When Ron Barassi started as a student at Preston Technical School in 1948, it was the beginning of a new era in his life. His father had died in 1941, in the war in Tobruk and Ron had spent the previous few years attending school in Guildford and Castlemaine, where he lived with his aunt and grandfather. He came to West Preston to live with his mother who had remarried, and he was enrolled in the 2nd Form (Year 8) at the local technical school.
‘I had to settle into a strange school with no friends. I made new friends pretty quickly and started playing football for the school which helped me settle in easily. I was the fastest kid in the school until another student, Bluey Rutherford, came along, ‘Ron reminisced, as he cast his mind back over more than 50 years. ‘Indeed,’ he added, ‘Rutherford went on to perform for Australia at the Empire Games – now the Commonwealth Games.’
‘I loved being at school. I liked learning and I was good at maths. My mother wanted me to be an accountant. I did the normal subjects which included subjects like technical drawing and carpentry. I don’t think there was any choice.’ But nestling at the back of his mind was an ambition he had entertained since he was a mere seven year-old. He wanted to be captain of the Melbourne Football Club for whom his late father had played. While at Preston Tech, he shelved this childhood dream to concentrate on his school work – and was always in the A and B forms in the era when schools were streamed according to ability and exam results.
While playing football came naturally, school work demanded more focused attention. He was a conscientious student who was bright, but he needed to put in the hours at his desk. His school reports he recalled, talked about him as a determined young student who took his studies seriously. ‘Others were better than me. Every school has their usual suspects, the bright kids who don’t seem to have to work. I had average to above average intelligence, but I was no superstar. I had to work.’ He said he was also very inquisitive and not afraid of asking questions and looking a dill. ‘If I wanted to know something, I asked. People are sometimes too frightened of making fools of themselves and don’t want to make a mistake. It’s a courage thing and I don’t think some people are courageous enough,’ he added philosophically.
It was the teachers at school who helped foster his enthusiasm for learning. They answered his questions and were terrific. ‘They were a bit kindly towards me, I think because I had lost my father, and one teacher, Dick Telford, stands out for me. After three years at Preston, I went on to Footscray Senior Tech to start a Diploma in Engineering and unlike Preston, this was a senior school and there wasn’t much discipline. There was no roll call and for the first six months there I did no work and failed all my exams. Dick had also left Preston to teach at Footscray and after I’d failed, he took me aside and told me to stop mucking around and smarten up and do some work. I listened to him.’
But Ron had certainly been no angel at Preston either, though his antics were out of class, beyond the glance of the teachers. ‘I used to get into fights a bit at school and at Guildford Primary where I attended in the country there were only 30 kids and I was the boss kid of the school,’ he reflected. ‘Then I went on to Castlemaine Tech where I got into about seven fights and won half of them. I came to the realisation that this was stupid as even when I won, I got hurt. By the time I came to Preston I didn’t like fighting and I only had two fights. I can’t remember whether I won or lost but I think that indicates that I must have lost,’ he joked.
‘Preston wasn’t a rough school. It was just all boys sometimes having a bit of fun. I remember one incident that happened when one of the boys who worked in a chemist job after school brought a whole lot of French letters and a group of us went onto the oval and blew them up like balloons. We didn’t get caught and it was just secret boys’ play. We didn’t get caught having a few puffs on cigarettes either, but I didn’t like it. Unfortunately, I did start smoking after I’d played my last game of football though but have now quit.’
Barassi played in the school football team during third and fourth form (Years 9 & 10) and also participated in Inter School Sports at Olympic Park where he competed in running, high jump and long jump. While football remained a strong interest, he knew he had to have something else in his life because in those days you couldn’t make a living out of just playing the game. He never finished his Engineering Diploma and went onto work for himself in an interior fittings business until media commitments, coaching and the motivational talk circuit took his life in other directions.
Barassi went on to achieve his dream of captaining the Melbourne Football Club. He played his first game for them in 1953 as a 17 year-old. He played 254 games in the Victorian Football League (some at Carlton where he went as captain-coach in 1965) and coached over 500 games for Carlton, North Melbourne, Melbourne and Sydney.
Ron has given over 1000 talks and is still inspiring others, though he added he had experienced failure in his life as well as success. Walking through the grounds of NMIT after more than 50 years, he has good memories of his time at Preston Tech, except for one final recollection. ‘I was sent to the headmaster a few times for the strap but I don’t remember why. I enjoyed my time at the school but that isn’t a memory I’ll cherish.’