Atypical trials and travails of an uncommon man

Written by Leanne Esposito

A testament to the resilience of the human mind, body and spirit

Life has certainly thrown more than a few curved balls at Bob Davis, the Oz Adventures Hard Yakka founder in recent years. This man has faced more adversity in the past three years than one human need to endure over the course of a lifetime.

He’s fought a good fight; battled bowel cancer and won.

He’s farewelled his eldest and beloved son Brad, who had done so much for the youth in our region
and for many others in need, and laid him to rest with the full honours of a local hero as graduates
of Hard Yakka formed a guard of honour at his funeral.

Finally, he’s accepted that the declining health of the love of his life, wife Julie who at only 65, is due
to that thief of memories, dementia.

After meeting with Bob Davis on the third anniversary of Brad’s death, and having the unforgettable privilege to hear his story, I’ve since made a parallel between the fictional character in Laura Hillenbrand’s famous novel, Unbroken (which was adapted for the big screen by the Coen brothers) and the man who stands before me.

Both were incorrigible delinquent teenagers, for a brief period of time, who then channelled their
defiance into a life of service to others. Both felt the call of the armed services – one in wartime,
and Bob in a time of peace. Yet the lessons learned in service and challenges faced by the real Bob
cannot be diminished by the fictional character’s wartime story.

Each character has been driven to the limits of endurance and each has answered desperation
with ingenuity, suffering with hope, resolve and humour – and finally prevailed.

To succeed amidst a life filled with tragedy is a testament to the strength of their human

But how is this done? I believe there is something innate in an individual who places the needs of
others above themselves. I call it selflessness, a trait which helps us act from our heart and our
soul instead of our ego.

For Bob it began in his youth when he saw how his own brush with the law impacted his now 92-yearold mother. At that time, she stoically wiped away tears of disappointment and shame and a
valuable lesson was learned. Respect yourself and others, and especially, honour those you love. In
that moment, a life of selfless devotion was born.

“I learned how to be generous from her. I did the wrong thing by her as a kid. Now I’m honest with
everything,” Bob said.

An early career in the armed forces has shaped the young man to a disciplined and respectful
individual. His role as a patrol commander in the infantry instructing tactical response teams and
sniper training has instilled in him a level of quiet patience which can only be an asset when dealing
with disaffected youth who come to his Hard Yakka program.

“I was in many different roles in the army. When I joined at 17 I wanted to go into artillery as a
physical training officer but I didn’t get my choice and fell into infantry and I’m glad I did,” Bob said.
Family always came first, so in 1985 he cut his promising army career short to be with Julie and
his boys, Brad and Matt. However, Bob said the sacrifice was worth it and the opportunity to grow
and work with the family altogether has seen his life shaped in ways he could never imagine.
Bob explains to me that families often come to him in disarray with a struggling teenager and that
it is important for parents to sacrifice the almighty dollar for precious time together. He appreciates it can be a struggle, but more often the child is crying out for the parents’ attention and love.
“I was missing a lot of them (children) growing up. If I was single I would have stayed in the army
as I loved it. It was me. It gave me direction and good mates as well. I chose my family and I’m glad
I did,” he said.

Bob’s strength of purpose has seen him build many things from the ground up, or conversely
from the top down. The climbing anchor points which he and his army mates inserted at Kangaroo
Point have been used by millions of climbing enthusiasts to this day. He also built a 20 metre
abseiling tower at Redcliffe – the first in Australia.

He’s helped centres set up ropes courses from the Gold Coast to Mango Hill and up to Bundaberg. While living in the Rum City he was in seven committees at one time, including running the army cadets, and served as the Bundaberg Junior Cricket President. All pursuits were centred around his
boys’ activities. He was able to blend time with his family while serving his community.

Right now it’s Hard Yakka and Gel Ball which gives Bob a sense of purpose and, he says, is a lasting legacy to his son Brad, and the young men like Joel and Gunny who also lost their lives far too early.
“People say I must be sad about everything that’s happened but I consider I’m the lucky one.
“My son’s not around to see this or be with his little family.

“They gave me a month to live. I beat the cancer.

“It is what it is. I owe Hard Yakka and Gel Ball everything. It’s picked me up.

It owes me nothing. People are what life is about. I want to save people.”

It is clear that children are a priority for Bob, from his seven grandchildren to the youth of our region, and especially the boys who enter his program, Bob is completely devoted to helping them see a way forward to a good life filled with healthy interpersonal connections.

When asked what is the hardest job he’s ever done it’s an unequivocal answer, with the most heartfelt qualifier.

“Parent. You think I’m going to say army, sniper or rappelling instructor but no. Being a parent is hard but it is also the most gratifying,” he said.

When a child is presented to his Hard Yakka program it’s the parents who are often experiencing a difficult time. They have brought them to a military styled program which aims to instil in the individual self-discipline, selfcontrol and respect for self and others. Bob explains that the most vital life skill the boys learn which becomes an asset to their daily lives, is listening.

“Out on patrol you have a forward scout who is listening for commands by the section commander. Well your section commander could either be your mum or your dad. You are in that family. So you don’t leave a mate behind.

You don’t leave your family behind,” he said.

However, reshaping their futures in a limited time needs to be upheld when they return home and it’s the parents who Bob believes should take the time to listen to themselves and their children.

“I say, now a person with a dog they are training will repeat themselves a million times to train that dog.

“But they won’t repeat themselves that many times to train a child.

“They say, ‘I’ve told you once I’ve told you a million times.’

“Well, hold on a minute. Tell them another million times.

“They are growing, their mind is growing, they may not understand what you understand.

“So I will say it is the hardest job but the most gratifying to be a parent. “You need to have patience.”

Despite the Hard Yakka Program’s level of success, which is measured by returning recruits’ desire to work with Bob and the wider community and the positive testimonials of reformed young lives, there is currently no government funding provided.

“We measure (success) by the amount of follow up we have. Where they are now. A young fellow bought a gel blaster the other day. He wanted to let me know how he’s going. They are contacting us,” he said.

Lack of funding and support by government bodies means that parents pay privately for the program. However, Bob will always work out a way to make the impossible possible for families on low incomes and will reduce fees. Alison Shackell who administers bequests from the estate of the late James Dobson has recently become a supporter of the program.

“While we are not a charity she wanted to support us. Alison came to the graduation. Even though she said we could use it to upgrade anything, I want to put any money back to the kids. It is there to help the families,” he said.

Gell Ball is a thriving business which is seeing participation numbers grow weekly, however Bob sees it as a therapy which has seen him through these difficult times. The strength of connection he receives from this growing community seems to be all that he needs, and yet again there is that
selfless devotion – Bob is always thinking of others.

“I donate $4 per player from the Gell Ball to Wounded Heroes in Brisbane. Yesterday I paid $440. To date we have donated $4,500 on behalf of my wife and my son. Most of the profits from Gel Ball are donated back to Hard Yakka to keep the costs down for the parents.”

I try to reflect on how is this quietly spoken, humble and humorous man can be unbroken by a life recently beset by tragedy, and I watch with admiration as his eyes light up when he talks of going to see his Julie at Fairhaven.

“She is loving. She is a character. She sees me and comes racing to me and eventually I have to sneak off. There is a lot of love after 45 years for better or worse. I try to wrangle time so I can get in to see her,” he said.

So, despite the tragedy and pain he’s endured, could it be Bob’s generosity of spirit which now keeps him healthy and happy?

I’ve come to believe that it’s his ability to act, selflessly, without thinking of how he will profit or benefit from his actions which may well be his greatest strength.

If I were to sum up the strength of his character, I would say that Bob Davis is all heart and soul, devoid of ego, unbroken by the pain of tragedy and loss, always willing and able to place the happiness and lives of others before his own.