29 August, 2014, Melbourne, Australia
John Gigacz, my father, was born on the 3rd of August 1922 and died last Saturday, a long way from where his life began, in distance – his birthplace, Brezno in Slovakia is 15,500 kilometres from here; in time – Dad was 92 years old; and in cultural attitude – when Dad was a baby, he wasn’t a very good sleeper and his parents used opium to quiet him down – definitely not something that would be approved of today!
John grew up in the village of Sumiac, but his adult life would take him to a number of places around the world, firstly to America, including New York, a city he loved, and Chicago – or as he pronounced it, Chicago [as in ‘chip’]. (As you will hear shortly, John had a great command of the English language but pronunciation wasn’t always a strong suit.) His second major trip was to Austria, made by somewhat unusual means – he got there by swimming across the Danube in 1949 to escape the communist regime that controlled what was then Czechoslovakia, leaving behind his own mother and father, whom he would never see again.
After a year in Salzburg, John was granted refugee status and approved for migration to Australia. After a voyage of several months on a ship called the Hellenic Prince, he arrived in Australia in January 1951, and spent several weeks at a migrant centre in Bonegilla, not far from Albury, before taking a job, picking grapes along the Murray.
Keen to settle into the Australian way of life, John quickly befriended several fellow fruitpickers, and was happy to accompany them to the local pub. Never having been a heavy drinker, John spent one early night at the local trying to keep up with his mates but failed miserably. His mates took him back home in a wheelbarrow that evening.
John was also to meet his future wife, our Mum, while fruitpicking. Having crossed paths with her on several occasions and then lost contact, John bumped into the lady who would become the love of his life at Flinders Street station in 1953. Determined not to let her go this time, John met up with her the next day, presented her with a violet posy and asked her to marry him. Fortunately for all of us, she said yes.
John and Evelyn married at St Joseph’s Church in Hawthorn in November 1954 – John wearing the suit that I’m wearing now - and started a family soon after. Stefan was born in September 1955, with John, Anthony, Jamie, Katie and Andrew following over the next 10 years. John became an important part of the parish of Sacred Heart, always willing to lend a hand in the development of the Sacred Heart community. As I grew up, I remember him taking on many roles, helping out at working bees, reading at Mass, singing in the choir and doing countless visitations as a member of the St Vincent de Paul Society. He was a man of strong faith and Jesus was a guiding light for him throughout his life.
For his entire working life in Melbourne, John was employed at ICI in Deer Park, forming many friendships with his colleagues there, as well as through the Sacred Heart community. One of the people he met early in his time at ICI was a man by the name of Hugh. Before he met him, John had seen his name written down, and with English not being his first language, he decided to pronounce the name the way it was spelt: H-U-G-H. Upon their introduction, he said, “Pleased to meet you, Hoog-her”.
John in fact had a very strong grasp of the English language. He read voraciously and was always looking to improve himself. But he did struggle occasionally with the nuances of English pronunciation, grammar and syntax. I remember he used to ask, “How did Bulldogs go today?” Not, “How did THE Bulldogs go”, just, “How did Bulldogs go?” He also sometimes got words in the wrong order, or at least not in the order WE’D use. Instead of trial and error, it was error and trial. And with him it wasn’t the Big Bad Wolf, it was the Bad Big Wolf. And I remember him talking about the seven lives of a cat. Perhaps in Slovakia things were so bad that cats couldn’t afford nine lives.
Slovakia in fact was never far from Dad’s mind. Once technology made phoning overseas a simple process, Dad would ring his sister Marca, regularly, catching up on all the latest news from his family and friends in his homeland and passing on news from faraway Australia.
Dad also never forgot how welcome he was made to feel when he came to Australia and he was keen to make others feel just as welcome in later years. He spent many a Sunday in the 1980s visiting the migrant hostel in Maribyrnong, helping out new arrivals – most from Vietnam – in whatever way he could.
Above all, John was devoted to his family, his wife – our mum – Evelyn, his six kids and 15 his grandchildren. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for us. He happily did the grocery shopping and he ferried us to and from swimming at dawn, or cricket on the weekends.
Mind you, things didn’t always go to plan. Once when shopping at the supermarket, he left baby Jamie waiting in the pram at the turnstile while he popped in and grabbed a few grocery items. (You could do that sort of thing in those days and no-one batted an eyelid.) After collecting and paying for the groceries, Dad went home and it was only when Mum asked, “Where’s baby Jamie?” that he realised he’d left him behind. Jamie was still there sleeping happily in the pram when Dad got back there in record time.
Dad was our barber when we were kids, even my sister Katie’s, which led to her looking like just another one of us boys in her early years. One time his aim was slightly askew and he snipped the top of Jamie’s ear off. Being the resourceful man that he was, Dad just sticky taped the tiny bit of ear back on. Amazingly, it worked!
Dad had a thing about hair. He thought men should be clean-shaven, with short hair and that hair should most definitely NOT be parted in the middle. When I started to grow my hair long (parted down the centre) and not shave very often in my late teens, he HATED it. One time we got into a huge argument about it, and Dad shouted “Real men don’t have hair like that!” It was at that moment that I realised he was standing under the picture of Jesus that was a permanent feature of our lounge room. I simply pointed at the picture and Dad turned around to see an image of our Lord, wearing a beard and long hair, parted down the middle. It was one of the very few times I saw him speechless. Dad had the last laugh on that one, though. Even if I wanted to grow long hair now I couldn’t!
But if he differed with his family on issues – and his political views differed vastly from mine and those of several other family members – he was always respectful of the right of others to have those different views. He would argue black and blue against them but he didn’t love his family and friends any less for having those views.
He loved us all very dearly and we all loved him as much. Thank you Dad for being a wonderful, loving husband to our mum Evelyn, a fantastic, caring father to all of us kids and a happily devoted “Starky” to your 15 grandkids.