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Ron Dennis was just a boy when his father Bernard died during the Second World War. Photo: Courtesy Ron Dennis
Ron Dennis never really knew his father.
He died in New Guinea during the Second World War when Ron was still a boy.
“My father died on the 11th of the 11th 1943 on Armistice Day,” Ron said.
“He joined up when I was young, but I remember my mother getting a telegram advising her of his death.
“We were living in Brunswick at the time with my grandmother and it must have been late afternoon on the weekend.
“Someone knocked on the door, and as a young six year old, I ran up to the door as usual, and there was a man from the PMG [the Postmaster-General’s Department] there.
“In those days, the PMG wore dark blue uniforms and a cap and rode a red bike with PMG on the bar.
“He gave Mum a telegram and he said, ‘I’m sorry Mrs Dennis,’ and then Mum opened it and started crying and ran upstairs to my grandmother.
“But I didn’t know what it was all about. It just never dawned on me … because I’d never really seen my father.”
Ron’s father Bernard Dennis. Photo: Courtesy Ron Dennis
Ron’s father Bernard was serving as a sapper in the 2nd/5th Australian Field Company when he died of dengue fever just six days before Ron’s sixth birthday. He is buried at the Lae War Cemetery in Papua New Guinea under the words: “His duty nobly done.”
He left behind his wife Edna and their son Ron.
“He wasn’t going to come home,” Ron said.  “And so that was it.
“We were pretty poor during the war – in fact, very poor – and life was pretty tough.
“You were living with ration coupons. The curtains had to be drawn every night, not a chink of light to be shown. And there were air raid wardens in the streets.
“But then, as we came out of the war, it would have been about 1947, I think, a couple of gentlemen came to the front door.
“We were living in Cremorne Street, Richmond, boarding with an aunt, and I was going to the local Cremorne Street State School, probably in about grade five or grade six, and these two well-dressed men came along and talked to my mother.
“I was told to go outside and play, the usual thing, and then they went in next door to see the Prest family. Their father had been killed in the war. And then my mother said to me, ‘You’ll be going to Legacy classes.’”
Bernard with Ron’s mother Edna. Photo: Courtesy Ron Dennis
Legacy had been founded in 1923 by a group of returned First World War servicemen who wanted to help the widows and children of comrades who had died. A century later, Legacy continues to support the partners and the children of those who gave their lives or their health for their country by providing essential social, financial and developmental support families depend on.
“It changed my life,” Ron said. “It really did.
“A couple of weeks later a parcel arrived and in the parcel was a white singlet, a white pair of shorts, white socks, and white runners …
“They were the best new clothes we’d ever had as a kid and so that was what we had to wear to these Legacy classes.”
He remembers catching the tram from Richmond Station to Princess Bridge each Friday evening and then another to the police barracks on St Kilda Road where he would meet with other children who lost their parents in the war. Led by an ex-serviceman named Sarge, the children would do all sorts of exercises and games before enjoying a cup of cocoa and a biscuit. If they ran from Princess Bridge to the police barracks and back, they could save their two pennies for the tram and spend that tuppence at Flinders Street Station on a machine that printed messages or names on a thin metal strip.       
“Mum never knew about that of course,” Ron said with a smile.
“But Friday night at Legacy was terrific. There was also a library there, and I was mad on reading, so I was able to take a book home to read each week.”
Ron’s family had a long history of military service. His grandfather Clarence Sherlock served in the First World War. Photo: Courtesy Ron Dennis
He has fond memories of attending the Legacy classes and summer camps before his mother remarried and he was unable to attend any more.
“My step-father served in Bougainville during the war and he suffered terribly with post-traumatic stress,” Ron said.
“I didn’t realise it at the time, but now when I look back, I understand why he became an alcoholic very soon after the war ended.
“He eventually gave it up, thanks to Christianity, but it severely affected his life, and of course it affected my life too.
“I went on to secondary school and he decided I should be out working.
“He and my mother had a small business and I used to come home from school and work in the shop, while he went to the local hotel, yet he thought I should go and get a job.
“Mum did not want that. She wanted me to continue on with my education, so unbeknown to me, she went to the school, talked to the principal, Mr Beanland, and within a week I had my life’s possessions in a little bag in my hand and I was off to a Legacy hostel, Stanhope, which accommodated 20 girls and 20 boys between the ages of 16 and 21.
“I’d just turned 16 when I moved into Stanhope Legacy Hostel on the corner of Bourke and Cotham Roads in Kew.
“My mother took me up there … and the Matron, Connie Box, opened the door.
“I said goodbye to mum… and the matron took me down to my room. There were four single beds, a built-in wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a bedside cabinet.
“It was a Saturday afternoon, and I thought to myself, ‘What in the heck am I doing here? What’s happened to me?’”
When Ron’s grandfather Clarence first tried to enlist during the First World War he was rejected. He tried again at a different recruitment office using the name Charles and was accepted. He landed on Gallipoli and was invalided home to Australia. Photo: Courtesy Ron Dennis 
Thanks to Legacy, Ron was able to go on and study civil engineering at the Swinburne University of Technology.
“I was always very keen to learn and having the opportunity to go on in school and so forth was great,” he said.
“I couldn’t have done it without Legacy and the discipline in the hostel.
“Then when I finished my education … and I left with my civil engineering qualifications, we all got letters from every government department offering us a job… but I wanted to do something different.
“I wanted to do structural work and design bridges and when I told my Legatee mentor, Tom Jellis, what I wanted to do, he arranged for me to have a meeting with the chairman of the Country Roads Board and said, ‘Wear your suit, police your shoes, clean your fingernails,’ all that sort of advice.
“And so at nine o’clock on Friday morning, after I had completed my studies, I went to the Country Roads Board, which was behind the Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne back then, and was ushered into this room where this man was sitting behind what seemed to be a massive desk with nothing on it except a telephone and a few bits of paper…
“He asked me what I’d like to do, and picked up the phone, told the chief bridge engineer to come around, and told him I’d be working for him.”
Ron spent the next three years with the Country Roads Board in Victoria and went on to work in town planning, building surveying and municipal engineering before completing a Master’s degree at Macquarie University.  
Ron’s uncle Norman Hill served in the Navy during the war. He served at HMAS Penguin and on HMAS Canberra, HMAS Australia, and HMAS Hobart. Photo: Courtesy Ron Dennis
Ron’s uncle Terence Willoughby also served in the Navy during the war. Photo: Courtesy Ron Dennis
Today, Ron is one of more than 4,000 volunteers around Australia who work with Legacy families to provide support and friendship to ensure Legacy’s promise to care for the families of those who gave their lives or their health for their country.
“I joined Albury Legacy … when I found out Legacy would allow former Junor Legatees to become Legatees in their clubs, and I’ve been a Legatee ever since,” Ron said.
“Having been given so much, I wanted to give something back … so I’ve been a Legatee in Albury now for close on 25 years.
“I know what my grandmother went through and what my mother went through.
“It was real hardship.
“If it hadn’t been for Legacy I probably would have ended up on the street.
“I lived in an area, which were the slums of Richmond.
“Young people these days can’t comprehend what it was like.”
Bernard’s grave before his body was exhumed and reburied in the Lae War Cemetery. Photo: Courtesy Ron Dennis
Now in his 80s, and with a family of his own, Ron is forever grateful to the Legatees who helped change his life.
One of the Legatees also helped Ron find his father’s grave.
“I received a photograph of his grave from Tom Jellis and it was a wooden cross with his name, service number and date of death,” Ron said.
”Then after the war, all those graves were exhumed and moved to the Lae War Cemetery, so in 1993, 50 years after he died, I decided I would go up there and visit the grave.”
Today, he treasures the watch his father gave his mother before he went away to war.
“It’s very emotional,” he said.
“You can’t help but think, what could have been.”
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