Celebrating a fortunate life on the Australian beach
A LIFETIME of public service rests well on the broad shoulders of Australia's oldest active patrolling lifesaver, 87-year-old Bruce Robertson.
The summer patrols have started and Bruce is again on the beach with his patrol members. He no longer has his driver's licence, so he catches the bus from his inner-city home to Bilgola, faithfully turning up once a month ready to do his duty alongside his younger lifesaver mates.
Bruce started his extraordinary volunteer lifesaving journey when he was just 12.
His father was away at war and Bruce had a Saturday morning job at Swain's in Sydney city, the same place as actor Rod Taylor.
"He and I became good mates. He was very keen to join the surf lifesaving movement so we both went down to Mona Vale,” Bruce said.
So, in 1942 Bruce and Rod joined Mona Vale club where they both gained their Bronze.
"There was only one person over 18 at the club then, and that was the president, George Wray,” Bruce said. "They didn't ask our age because there was nobody else.” The war had taken all the older members away.
Bruce and Rod remained firm friends until Rod drifted off into the pursuit of his art at East Sydney Tech College and films, while Bruce remained in school.
"Rod was almost two years older than me,” Bruce said. "He was also very successful with the ladies,” Bruce added with a chuckle.
Bruce started as a rower for the club's surf boat crew. Mona Vale had won the national championship in 1939 and they were looking to return to that glory.
So, at 12, Bruce was co-opted as a member an enormous surf boat.
He remembers rowing in the 1954 surf carnival at Bondi Beach which the Queen attended. "It was an enormous surf, but it was a fantastic day,” Bruce recounts.
He also has found memories of his rowing mates, some 15 or 16 of them, sleeping on gym mats in the clubhouse. "We would go down to the club for the weekend,” he said.
It wasn't until 1950 that Bruce moved to Bilgola to join some of his friends.
After school finished Bruce attended Duntroon where he graduated as a Lieutenant. He spent two years in the army before the ambitious young man left to join the corporate world in building materials.
Throughout this time and in the ensuing years his volunteer lifesaving commitment never waived.
While he may have retired from paid work at 60, that was the only retiring he did. He next took on chairman of Taronga Zoo, then the deputy chair of the Botanic Gardens and then onto Keep Australia Beautiful while continuing to play golden oldies rugby union for the Gordon club where he was vice-president and keeping up his active lifesaving volunteering role at Bilgola Beach.
"I'm not keen to get into anything competitive these days,” Bruce admits. "I will still walk the beach,” Bruce said. His patrol group are on duty once a month for four hours. If there is a crisis, Bruce said he now lets his younger patrol members deal with it.
"I find there is a lot of respect by younger people today,” Bruce said of his fellow patrol members.
"I think the younger generation are to be admired. They have not had the thumb put on them.
"In my generation, the thumb was down on you. Today, people are out to make the best of everything and that applies to young people. I admire them enormously.
"Now I am quite happy to sit and watch, to see what people do.
"So much has happened and so many changes have been made, really I should be one trying to get as much as I can from them.”
As he gazes fondly over what has been his second home for all of his adult life, his greatest joy is watching how his home club has progressed. "I can remember digging into the stone to build it,” Bruce said of Bilgola Surf Life Saving Club.
"I am not going to give it up. I love the club,” Bruce said.
"I feel that I have to give something back to society as society has been very good to me. Surf Lifesaving is one of those ways I can give something back.
"I am enjoying living in this society. I don't want to stop,” the proud lifesaver said.