooding in Gunning's main street.
Collector resident, James McKay, said when Gary couldn't secure council action on his concerns about flooding in Collector, he jumped on a front-end loader and moved the earth himself.
"Gary's passing will leave a huge vacuum," he said.
"He demonstrated the highest form of public service in his volunteerism, which was on a scale almost not humanly possible...He had such enthusiasm and ideas...His overriding focus was on getting things done for the community."
In between, he also ran his own sheep property, and oversaw bee hives scattered across three places as part of his thriving honey business. Son, Bradley, has since taken over Poile's honey.
The man with seemingly endless ideas and energy faced life's biggest challenge head-on. Felicity said difficulty swallowing was the first sign that something was wrong. Gary was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in October, 2022 and endured several chemotherapy rounds.
Still, she said he remained upbeat, thinking of community projects, improving his fitness for surgery and drawing from his hospital bed.
"He took it all in his stride and never complained," Felicity said.
In between hospital stays, the couple enjoyed a memorable month-long "G'day holiday," meeting up with old friends in a trip up north.
Felicity said family was everything to her husband. He loved spending precious time with his children and "beautiful" granddaughter, Zoey. Gary was proud of them and their contribution to the family farm and business.
In his final days in hospital, he awarded service certificates to Collector SES members, made phone calls to ensure Collector would receive its pump track and shared precious time with his family.
"...We had 36 wonderful years together and I wouldn't have had it any other way. Life will never be the same without him," Felicity said.
A funeral service will be held at Collector Memorial Hall on Thursday, September 21 at 11am, followed by burial at the town's Uniting Church.
- With thanks to the Poile family and the SES for their assistance with this article.
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