Tommy Howard was a cricketer. All his life. A noted slow bowler in his youth, he once scuttled Bradman for a duck in an Exhibition match at Sydney Cricket Ground—much to the annoyance of the crowd. Other highpoints in his sporting career included representing NSW in a couple of test matches and touring England twice with the Australian Eleven as a non-playing manager.
But Grandpa’s real interest lay not in the actual game, but in its administration. He joined the NSW Cricket Association in 1913. Four years later, he was elected Senior Vice-President, a position he held continuously until his death in 1969.
Grandpa often boasted that he had absolutely no enemies, but “thousands of friends”—a claim justified by his funeral procession which stretched, according to the police escort, for one and a half miles down Bronte Road. His cortege slowly wound its way from Woollahra Catholic Church. Passing through the centre of his beloved Bondi Junction (where the Howards had lived for generations), we finally twisted around the Bronte hills to the small, historic section of Waverley Cemetery where long-dead Howards held title to a grand view over the Tasman Sea.
Like his parents, Tommy Howard was a man who loved proverbs. His own as well as those in general currency. Proverbs governed his behaviour. “Never discuss politics or religion, Johnny,” he often said to me. “Those subjects are absolutely taboo if you want to keep everyone on side. In fact, it’s best to stick to just two topics in general conversation—the weather and sport.”
By “sport”, Grandpa meant exclusively cricket and the races. He endorsed no other games or pastimes as “suitable for gentlemen.” Yet even when discussing cricket with his peers, Grandpa kept a wary guard on his tongue, always scrupulously careful to join with the majority in their praises or condemnations, but to keep his private assessments to himself. For example, he actually held a somewhat qualified opinion of Donald Bradman’s legendary skills. Whenever Bradman’s name came up in arguments with close family and a handful of intimate friends, Grandpa positively bristled. He always maintained in his close circle that Bradman’s over-lauded batting talents could be attributed as much to a combination of good fortune and fortuitous timing as well as to his undoubted prowess and skill.
Grandpa made no public secret, however, of his personal choice for greatest cricketer of all time:—Victor Trumper. Grandpa’s proudest possession (which he never failed to show off to visitors at his Bellevue Hill home), was a huge, elaborately framed photograph of Trumper at bat, autographed, To my dearest friend, Tommy Howard, with all my best wishes and fondest regards, Vic.
Grandpa also had a lot of time for batsman, Stan McCabe, and wicket-keeper, Bert Oldfield. In fact he advised Oldfield against trading on his name and fame and going into business for himself by opening a sports store. “Sure, you’ll do well for a couple of years, Bert,” he said. “But people soon forget. They adopt new heroes, and in five or ten years time, you’ll be facing bankruptcy.”
Grandpa’s prediction was a bit drastic. The store actually lasted for about twenty years before finally shutting its doors. “Overall, the store made a very modest profit for a lot of very hard work,” Bert conceded to Grandpa. “I’d have done much better if I’d raised the same bit of capital and simply invested the money in blue-chip shares.”
“Think how much better off you’d be today, if you’d just kept going at your regular job,” Grandpa replied.
Grandpa had a regular job. In fact he worked for just the one employer his entire life: the Colonial Sugar Refinery. He joined the CSR as a clerk right after he left school. (“There were twenty of us applied for the position. They selected me because I presented the neatest handwriting. A good hand and a good eye are a man’s greatest assets.”) Over the next fifty years, Grandpa worked his way up the office ladder almost to a top managerial position. “In my day, cricketers were real amateurs,” he often told me. “All of us had jobs. We played weekends and practised in our spare time. When we went on tour, interstate or overseas, we had to get time off from our employers. The Cricket Board paid our fares, board and accommodation, but not one penny towards any other actual expenses. Some of our employers paid our regular wages when we took time off; some did not. The CSR was a generous employer. Extremely generous. I’ve no complaints in that regard. No complaints at all. That the CSR was bigoted and discriminatory and rabidly anti-Catholic and actively refused to promote me beyond a certain level unless I renounced my religion—that I do complain about. But only in private, Johnny, only in private.”
“Why didn’t you get another job, Grandpa?” I asked.
“A rolling stone gathers no moss. Throughout the years, I managed to save up a bit of money. A penny saved is a penny earned, Johnny. I invested every spare pound I could muster in W.D. and H.O. Wills.” Grandpa never smoked himself. But he’d no objection to others doing so. None at all.
I quoted another of his favourite proverbs back at him. “There’s no harm in trying,” I said.
“Better the devil you know, Johnny. Better the devil you know. Another employer might not have been so favourably inclined towards cricket. And where would I be then? Up a well-known creek without a paddle, Johnny. If the shoe fits, wear it—and my shoe is cricket.”
Yes, cricket filled Grandpa’s life. Grandma often complained that her husband was hardly ever home. Even when he finally retired from the CSR, he spent his days at Waverley Cricket Club, or at the Board of Control, or at the Association, or at matches (he often umpired mid-week games). In short, he spent little extra time at home. “He may as well be at work,” Grandma conceded somewhat ambiguously, for she had no interest in sports of any category.
Although often invited to share some of Grandpa’s social activities, Grandma invariably declined. One of the few invitations she did accept, promoted the gala inauguration of a brand new spectator stand that Waverley Cricket Club had erected at its home oval. After much deliberation, the Club’s board decided to name its new edifice, The Tommy Howard Stand. No less a luminary than Dr Herbert Vere Evatt (the first Chairman of the United Nations General Assembly, and then Chairman of the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, as well as Leader of the Federal Opposition) had been engaged to officially open the new venue. Even a few reporters and photographers flocked to this much-trumpeted local event, which took place during a break in an important Saturday afternoon match when the grounds (and the new stand) were crowded with keen followers.
To my surprise, Grandpa asked me to stand by his side and hold tight to his arm, while he delivered his thank-you address. The reason soon became apparent. He was petrified by mike-fright. Unable to look at the microphone directly without trembling, he kept turning his face away, his speech fading and stumbling, his tongue tacking and twisting, until finally he managed an incoherent last-of-all-I-want-to-thank and literally fell into my arms.
Later, when we repaired to a small reception room within the bowels of the stand, Grandpa loosened up. “I was never so nervous in all my life,” he explained to his twenty or so close friends. “I kept seeing spots before my eyes. Three or four times, I thought I was going to faint. If Johnny hadn’t been holding me up, I’d have collapsed right in front of everybody.”
After the reception, I walked Dr Evatt down to his car. He had no chauffeur. There was no room for one. The doctor had turned his Mercedes Benz into a travelling office. The back seat, the boot, the passenger seat—every scrap of spare space liberally overflowed with documents and papers. “I’m a bit of a rolling stone,” Dr Evatt explained, as he shook my hand and wished me well. Allowing my youthful enthusiasm full rein, I took the opportunity to tell him how much I admired him, not only for his conduct in general, but in particular for the finesse and good humour he’d shown inside such a bastion of conservatism as Waverley Cricket Club. The great man smiled, clapped me on the shoulder and urged me to “keep the faith!” I waved him good-bye and mouthed a silent, I will!
Twenty years later, almost to the day, a fire started late one night in that same reception room kitchen and The Tommy Howard Stand burnt to the ground. Naturally, insurance covered the loss; but when a new and grander stand eventually arose from the ashes, the good burghers of Waverley re-christened it after someone else. Sic transit gloria!