Ron Atkins – Brisbane’s Grand Patriarch

Photo: Ron Atkins (second from left) with Broncos past and present Ben Ikin, Michael Hancock, Allan Langer and Andrew McCullough.

As a boy, Ron Atkins idolised Indigenous and South Sea Islander rugby league stars playing for Tweed district clubs, Seagulls, Cudgen and All Blacks.

His heroes were the likes of Charlie and Cecil ‘Bomber’ Dodds, Stokel Currie, Walter Mussing and Allan Lena. Stokel was the grandfather of future Test centre Tony Currie while Lena’s son Graham would go on to play for Queensland. Mussing played for St George in Sydney from 1946 to ‘48 and was the club’s leading try-scorer in his first season.

Atkins, the son of an Indigenous mother and a white father, would go on to forge his own commendable playing career, but is best known as a stalwart of the Brisbane Wests Old Boys and Men of League. Now 83, Atkins was there at the start of Men of League in Queensland and became president of the Brisbane committee, standing down in 2015.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think Men of League would grow like it has,” Atkins says. “To have so many committees in Queensland, and to see committees established in Melbourne, Perth and Darwin – it’s just amazing.

“A lot of that is down to the work of the late (Queensland manager) Steve Calder. He was a wonderful man, and we never had a cross word. In recent years, the structure of the organisation has improved, and CEO Frank Barrett is doing a great job. The appointment of a full-time wellbeing officer (in Queensland, Mark Bunting) is also a step in the right direction.”

Atkins has made countless wellbeing visits over the years, many to old mates like former internationals Brian Davies, Pat McMahon, Kel O’Shea and Harold ‘Mick’ Crocker, all now deceased.

In his playing days with Wests in the Brisbane Rugby League, Atkins was a winger in a star-studded backline, which included internationals Barry Muir, Alex Watson and Ken McCrone and state players Joe Jackson and Geoff Little.

His family moved to Brisbane from the Tweed in 1949 when Ron’s father William was posted there with the Army. William served in the Middle East in WWII, and spent four years as a POW in Italy and Germany.

Atkins, who began playing league with Wests Ithaca’s under-15s, represented Paddington Police Youth Club against a Combined New South Wales PYC side in 1955 in a curtain-raiser to a senior interstate match at the Sydney Cricket Ground, kicking two sideline conversions as well as the match winning penalty goal, again from out wide.

“After the game (prominent NSWRL official, later to become ARL chairman) Bill Buckley gave me his Kangaroo tour tie pin,” Atkins said. “I put it on my blazer and I thought was king of the world.

“That night I went to Luna Park with the team and some of the players from the senior Queensland side. Cyril Connell, Alex Watson and Tom Tyquin got me on the big dipper. They got me in a headlock and wouldn’t let me off. It went round and round. By the time I got off I couldn’t stand up. I spewed, but worst of all, the Kangaroo tie pin had gone.”

Atkins was instrumental in the formation of Wests Old Boys, and when he heard Wests’ juniors were looking to build a clubhouse at Gilbert Park, Red Hill (where Ron played his first game), the two organisations joined forces.

The building was opened by Brisbane Lord Mayor Clem Jones in 1967 and today houses the Broncos Leagues Club as well as the football club’s administration offices. Gilbert Park has been the Broncos’ training base since 1988.

The 1970s was the golden era for Wests Old Boys with the club hosting top line acts such as Julie Anthony and Tony Barber, with Atkins often on duty as lighting and floor manager, dressed resplendently in a red and black formal outfit. He also called the bingo, which drew crowds of 500, three times a week.

When the Broncos were granted entry into the NSWRL in 1987, they were looking for a new home. Valleys’ premises at Albion (now the home of Queensland Cricket) were well in the frame, before Atkins negotiated a deal with director Gary Balkin and media man Kev Keliher. Wests Old Boys’ membership was transferred to the Broncos, and Atkins was made a director of the new leagues club.

In the early days of Men of League’s Brisbane Committee functions were held at the old Bookmakers Club at Spring Hill before Atkins negotiated a deal with the Broncos, who still host Kick-off Club lunches.

Atkins has helped attract a long list of noteworthy guest speakers, among them Wayne Bennett, Michael O’Connor, Kerry Boustead, Dennis Manteit, Tommy Bishop and 1959 Queensland representative Professor Joe Baker, one of the world’s top marine scientists. When Ron made his A grade debut for Wests in the late 1950s, there were very few Indigenous footballers in the BRL and he was called ‘Corroboree’ by some rivals.

“I saw it as a term of endearment,” Atkins said. “It got shortened to a few things and I eventually became know as ‘Cobra’.”

Atkins started his working life aged 16, in the Queensland railways, doing shift work, which made it hard for him to train with Wests. Two years later he started at the Housing Commission, where he worked for 45 years in office and administrative capacities.

“On my first day I went to work in a white shirt and tie, and thought to myself, ‘This is not too bad for a little black fella from South Tweed Heads, who started out at a house with dirt floors and no electricity’,’’ he said.

These days, Ron lives at Arana Hills in Brisbane’s west. He has four daughters, one living in the UK, and 13 grandchildren.

And then there is the Men of League family, of which he is the Brisbane patriarch, with the annual Ron Atkins’ Golf Day one of the highlights of the social and fundraising calendar.

By Steve Ricketts

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