Gunnedah farewelled a piece of its heart last Thursday with the funeral of former long-time local newspaper editor and historian Ron McLean.
Whether you knew him as Ron, Rock, Rocky, Mr McLean, Red Hat, Old Cock or any other moniker, Ron treated everyone with the same respect he had for the four great passions in his life – his family, journalism, sport and Gunnedah.
Ronald Gerard McLean was born in the small railway town of Cootamundra in the Riverina district on August 30, 1945, the first of four children for Bessie and Archibald, growing up only ‘a good throw of a six-stitcher’ from where the greatest cricketer of them all, Sir Donald Bradman, was born a couple of generations earlier.
Ron inherited his love of sport and the written word from his parents and his dad in particular who was a talented cricketer, tennis player and writer which Ron would also become.
He attended De La Salle Catholic Primary School in Cootamundra and later the local high school where he met the love of his life Judy Willis.
Once he graduated from high school, Ron started a cadetship with the Cootamundra Herald, the world’s smallest daily newspaper, which he referred to as the egg timer, because at eight pages it could be read in the time it took to boil an egg.
Ron left Cootamundra in 1966 after completing his cadetship and moved to nearby Forbes to work on the local newspaper, marrying Judy on November 12 of that year.
After several years in Forbes he applied for a job as editor of The Courier newspaper in Narrabri, upping his age by a few years for his application and lowering his handicap by a couple of shots in case the manager was a keen golfer.
At the time neither Ron or Judy knew where Narrabri was except for a vague notion that it was up north, out west and very dry.
They quickly established themselves in the community through the newspaper and sport, with both of them keen and talented tennis players and Ron a very elegant No. 3 left-handed batsman, with a rocket-like right arm in the outfield, who played with the Narrabri first XI for seven seasons, scoring more than 1000 runs in 1973-74, to be capped Narrabri cricketer of the year and also representing the north-west region for most of those years.
He was also an outstanding tennis player, winning eight club championships during his time in Narrabri and becoming president of the Narrabri Tennis Association, a role he would also hold in Gunnedah in later years.
It was in Narrabri that all of their children Karen, Gary, Julianne and Greg were born in the 10 years they lived there.
While in Narrabri Ron also became editor of the newly-established North West Magazine, a joint initiative of nine local newspaper owners who distributed the regional publication in their newspapers including Gunnedah’s Namoi Valley Independent.
In January 1979 Ron moved his young family to nearby Gunnedah to work under the stewardship of community pillar John Longmuir as editor of the Namoi Valley Independent.
He quickly fell in love with the community spirit of Gunnedah and with his unrivalled ability to connect a community through his words, compassion and insight, the Namoi Valley Independent became the most successful and respected country newspaper in the land, winning the EC Sommerlad Memorial Award for Journalism four times, the best bi-weekly newspaper 16 times in 22 years, the Shakespeare Family Award for Excellence in editorial writing in 1994, 1996 and 2001 and the Spicers Award for country newspapers.
Ron was also a multiple winner of the Sir Harry Budd Memorial Award for NSW Country Journalism and was runner-up in the Graham Perkin Award for Australian Journalist of the Year in 1994, an almost unheard of achievement considering he was up against the biggest names in Australia’s metropolitan media.
He was known for a tireless work ethic, usually working seven days a week and possessing the fastest index fingers in the west – two-finger typing on either his old typewriter until all hours or later the bain of his existence, the computer, to ensure the stories large and small in his community were told fairly and accurately.
The Namoi Valley Independent was blessed with a team of newspaper legends during those years including Brian “Boots” Gregson, Keith Millerd, Peter “Loz” Lorimer, Rodney Coe, Bev Morgan, Joan Barber, Ron “Toby” Taylor, Peter Koch, Terry Maroney, Greg Mirow, Sandra Wicks and Marie Hobson.
Pushing each other and their old Goss community printer to the limits, the NVI was one of the first newspapers in Australia to be produced in colour and the best in Australia at representing its community.
Ron taught and inspired dozens of journalists over the years, instilling in them the importance of giving ownership of the story to the people he was writing about, with the end result a better and more informed experience for his audience, which was the community of Gunnedah he loved so much.
On a professional level there was nothing Ron loved better than a flood or a fire. Whenever a major disaster event happened, no matter what time of day or night, he was there with his camera in hand at the frontline.
Ron was always greatly saddened by the effects these natural disasters had on those they impacted the most, but he also knew the best way he could help them in his role as a journalist was to document those impacts to show support for them.
On the flipside, Ron was also well-known for his love of flummeries, and it was no coincidence that Gunnedah’s CWA branch and women’s bowls club received the best newspaper coverage for any community in Australia as they loved sharing their baking prowess with him.
Ron continued his passion for sports administration in Gunnedah, being a committee member of the Gunnedah Tennis Association for more than a decade as well as on the committee of the North West Tennis Council and a director of the New South Wales Tennis Association.
He was also a junior tennis coach for more than 20 years and participated in the annual Country Week Tennis Championships in Sydney with his Gunnedah teammates for many years.
When his knees could no longer take the rigours of competitive tennis or cricket, Ron took up lawn bowls where he made lifelong friendships at the Gunnedah Bowling Club, won local and regional championships and served on the committee.
In 1998 Ron resigned as editor of the Namoi Valley Independent to start the Ulverstone Post newspaper in Ulverstone, north-west Tasmania with his family. Unfortunately due to commercial pressures from a major newspaper publisher, the venture was short-lived and Ron returned to Gunnedah a year later to resume the reins at the Namoi Valley Independent until his “retirement” in 2007.
Despite his official retirement, Ron continued to contribute to the sport and history pages, particularly the Independent, until its demise in the early stages of COVID-19. He was later involved in helping his former colleague Ian Dunnet establish the Gunnedah Times in 2020 to once again give the local community a voice and remained a valued contributor to the sports and history pages until his final months.
In 2016 Ron was awarded the Order of Australia for his services to the community and journalism and was presented with the honour with wife Judy and daughter Julianne by his side at Government House in Sydney, a proud achievement for him and his family.
Ron was also renowned for his funny stories and cheeky one-liners delivered in just the right moments to sum up the situation, in particular his infamous chant on publication days of ‘stuff a stoker, farting against thunder, no one ever listens to me, whatever you do is right and go in hard red hat’.
He wrote a lot of chapters in his adventure-filled days, bringing some of them to life on the written page with his self-published books Country Cracks, a history of tennis in country New South Wales, and his satirical autobiography One Damn Thing After Another in the 1980s.
In the last 20 years Ron worked with the Gunnedah Historical Society to research, write and produce local history books The Way We Were which celebrated the sesquicentenary of Gunnedah from 1856-2006, In The Line Of Fire documenting Gunnedah and district’s role in the Great War and The Final Curtain, detailing triumph and tragedy, hope and heartbreak in the life of Gunnedah and its residents from the pioneer years to the present day.
It is fitting that earlier this year Ron finished his final book Tramlines, a 400,000-word account of the history of tennis in Australia he had spent more than 15 years researching and writing which his family intends to self-publish in the next 12 months.
In his final months, Ron faced many significant health challenges and spent more than two months being cared for in Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital where he died surrounded by family on September 15.
Ron is survived by loving wife Judy, cherished children Karen, Gary (deceased), Julianne and Greg, devoted sisters Helen, Wendy and Jan and their families, adored grandchildren Ellen, Blaen, Ellyse, Chelsea, Max, Harry, Evie, Ava and Archie and the apple of his eye great-granddaughter Milah.To order photos from this page click here