Mayor Jenny Dowell with Geoff Walker, his daughter Bronwyn and grandson Oliver.
Mayor Jenny Dowell with Geoff Walker, his daughter Bronwyn and grandson Oliver.

Citizen Geoff wins Oz Day award

Geoff Walker knows that everyone has a tale to tell, it's just a matter of finding the key to unlock their story.

Geoff's collected so many life stories over the years it's little wonder he's earned the title of 'Living Book' and now he can add to that 'Citizen of the Year'.

"Nursing homes are a treasure trove of stories," Geoff said. "Often we dismiss older people as on the shelf, but all they really need is stimulation - they are screaming out for it. There's so many stories it's not funny - you hear these amazing things and you wonder, 'Do their families even know this?'"

The 85-year-old was named Lismore's Citizen of the Year at the Australia Day awards ceremony last Thursday, where he was honoured for an unbelievable 70 years of community service, which began with digging air-raid trenches during WWII.

Today, he runs a group at Caroona Jarmen nursing home that focuses on thinking and learning - two things the former teacher has always been passionate about. He's also been a member of the University of the Third Age for 17 years because he loves nothing better than a good, robust discussion. The group is not shy about tackling difficult subjects and Geoff himself has presented more than 60 talks.

"At our Friday Forum next week the subject is 'Do our leaders deserve their pedestals?' We often talk about contentious topics just so long as we don't get into religion or actual politics too much. We skid around them," he laughs. "We talk about everything from manners to coal seam gas, anything that gets people thinking. We have two presenters a week 40 weeks of the year - we have an insatiable appetite."

Geoff was a founding member of the Inspired Voices Choir at Caroona and believes talking, like music, has a healing quality. He said at Caroona there is a Z-Force commando, ex-mayor and a man who hardly spoke but would practise Danny Boy in the dead of night. Geoff said it's extraordinary what a little digging can uncover.

"I try and entice people to tell me things - their first flood in Lismore, their first dance, their first boyfriend," Geoff explained. "The recreation officers want them to be stimulated to think and a number of us use discussion as therapy. It's all about getting people to come out of themselves.

"Sometimes the day before the group I'll visit people and

just do question and answer, question and answer, until I know what buttons to press. Everyone is so surprised at what other people know when you gradually get these stories out of them - you just need to talk to folk and ask the right questions.

"One lady was telling me how she used to catch the horse and sulky down to the wharf at Boatharbour where she'd watch for the mail to come from Lismore on the steam launch, just to get the David Jones catalogue. Another woman was telling me about the first eisteddfod in Lismore in 1957 when the Toowoomba choir 'came down and beat us'. Apparently they never came back," Geoff laughed, "but she remembers an honourable licking."

Geoff has decided it's time for a taste of his own medicine and is writing down a record of his life after a gentle nudge from his family.

"They said, 'If you fall over we know nothing,'" he smiled.

Geoff is a great believer in volunteering - he's done everything from radio broadcasting and teaching kids' learn-to-swim programs to being a scout master and helping at the Lismore Rainforest Botanic Gardens for 22 years. The list, which he's now written out, is endless. With a thirst for knowledge and an obvious love of people, he seems to get a great deal of enjoyment from being involved in his community.

"Volunteering helps smooth the edges of a person and allows them to stand in another person's shoes, and I think that you become a broader, more tolerant person as a result," he said. "And if you like people, you get to meet some crackers. Some are incorrigible. Old men all seem to have a snake story. I'm not sure if they're all true," Geoff laughs, "but they all seem to have one."

While he's had many life experiences and gathered many others from those around him, it seems Geoff can still be surprised. Not only by the Citizen of the Year honour bestowed on him but by an unexpected visit from his daughter Bronwyn, who was secretly flown in from Sydney for the awards.

"Everyone at the (retirement) village knew what was happening - Bronwyn was picked up from the airport and spent the night 50 metres away from me and I didn't even know.

"It was fantastic," Geoff chuckled. "Everyone was in on the skullduggery."

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