Priest a man who stuck to his guns

Tenacious

Rusty Priest, the former president of the New South Wales RSL, was described as a great man at his State funeral at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney. Among the mourners were NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell and Governor Marie Bashir. 

- Harriet Veitch, Sydney Morning Herald

Godfrey Eugene (Rusty) Priest

1927-2013

When an idea needed a champion, Rusty Priest was the man to go to. He was a hard man to beat in negotiations and one who ‘called a spade a bloody shovel,’ as Premier Barry O'Farrell said of him. Priest had a long list of jobs done, and done properly, behind him.

One of the earliest campaigns that really brought him into the public eye was when he was president of the NSW RSL and conceived the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway, which opened in 1996. In 1994, Priest had the vision for the walkway, saw it through to completion, and served as the board chairman until 2012, then continued to serve a patron.

Today, the walkway runs for 800 metres between Concord Hospital and Rhodes Station. It includes a series of granite walls with images of the New Guinea Campaign sandblasted on them, a rainforest area leading to a pond overlooking the Parramatta River, rose-covered pergolas, two circular memorial walls set in beds of roses and 22 stations to mark battles and important events in the New Guinea Campaign (1942-1945).

In 1998, Priest persuaded the then premier, Bob Carr, to have the prosaically named Glebe Island Bridge re-named the Anzac Bridge. On Anzac Day, 2000, a bronze statue, by Alan Somerville, of a World War I digger was unveiled at the western end of the bridge. Priest had managed to conspire with Somerville to leave a small cavity beneath the statue's left boot. At the ceremony, Priest put a small bottle of sand from Anzac Cove under the soldier's foot. ‘The idea was that the digger would forever be standing with his mates at Gallipoli,’ he said afterwards.

The bridge continued to hold a special place in Priest's heart. In 2002, he said, ‘Every time I go across it, I'm reminded of blokes like Alec Campbell, Jack Lockett and Ted Matthews, the last of the original Anzacs ... I deliberately drive out of my way to cross the bridge, just to say “G'day Charlie,” or “G'day Jack,” or just “G'day Digger".’

In 2008, a statue of a New Zealand soldier in the traditional ‘lemon squeezer’ hat was added across the road from the digger statue to complete the Anzac part of the bridge's name.

Priest even knew how to retire gracefully when the time came. As he stepped down from the presidency of the NSW RSL in 2002, he said: ‘The World War II veterans are ageing and they will start to pass, so we need to have a representative from the generation it's changing to. I'm leaving with . . . the great satisfaction of knowing that the RSL today is looked upon in NSW as an organisation that's strong and that has remained relevant. We've strengthened the community's resolve to commemorate Anzac Day and Remembrance Day and victory in the Pacific. Because we've done that, the RSL is seen as the virtual guardian of commemoration and remembrance.

As was his nature, Priest might have given up the presidency but he continued to serve. He went to ceremonies as required, was always happy to give a good quote when war graves were attacked by vandals and kept on reminding people about what service men and women had done for their country.

Godfrey Eugene Priest was born in Melbourne in June 1927, one of three sons of William Priest and his wife, Patricia (nee O'Keeffe). Patricia died when the boys were young and William raised them. Godfrey went to the Christian Brothers College in East St Kilda, where he got the nickname ‘Rusty’ for his red hair and freckles. After finishing school, he became a clerk in the Department of Information but, as soon as he turned 18, he enlisted in the 2nd AIF…

Full obituary in The Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/obituaries/rusty-priest-a-life-devoted-to-the-rsl-20130926-2ug1w.html

Obituary in The Australian”: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/policy/diggers-advocate-rusty-priest-honoured-at-state-funeral/story-e6frg8yo-1226731531993

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