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Not shy to buck the system, Jim Agnew made his own sign to make it clear what he was aiming for. This picture was taken in 2008. Image: Geoff Helisma

The impossible takes a little bit longer

Geoff Helisma |

Dudley Robert Agnew’s life could easily have been snuffed out before it began. Soon after he was born in Molong, NSW on October 24, 1925; in his words, “They reckoned I had pneumonia. I wasn’t supposed to make it. The doctor called me little Jimmy after my Dad and it’s stuck with me all through my life, very few people know me as Dudley Robert.”

When Jim Agnew and his wife, Grace, moved to Yamba in 1990, he set about doing what he’d always done: working with community for the community’s benefit… and it’s the Yamba and Maclean communities that reaped the rewards of his tireless advocacy. Sadly, Jim died at the Opal Nursing Home in Dubbo on September 27.

On Thursday April 21, 2016 the Yamba Community Health Centre – named the Jim Agnew OAM Building – was officially opened. It was Jim’s Lower Clarence swan song; the next day Jim and Grace (now deceased) returned to his hometown Warren, to ‘retire’ to an aged care facility.

“I have a great belief: if you want something you only deal with the government of the day and you go right to the top if that’s what it takes,” he once said. Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis, one of the many politicians who came to experience Jim’s dogged persistence, quipped on learning of Jim’s death: “He’s probably lobbying for an ambulance station on the corner of the street where he lives in Heaven and I’m pretty confident he’ll get it.

“Jim always worked in a non combative way; he was a good guy who was able to enlist enormous public support as a result.”

Jim would have approved of Mr Gulaptis’s comment. At the health centre’s opening, Mr Gulaptis likened Jim’s persistence to “a salmon swimming upstream against all odds, while evading a grizzly bear”.

It took 12 years of hard graft before Jim’s Yamba health centre wish came to be.

Jim always gave credit where it was due. Asked: Who were the most effective and or cooperative politicians from your perspective, for getting things done when it came to achieving your goals?

He said: “Janelle Saffin, with the things I did at the hospital in Maclean. She wasn’t the member for the Maclean area, but she got $60,000 to put the extra road in at the hospital and she got the [rehabilitation] extension to the old hospital.

“The other one that I would like to thank thoroughly is [former state member for Clarence] Steve Cansdell, for the Yamba health centre. He and Janelle got that together. She got $4.2 million and Steve got $1.3 million.

Chris Gulaptis, too, and the Health Minister Jillian Skinner; she wrote me a very nice letter about a month ago thanking me for what I’ve done.”

Jim was four years of age when the Great Depression (1929 to 1932) began. “I can remember, there were nine in my family, but there were four of us reared during the depression, and I was the youngest of those four. My mother made shirts and dresses out of calico flour bags.

“At the second farm I worked at I handled a team of draft horses, eight abreast, when I was 14. My father was a shearing contractor, he wasn’t a well man really; he went to WWI at 16 in the Middle East. He was wounded in France at 17.”

Jim said this time steeled him for the battles that lay ahead. “My education in life was experience. In the depression years, when things were really tough, it sort of made me think right through my life: when I remember those hard times, it helps me to do what I do.”

Ten years later he bought a transport business and, in 1951, he built a service station out of timber that he’d cut and milled himself. Two years on, he decided he wanted to open a car dealership in his hometown, Warren.

Chrysler gave him the go-ahead after Jim pitched his idea and he steered the dealership for the next 25 years.
Meanwhile, Jim began serving his community: he was president of the Warren Bowling Club for five years, the founding president of the Warren Trotting Club and a Warren Shire councillor for four years.

He moved to Kawana on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in 1977, where he was the founding president of the Kawana Waters Bowling Club. In 1990, when his health began to fail, he moved to Yamba. When he saw something that needed to be done in his community, Jim set about making things happen.

After a failed effort, piloted by Yamba resident June Mascord, to have an ambulance station established in Yamba – she collected 2,500 signatures supporting her campaign – Jim decided the state government’s refusal wasn’t good enough and took up the fight. The ambulance station is now a critical piece of Yamba’s infrastructure.

He campaigned as a member of the Oyster Channel Bridge Working Group to have the bridge widened to improve its safety – 4,000 people signed a petition.

In 2005 he saw a need to establish a seat and bin for Yamba Fair workers in the buffer area that connects the shopping centre to Casuarina Court. He set about completing the construction work himself, despite having recently undergone heart surgery.

He lobbied council to improve pedestrian safety around Yamba – crossings were subsequently established at most of the specified spots. He also managed to get a door installed at Yamba Fair on its western wall to improve access for residents who entered the complex from Casuarina Court.

However, for all his achievements, he says it would have all come to naught if not for the support he has enjoyed from his fellow residents, particularly members of the many volunteer committees and groups he has been a part of.

In 2008, then Governor of NSW Marie Bashir awarded Jim an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) when he was named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

“There’s one thing that I must say: you can’t win this kind of thing without a lot of help from a lot of people. I’ve had terrific support right from the day I started trying to get the ambulance station.”

In December 2013, Jim officially opened the car park extension and access ramp at Maclean District Hospital where the plaque states: “Jointly funded by the Australian Government and the Maclean Rotary Club … officially opened by Mr Jim Agnew OAM and Cr Richie Williamson – Mayor Clarence Valley.”

Darrell Brown, who was the Maclean Rotary president at the time of the car park extension in 2010, told those at the opening. “This project [the access ramp] and the car park extension came about through representations to Rotary by one [person], Jim Agnew.”

In 2014 the Ambulance Service of NSW presented him with two plaques (one from the service and one from the officers at the station), officially recognising his and his helpers tireless dedication to maintaining the station since it was built in 2003. One of the station’s officers quipped: “We basically refer to Jim as our sixth officer.”

As proud as Jim was, he was also humble. “Those people who have supported me with the things I’ve done are really fantastic.”

In his speech at the health centre’s opening (read by his grandson, Dennie Wilde, because Jim was too emotional) he said, in part: “Finally I would like to thank the community as a whole for being just that, a community. When I called for volunteers, you came out from every direction.

“The community were the ones who worked on the gardens at the ambulance station, assisted with petitions and did all other voluntary jobs over the years.

“Without this community, I would not have been able to achieve what I have.”

Rest in peace Dudley ‘Jim’ Robert Agnew.

The late Jim Agnew OAM is flanked by two of his many helpers, Susan Howland (left) and Libby Cotter at the official opening of the Yamba community health centre, the Jim Agnew OAM Building. Image: Geoff Helisma