In 1935, when Lou Richards, a twelve year old, started his secondary education in Form 1 (Year 7) at Collingwood Technical School, he was already exhibiting flashes of brilliance on the football field. He was selected by the school’s football coach Les Hangar (also the woodwork teacher) to play football in the senior side – a feat unheard of up to that time. The school’s usual practice would have placed him in the junior team, but his prowess was recognised and he lined up against Melbourne Tech for his first game at National Park, Yarra Bend.
‘I kicked six goals in my first match and the boys carried me off the ground. I thought I was a bloody marvel and a hero,’ Lou recalled, as he cast his mind back over the decades. ‘It had never been done before. Les even gave me a nickname – the ant. I was that small.’ Lou, who lived in Collingwood, was in elite company on the field – playing alongside him for Collingwood Tech were other local students who went on to become stars of the Collingwood Football Club – Des Fothergill, Charlie Newman and Neil McIntosh. Lou started playing with Collingwood in 1941 and went on to play 250 games with The Magpies. He was captain of the club from 1951-55 and led the team to their first premiership in 17 years in 1953.
He has never forgotten those early beginnings at Collingwood Tech, where he and other students were sports mad and not particularly interested in more formal classroom teaching. ‘I was in Form 1 in C5 which was the middle of the row. I guess I was only a moderate student, but I did well and was in the B section the next year. I was bloody hopeless using my hands though and wasn’t very practical. My father wanted me to do engineering but it wasn’t for me. I was the worst woodworker and put nine sides on a six-sided copper stick,’ he laughed.
‘I’d bugger up all the jobs. I was hopeless at making things but I did like geometrical drawing. We did all the normal subjects like English, science, maths and social studies as well as having classes in carpentry and fitting and turning. The thing I could really do was talk.’ And play sport. The students played football in the quadrangle in the Johnston St school, kicking it over the fence and into the yard of the adjoining barber shop and pub on the Wellington St corner. ‘It was Tonnini’s shop and we spent a lot of time retrieving our footballs as they were scarce. It was just after The Depression and things were pretty tough for some of the kids. We couldn’t afford footballs very easily,’ Lou said.
He remembered his three years at Collingwood Tech very fondly – even though he incurred the wrath of the teachers for talking too much and not listening. ‘We used to do the plays of Shakespeare in English and I’d always be the fourth servant. It was bloody boring and the teacher, Tubby Crombe, used to send blackboard dusters through the air and I’d get a whack on the side of my head for not paying attention. He’d call out ‘Fourth Servant’ loudly and then I’d get hit. I kept missing my part – all I had to say was ‘Enter’ but I was probably half asleep.’
‘I also got the strap quite a few times. You’d hold out your hand and get hit. But it never did me any harm. Despite that, I thought most of the teachers were terrific, particularly the vice-principal, whose name I’ve forgotten. During Monday morning assembly, he’d tell us stories about Greek Mythology and I loved them. I knew they were fairy tales about Ulysses, Hercules and Achilles but they interested me. I still read those types of stories.’
Indeed, Lou said the education he gained had instilled in him a need to be conscientious and gave him a regard for discipline that helped steer him through life. ‘I remember George Cutter, a tough old bastard; I copped a few whacks on my backside with a T-square from him. There was also a maths teacher called Shannon and he used to take the kids away for weekends to the country. He was a strict teacher but he loved kids and the trips away were fantastic.’ He added that the most important thing he learned was really how to behave himself. ‘I might have been a bit lazy but we were all decent kids. There were fights – boys getting up to tricks – but I never got into them. I thought they were a bloody waste of time. I still don’t like boxing today.’
Lou never became an engineer. After a two-year flirtation as an apprentice fitter and turner when he left Collingwood Tech, he joined the former Boards of Works as a draftsman. He walked out of there to run a pub, working at The Town Hall pub in North Melbourne before buying The Phoenix in Flinders St, where he was the publican for nearly twenty years. This became a club for journalists from the Herald & Weekly Times, situated across the road.
But it was his gift of the gab that established Lou as a force to be reckoned with, being dubbed ‘Louie The Lip’ in the popular parlance of the 1960s. He became famous as ‘The Kiss of Death’ for his inability to pick a match winner in his column in the Sun News Pictorial, which he wrote for twenty-six years. He was also a legend on Channel 7 where he worked for a couple of decades until he went to Channel 9 fifteen years ago.
Lou may have got into trouble at school for his talkative personality, but it’s that very quality that he said was needed more than ever in the world today. ‘Talking is the best way of communication and if you can talk together with people you can usually solve problems. You might get a bit nasty but eventually you can work things out.’