Left behind footprints for good
A daughter, Kirsten, was born that year. The next parish was Casterton (known as Siberia in the Methodist parking committee) where again country parish and country football took over. A big final win over Hamilton for the Western Borders football premier flag was celebrated long and hard. The church bells rang all night. A second daughter, Johanne, was born later that year.
It was in Casterton that Denis received a phone call from his friend, Alf Foote of Wesley Mission – “have I got a job for you”, he said. It was as director of Tally Boys’ Village. Footballer, policeman, social worker and church minister – what more could the Reverend Arthur Preston (who was then in charge of the Wesley Mission) ask for?
The move to Tally Ho in 1970 sealed the direction of Denis’s career in child welfare for the rest of his working life. The family lived at the Highbury Road site. This was the start of the professionalisation of child protection in Australia, with some theoretical and research-based foundations being applied to practice. It was the era of the pioneers. Denis defied the mainstream institutionalized culture of Tally Ho, grew his hair long as an alternative to the boy-imposed cropped back and sides (it was the 70s, remember), and didn’t always win favor with the residential staff. He didn’t always win favor with the mission’s financial director Wesley, either.
During his first year at Tally Ho, he invited a group of local young men to use the gym and swimming pool. His goal was to bring the community to Tally Ho, instead of the village looking like a gated community. It was the beginning of building more connections with the community and with the boys and their families. Some residents of Glen Waverley weren’t so keen when they discovered their ‘milk money’ had gone missing as the boys made their way to the station.
He brought in John Smith, also a social worker, to connect with the families of the boys (some as young as 10) and help them make changes so some could return home.
Together Denis and John founded the Grassmere Center in Doveton with the enthusiastic support, again, of his friend Murray Guille and the Dandenong and North Dandenong Methodist Churches. This center brought together families and children to try to figure out how the child could stay at home safely, instead of the custom of institutionalization.
Meanwhile two more children, Rachael and Benjamin, were born and Denis completed his five years at Tally Ho in 1975 with one on the way, who was Lachlan, born at Warley Hospital in Phillip Island.
Denis worked in child protection in Victoria for the next 30 years in an organization that eventually became OzChild, also establishing international relations as Secretary of the International Forum for Child Protection.
Throughout his career, Denis has pushed boundaries, politicians, bureaucrats, fundraising opportunities and helped raise the profile of child welfare issues. He stood up for the children and often got in the way of achieving his goal. When he could see that the children’s needs were not being met, or that there was another way, he was eager to change.
And this concern for change was at odds with his love of tradition. The tradition of Wesley College, the tradition of Queens College, the tradition of the Methodist Church, not theological orthodoxy but history and heroes. He came to understand the value to people of their own cultural theology, and that “truth” could be found in unlikely places.
He often read and reread the writings of the Dalai Lama. Not for Denis a set of beliefs, doctrines and dogmas, but what was important was how you lived your life in your community.
Over the years he has celebrated life’s joys, life’s sadness and heartache with so many people. He became the alternate pastor for people who had no connection to the church. Maybe he made the church more accessible because he didn’t fit the mold. He upset some when he played football on Sunday, or, to raise money for children, he did TV commercials for Billy Guyatt while wearing a clerical collar.
After retiring from child protection, he returned to parish life at Brighleigh in East Brighton. A favorite of older ladies, he has organized several bus tours to visit places in country Victoria. As he would say, “You couldn’t walk past a bakery or a convenience store.” He worked at the Wesley College Foundation as part of their legacy program and finally as a chaplain at Newhaven College on Phillip Island.
Of course, there were bowls too… about 40 years of lawn bowls at the Black Rock and Phillip Island clubs. He loved it, and it’s no exaggeration to say he was competitive. He liked to disturb his opponents to gain an advantage.
His musical repertoire was limited to traditional church hymns, Wesley school songs (oddly, he was briefly in the school glee club with “Breath” Brown, singing songs with many lyrics suitable for the schoolboy humour) and the songs of the West Brighton Club which he loved. liked to sing. The West Brighton Club was dear to him, where he had fun and enjoyed the company of old and new friends. He was good at writing clever verses on the back of a napkin.
He tells the story of his last day at school. The master stood at the classroom door and greeted each boy as they entered their future lives. Her parting words to Denis were, “Oakley, I hope you can find something useful to do in your life.”
Denis found something useful to do with his life – he was an agent of change, an entrepreneur with a vision and a warrior for a better life for children and their families. He left footprints for good.
He was a big personality that took up a lot of space and got a lot of love and laughter. He was above all a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather, an uncle and a friend. He often said that his greatest achievement was his family.
He is survived by his sister Judith and brother Ross, his wife Lesley, his daughters Kirsten, Johanne and Rachael, his sons Benjamin and Lachlan and 17 grandchildren.
Lesley Oakley and her family contributed to this obituary.