One long, crowded life.
There’s more to Geoff Wilson, 80, than meets the eye. Hidden away in the back of Mr Wilson’s shed lies decades of military history, while his carport houses a United States Army World War II jeep, which he still whizzes around town in. The News’ John Lewis caught up with the ex-footballer turned collector, volunteer and grandfather of 15 to see how the well-known Sheppartonian now fills his time.
There’s a twinkle in Geoff Wilson’s eye when he talks about his vast collection of militaria tucked away in a shed at the back of his house.
He picks up what looks like a German military badge from World War II with an iron cross insignia.
‘‘That was found in the dirt at Dhurringile. It would have been carved by a German prisoner,’’ he says.
The intricacy of the metal latticework is mindboggling.
“Somebody’s had plenty of time to do this – you’d have to be a prisoner of war wouldn’t you?’’ he says with a grin.
Geoff is 80 years old, but he has the spark of a man half his age.
Perhaps that’s because we’re talking soldiers.
‘‘I’ve been collecting since I was 14 — we used to play soldiers instead of cowboys and indians,’’ he says.
We’re standing in a space about the size of a shipping container, but it could be a cavernous room in the Imperial War Museum.
Every available inch on every flat surface, from all four walls to the floor and ceiling, even the inside of the door — is crammed with the reminders of military service and war.
Badges, medals, helmets, berets, jackets, goggles, bandoliers, gas masks, boots, f lags, a parachute, model tanks and planes, posters, framed photos and guns —lots of guns.
He also has a huge collection of flags.
‘‘I’m a vexillophile,’’ he says, cheekily trying to bamboozle me with the grand word for a flag collector. He succeeds.
Today he’s flying the British Union Jack outside his home because of Brexit.
Geoff’s vast militaria collection comes from across the country and probably the world, and from people who know Geoff Wilson.
‘‘Swaps, auction houses, trades, the tip, or before it goes to the tip, word of mouth — and people drop things on my doorstep,’’ he says.
In his carport is an American Army World War II jeep, which he still drives.
His favourite piece is an American-made Winchester musket from 1873. ‘‘It reputedly went to the Sudan, I’m not so sure though,’’ he says. ‘‘But it’s a Winchester, and I love Winchesters — the gun that won the west.’’
Geoff was born in 1940, which made him too young to serve in the war, but he remembers his taxi driver father in Melbourne coming home with his pockets stuffed full of Yankee dollars.
‘‘He made all the money off the Yanks. He didn’t care as long as it was US dollars,’’ he says.
There’s that twinkle again.
Geoff did, however, spend six years in the army reserve in Shepparton with what was then the 22nd Battalion RVR in the 1960s and 70s. ‘‘It was a great time. I loved every minute of it, but you can’t be in the army when you work for yourself,’’ he says.
Antique guns and Wehrmacht badges might light the spark in Geoff’s eye – but there’s a lot more to this pocket rocket than his military history collection.
He was born at Bethesda Hospital, Richmond in 1940, went to school at Canterbury Primary and Box Hill Boys’ Tech before leaving aged 15 to take up an apprenticeship in signwriting — a skill that served him all his working life.
A distinguished football career began at 14 when he played for Canterbury in the Melbourne Boys’ League. At 16 he won the best and fairest in the under-18s and was then invited to train with Hawthorn in the VFL. ‘‘I couldn’t get there quick enough. I can still smell the brand new Hawthorn guernsey I got — it was the highlight of my life. I rushed home to show my dad and all my mates — I said how good is this?’’
From 1956 to 1959 Geoff moved up the ranks as a rover, eventually playing 31 games and kicking 29 goals for the Hawks.
Geoff remembers an early visit to Shepparton in 1959 to play a post-season exhibition match against Fitzroy at the showgrounds after the annual agricultural show.
‘‘We played at eight o’clock at night and the horses and drays had been out all afternoon. You can imagine the state of the ground. It was atrocious. It was also under lights, which were a lovely shade of yellow, and in those days the ball was white. Then we had to jump in our cars and go back to Melbourne,’’ he says holding his head and groaning with laughter.
His first Shepparton experience didn’t put him off — six years later he returned with wife Fran and young family to take up an offer to coach Lemnos Football Club.
Before that though, he and Fran and their one-year old twins bundled into Geoff’s lime-green Holden panel van sporting his ‘‘Wilsigns’’ business sign and headed for Perth where Geoff spent the next four years playing for Claremont.
Tragedy struck Geoff’s family when their four-month old son Steele, born in Perth, died from sudden infant death syndrome.
But they battled on, and Geoff won a WAFL grand final with Claremont against Fremantle in 1964 before they headed to Lemnos.
Geoff and Fran went on to raise their family of seven, including two sets of twins in Shepparton.
In between brightening city businesses with his signwriting skills, Geoff played football for Lemnos, Mooroopna, Invergordon and Ardmona, hanging up his playing boots aged 37. He then umpired for a further 18 years.
Being a non-smoker and non-drinker probably helped.
With Noel Hussey and Doug Tuhan he founded the Goulburn Runners Club in 1979. In 1995 he joined the Shepparton Kiwani Sunrisers — and is still an active member. He is also a keen sporting shooter.
His beloved Fran died 11 years ago, after a short illness. Today he keeps busy with the Kiwanis, lunchtime chats with mates at the Shepparton RSL, jeep rides and flag raising. Geoff has led a crowded and rewarding life, but his proudest achievement comes as no surprise.
‘‘My family,’’ he says without a second thought. His seven living children have given him 15 grandchildren and eight great-grand- children.
‘‘They all do their thing—and they’re all different, thank God. Shepparton has been good to us, and there’s still so much to do. Whoever gets bored in Shepp needs to take a good look at themselves,’’ he says.
There’s that twinkle again.
John Lewis, Shepparton News
Pictures: Shepparton News
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