Eulogy for Walter Edward Diacono

One of the benefits of a being part of big extended family is that you get different viewpoints on things. A viewpoint from Dad himself: I taped an oral history with him a dozen years ago and my sister and her husband John videoed a history with him a couple of years ago. I’ll touch on a few of those incidents in his history in a sec. A viewpoint from me, his son, who arrived just before what was to be the halfway point of Dad’s life and for the second half of his life I, like many of you, was loved by him and loved him in return. I even got a viewpoint from one of the teenagers in the family who said of Dad’s passing, with unalloyed honesty, “It isn’t, like, tragic. Nannu was old, and that’s what old people do: they die”. (So if there are any old people out there, or anyone thinking of getting old, that’s one to whack on your to-do list). But that’s right, it isn’t tragic: Dad lived a full life and his time had come.

So in this eulogy I’m going to touch briefly what did Dad did while getting around to complete that last un-tickable item on his to-do list and also on how he went about doing it.

Walter Diacono was born in 1916 in Port Said on the Suez Canal in Egypt. His parents Edward and Ida were from Malta, a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean, then a strategic outpost of the British Empire. After primary school in Port Said, Dad went on to high school in Malta to improve his English. He ended up speaking a pile of languages fluently - French to his parents, Italian to his 6 siblings (Wilfred, Edmund, Vincent, Olga, Iris and Gina), Arabic to the kids in the street in Port Said, Maltese to his schoolmates, and bits of Greek to, well, any Greeks in the vicinity. He even used to help me with my Latin when I was a kid.

After school he returned to Egypt, where he worked in administration with the European shipping lines that plied the Suez Canal. When the Second World War arrived, he joined the British Navy in Alexandria working with the Sea Transport Service. When the Allied invasion of Sicily and the Italian mainland loomed, he volunteered to transfer so he could put his language skills to good use in Italia. The British Admiralty, having thoughtfully considered his application, duly transferred him to India. (India/Italia – easy to confuse when you’ve got an Empire to run). He spent several years in Bombay and Calcutta, marshalling shipping logistics for the invasion of Burma, which the surrender of the Japanese pre-empted. While in India he picked up malaria and also Hindi – another language, which he somehow recalled 60 years later at the hospice when chatting with Suroj, one of nursing aids from Nepal. He was very fond of Dad and had learned Hindi from Indian movies.

Not wanting to return to Egypt after the war, Dad asked to be released from service in another outpost of the British Empire – New Zealand. Stopping in Sydney on his way there, he stayed with a friend in Brougham St, Kings Cross where met a fellow Maltese, Mrs Camilleri, and eventually her daughter’s best friend, a young and beautiful Irish-Australian girl: Pat O’Leary. She must have made a great impression with her opening line “Walter, Walter, meet me at the altar” and when she ended their first chat with “OK, see you later”, Dad asked “What time?”

They married in 1948 with us kids coming along every 2-3 years: Rod, Marc, Vivienne, me and Brendan. Dad put his language skills to good use working for Thomas Cook, the travel agents – initially assisting migrants from Italy and Greece with their onward passage to other capital cities in Australia and later as an international travel consultant. On a tour of the French Rugby League team to Australia, Dad was appointed the translator as they toured the country. He recalled the captain of the team was feeling confident enough of his English to forgo Dad’s assistance at a reception at a country town. The French captain presented a badge featuring a red-white-and-blue coloured cockerel or rooster to the wife of the town Mayor with the unforgettable words “May I present you, Madame, with this French cock”. (You’re allowed to say “cock” in church – as long as it’s the one that crows three times). That was Dad’s last rugby tour.

Dad worked loyally at Thomas Cook for the rest of his working life – I might just remind the Facebook generation that he worked in the pre-Internet days. You couldn’t just look up timetables online or make bookings over the Net – it was a matter of big thick paper volumes and phone calls and telexes to foreign hotels and airlines. Dad managed to score a couple of trips to the Rome and Tokyo Olympics as well as regular travel industry cocktail parties from which he’d come home reporting he’d had “just a little bit of chicken, a little bit of prawn”. For us kids where exotic meant eating curried sausages for dinner, it sounded like the most glamourous lifestyle possible.

Dad was on the leading edge of helping Australia transform from a nation with an exclusively British culture (where the only place Dad could find olive oil was in a chemist where it was sold as a skin balm) to today’s tolerant easy-going mix of cultures built on the institutions bequeathed us by the British. Back then, Mum would devotedly make Dad pizza pies from first principles: flour, yeast, tomatoes and cheese. We children would turn up our noses at it as “wog food”. Yes, in the 60s, pizza was something no self respecting Aussie kid would go anywhere near. Yet by the 70s we were happily eating tabouli and tahini along with shish kebabs and koftas cooked on the backyard barbie (using wood Dad got us to harvest from the Royal Botanical Gardens – no wonder, it had such an exotic taste).

Since retiring back in the 80’s, Dad and Mum moved from Brougham St in Kings Cross up here to Elanora Heights. Dad has kept in contact with his erstwhile Cooks workmates, he and Mum meeting them regularly for lunch to recall old times.

So that’s roughly what Dad did, but perhaps it’s how he did it that is worth reflecting on.

The most common comment I recall hearing about Dad was that he was such a gentleman. Recently I even heard it from several nurses at the hospice and War Vets home where he spent his last few months – you wonder how a guy confined to a bed or in a chair at the end of the ward could come across as a gentleman. It wasn’t as if he wore a top hat and tails. Mum and us kids were fortunate to keep Dad company during all his lunches and dinners over these last few difficult months and so got a good chance to see him in action. He never complained, he never made a fuss, he was invariably polite, always positive, stubbornly hanging on to life and the nurses just loved him. When one asked “who’s on duty tomorrow”, I was able to honestly answer “it’s not a duty, it’s a privilege”.

For us kids, Dad exerted his influence, not through haranguing us but as a quiet role model. He worked hard, he was honest, he was truthful, he was faithful – he epitomised what it is to be a man. He was a great handyman and a great cook. It’s no accident that all us kids cook and two of his grandsons are professional chefs. Food has been a uniting influence through our lives. The nurses at the hospice used to gawk at the nibblies we’d bring Dad and that he’d enthusiastically put away: prosciutto, mortadella, olives, goat’s cheese, Italian bread.

Dad was pious and generous – he joined the St Vincent de Paul Society soon after marrying Mum and volunteered with them until just a couple of years ago, going out to visit and assist those in distressed circumstances (and hopefully filtering out the odd scam artist!) Equally he has been an enthusiastic member of the congregation here at St Josephs Church, participating fully in this Catholic community and its family group.

It may surprise you to learn that Dad was an eco-warrior. Not in your classic chained-to-a-tree, save-the-whales, wear-tofu-eat-sandals sense. But recall the Green mantra: Reduce, Re-use, Recycle. Dad was into these big time, long before they were fashionable. Reduce: he and Mum’s brother Stan shared a car for several years rather than own one each, Stan drove to work during the week, and Dad drove it on weekends to take us to Bondi Beach or to his sister Iris’s for afternoon tea and those delicious cakes. Re-use: probably took this one a little far when he re-used a old tie as a belt for some old workpants (Mum put the kibosh on that); he kept a healthy quantity of doors on hand in Brougham St in case a need for them suddenly arose. Re-cycle: I think the council clean-up day was the biggest day of the year for Dad except maybe Christmas Day. He was in his element and would come home with great piles of junk, I mean, “re-cyclables” in case a need for them suddenly arose. His grandson James has proudly carried on this tradition - half his room is furnished with “re-cyclables”.

Dad was loving. He loved his parents, his brothers and sisters, Pat, his wife of 60 years, all of us kids, our spouses, his many nieces and nephews, and he especially loved his grandkids and great grandkids. Over the last few months, he would continually ask after his grandkids and would break into a chuckle as we related their activities. He and Mum were always welcoming and delighted to meet our mates and friends. Look around you – these are the lives he touched in some way.

So that was Dad. Not tragic. Sadly I’ll never again be able to enter a room, say “Hi Dad” and see his face light up, but I hope you’ll all join with me as I recall his long, and good, and gentle, and loving life and say “Bye Dad”, rest in peace.

Phil Diacono
19 December 2008