Legacy of an accidental activist

Written by Russ Benning

When the opportunity to meet with Elgar Harrisson for this column came up, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I understood he was an aboriginal elder, had his golf cart covered in bright, indigenous livery, and was well known in the community. It wasn’t until I met with him and his vibrant wife Kathy, I could see there was much more to this story.

The second I arrived at their house in Torquay I was immediately plugged into the conversation. Our introductions were a short, pleasant, formality that took very little time away from the subject at hand. In hindsight, my ‘list’ of questions needn’t have been prepared at all.

Visually I was greeted with countless trophies, medals, photographs and an assortment of memorabilia. It seems the Murgon history museum isn’t the only place in Queensland that hosts all of Elgar’s accomplishments.

Sport seemed to be at the forefront of this story and I use ‘seemed’ intentionally. Sure, he’s played almost every sport under the sun and managed to carve himself a spot at the pointy end of each (his shelf of hole-in-one trophies a fine example). However, the deeper the conversation went, the more I was understanding about the higher narrative at play here. This was never a story about the name and list of ‘things’ a man has done. This is about a man (with the support of a very strong woman) who is a born leader, an accidental activist and a local legend.

I was mesmerised by the history lesson. I grappled with the gravity of what I was hearing. It was like learning the highlights and the behind-the-scenes grind simultaneously. For example, the Rugby League training that took place on the dimly lit, broken glass infused, ground in the indigenous mission of Cherbourg, South Burnett. That same team meeting (and drawing with) the fully selected Brisbane team for the curtain raiser of the very first State of Origin match in 1980! You read that correctly. Incidentally the same year he represented Australia for golf in Hawaii!

“I used to jump the fence!” Elgar said with a big grin. He was referring to how he would spend time with his next door neighbour back in Cherbourg. They got married soon after meeting, Elgar following the traditional protocol of asking permission from her Father. Their wedding took place in 1970. It was a different time to now. A time where ‘blacks’ were not allowed to have a reception at the RSL. That is, of course, until Elgar and Kathy Harrisson. In the end a loophole was found (Kathy’s Father served in the army) and the wedding went ahead. From that day forward, all indigenous weddings are now allowed at the Murgon RSL.

Similarly Elgar was denied membership to the local golf club. Not willing to accept this he took the matter to the discrimination board, won and created the opportunity, again, for all indigenous to join. Same story for the local pub after a rugby victory. I trust you’re getting the gist here.

The part I found most fascinating was none of the story itself. It was the matter-of-fact way that it was delivered. There was no trace of resentment or frustration in the retelling; it was simply the truth of the time. It seemed like challenges were part of life and regardless of the what or the who, this couple was moving forward! We touched on prejudice briefly and was addressed for what it was: small minded ignorance. “If you get cut what colour is the blood?” questioned Kathy in reference to the behaviour. “Same! We’re the same.” She then went on, in jest, to explain how many hours a Caucasian needs in the sun to have her ‘tan’. I couldn’t help but to feel the warmth of the light she used to diffuse the situations. I realised it really wouldn’t have mattered what colour, shape or age I was, I would have gotten the same treatment.

When it came time to take pictures we really started to have some laughs. After asking if Elgar would take off his hat for the pictures he told me he wouldn’t because he had grey hair. We both laughed and I said it didn’t matter. The hat went back on.

Part of the reason I love photography and writing so much is that I get to share, as best I can, what I experienced. Meeting Elgar’s gaze was a powerful thing. I felt warm and comfortable and knew this was a man who’s seen some life and can handle any situation. I got Mufasa vibes from The Lion King. The strong provider/protector that uses actions over words to teach morality. Supplemented in no small part by his faithful, powerful lioness Kathy.

As I reflect, I am grateful I had this opportunity. I’m grateful to have this column to channel my creativity. I’m grateful I get to merge two of my passions into what I hope you enjoyed and maybe even learned something from. Finally I’m grateful to have met these two champions. I could have sat for hours listening and doubt I would have heard even a fraction of their lives. Yes, Elgar Harrisson is a sporting legend, no question. Dig a little deeper and you find there is so much more to the legacy of this kind, colourful character than meets the eye.