Farewell to Colin Sibly: A local legend

On Friday 22 February 2019 a large crowd gathered on the beautiful Soldiers Memorial Gardens at Port Elliot to farewell local legend Colin Sibly. In the background was the equally beautiful Horseshoe Bay which Colin had swum across perhaps thousands of times in the previous fifty years. Colin was one of those rare, seemingly indestructible, people who appeared to be always in his prime, whether he be 25, 45 or 65.

He was born to Joe and Dolly Sibly on 26 April 1950 and lived most of his life at Port Elliot. Joe was a foundation member of the Port Elliot Surf Life Saving Club in 1932-33 and it was only natural that Colin would follow in his footsteps. Colin attended the Port Elliot Primary School and the Victor Harbor High School and was Head Prefect at the latter in 1968. His spare time was spent at the beach and in 1967 at the age of 17 he earned his Bronze Medallion in surf life saving and was henceforth able to use the belt, reel and line in rescue work as a fully-qualified life saver.

A very able scholar, he attended Flinders University from about 1969 and gained an Honours Degree in Bachelor of Arts, majoring in history, which was to become a life-long passion. His thesis, delivered in about 1972, was entitled “The Rise and Fall of Colonial Port Elliot”. His first teaching appointment, in 1974, was a fortunate one. It was at Strathalbyn High School, a smallish well-regarded school close to home. In those days most teachers lived in the town where they worked, and Colin boarded at the local Robin Hood Hotel for several weeks until brand-new single-teacher flats were opened in the town. The vast majority of the teaching staff being in their twenties, Colin immediately made a lot of friends who remained close for the rest of his life, including the other half of the Wilson and Sibly duo who became legends in their own lifetime. Colin was soon noted for having a good turn of phrase and for his mastery of the English language. These skills were put to good effect when in 1976 he co-authored a history of the high school to celebrate 50 years on its current site.

As we all know, Colin was a very community-minded citizen who liked to join in. On weekends he played for the High School cricket team in the local competition although it must be said that play was nearly always under way before Colin’s arrival. There was a different reason every week. Although he had never played basketball before, he found himself in the A-grade premiership team in 1975.The team had 5 good players and two raw beginners (I was the other one). Our role was to give the ball to one of the others, if we ever got it.

He played football for the Strathalbyn B-grade team in the late-1970s and 1980s during coach Brenton Smith’s reign. One of the rules was that all of the players had to look like serious footballers. Colin inadvertently put this edict to the test on one occasion. It was deemed that Colin’s boots were not shiny enough and he spent the match, or part of it, on the sidelines. This of course was the cause of great hilarity in the staffroom on Monday morning and it is fair to say that this was the only time it happened. Colin was a co-author of the Strathalbyn Football Club’s centenary book in 1979, but I don’t think this particular incident got a mention.

In 1980 Colin and a couple of other members of staff (yes, Wilson too) convinced themselves that they would like to run in a marathon. This is a thought that does not occur to most people. Undeterred, they trained diligently for several months and successfully completed the Gawler to Adelaide marathon in under 4 hours. No world record but another dream realised.

In 1981 Colin was selected to represent the whole district in a five-man Rotary group study team for a six-week visit to Texas, USA. With Colin’s background in Australian History and American History he was always a logical choice, and his natural flair, charm, gregarious nature and public-speaking ability could not be overlooked. It was a big feather in his cap.

By this time Colin lived at “Glenpara”, otherwise known as “The Palace”, to the north of Strathalbyn. This old farmhouse was the stuff of legend – a swallow’s nest in the bathroom, a resident bat, and friends like John Wilson starting up the lawnmower in the passage in the dead of night. It is said that he was mowing up the copious flakes of paint which had peeled off the ceiling. In about 1982 Colin teamed up with a young lady named Deirdre Cook (known to everyone as Cookie to this day), a young physical education teacher. Colin and Cookie would have a great many adventures in the years to come. They also loved travelling and went to India twice, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia.

Colin was always a most theatrical fellow and it was only to be expected that he would join the local Strathalbyn Players group and eventually become president. In 1983 the afore-mentioned Wilson and Sibly starred as two of the Ugly Sisters (an obvious casting) in a Cinderella production, and Colin took the lead role in other performances as Sherlock Holmes, Man of Steel (Superman), etc. It was in 1984 that Wilson and Sibly and the rest of the committee made their most far-reaching decision – to borrow a lot of money and purchase what is now called the Chapel Theatre. This is still the home of the Strath Players, freehold long ago, and in the interim the group has gone from strength to strength. Meanwhile, back at school, Colin did his best to inspire the next generation by producing a play every year for the annual Playnight season, one of the highlights on the school calendar. Colin was at Strathalbyn High School for 19 years, so he must have produced about 19 plays.

At some stage, probably in the 1980s, it was decided that a short staff meeting would be held before school on one day each week. At the appointed time Wilson and Sibly turned up in their pyjamas, dressing gowns, slippers and Wee Willy Winkie hats with pom-poms on top. Who else?

Wilson and Sibly were steam train enthusiasts. In fact, in the 1980s Colin was a committee member and mover-and-shaker in the group agitating (successfully, it transpired) for the retention of the historic train line through Strathalbyn to Victor Harbor. On one occasion the above-mentioned pair drove to Mile End on a Wednesday night and caught the goods train en route to Victor. The regular driver Jim (surname fortunately not known) showed them the ropes and the heroes of the day actually drove the steam train themselves down to the South Coast. Jim remained on board, but is no longer with us so there are not likely to be any repercussions. Wilson and Sibly fronted up at school next morning, apparently none the worse for their experience.

Meanwhile, aquatic activities continued unabated down on the South Coast, and further afield. Colin and Cookie were regular swimmers across the bay at Port Elliot, summer or winter, rain or shine. For many years Colin led a very popular body-surfing minicourse at Boomer Beach for year 11 and 12 students (although on one Ash Wednesday the bus broke down within sight of the water and they never managed to get there). During the annual year 8 camps, I remember snorkelling under the Bluff jetty with Colin and a very inquisitive octopus, and climbing the Bluff scores of times to hear Colin expound on the adventures and misadventures of the whaling days. As we all know, Colin could tell a very good story.

I remember Colin taking my family, including my wife and three very young daughters, out to Pullen Island in his dinghy. By the time we were ready to return, a change had blown through and we had a very bumpy ride back to the mainland. I also remember Colin taking me out from Port Elliot to inspect his cray pots. This was the only time I ever did that – I felt decidedly “crook” by the time we got back but I didn’t let on! I still have a wet suit I bought from Colin all those years ago. How he ever got into it I don’t know. It must have shrunk in the cupboard.

Colin was still busy with lifesaving and wrote “On the Wings of the Flying Fish” to celebrate the club’s 50th year in 1982. Also in the 1980s he was a member, vice-president and publicity officer for the State Helicopter Rescue Squad and would go out on patrols along the metropolitan beaches on weekends, not as a pilot but as a rescuer to be lowered down on the cable. He was frequently a spokesman engaged in radio or TV interviews. At surf carnivals and even at the State Titles on a couple of occasions he was a popular choice as commentator. Colin had the rare ability to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. In 1988 he was made a life member of the Port Elliot Surf Life Saving Club after 20 years of service, variously as captain, chief instructor and publicity officer. (He was still an active member in 2018 with a total of over 50 years’ service!).

After 19 years at Strathalbyn High School, Colin was posted to Victor Harbor High School, his old school, in 1993, and there he remained for the rest of his career (until the end of 2015). It was even closer than before to his home at Port Elliot. There must be few teachers in SA to have been posted to only two schools, both very desirable ones, in their entire career. Both schools knew they were very lucky to have him. He was the real deal. Also in 1993 Colin and Cookie were married. Predictably, the ceremony was held on the beach at Port Elliot with the happy couple arriving on the old Granite Island Train (rubber tyres).

At Victor Colin became a Student Counsellor and, as expected, he proved to be the perfect choice for such a position. He enjoyed the full confidence of staff and students and liaised constantly with the local service clubs, the Local Council, community leaders, businesses, and Government agencies to devise programmes to address the problems of and create opportunities for young people.

In the early-nineties Colin and Cookie had the opportunity to crew regularly on a yacht and loved it. So they bought a 26ft yacht, the “Crystal Voyager”, and subsequently the 36ft “Calista”, and in 2017 the 40ft “Island Pearl”. They sailed over 30,000 nautical miles (1nm = 1.8km) together exploring the waters of Gulf St Vincent, Kangaroo Island, the far West Coast, Port Lincoln, Bass Strait, and up Australia’s East Coast to the Louisiade Archipelago (PNG), and in 2016 to Noumea and Vanuatu. It was on the latter voyage that Colin developed a sore back and was diagnosed in Newcastle, on the way back to SA, with multiple myeloma. He underwent emergency back surgery and commenced treatment which continued for the following two years.

These were years of uncertainty during which Colin appeared to recover, and was back swimming across Horseshoe Bay again, but he would invariably relapse, and recover again...a very cruel cycle. A sudden deterioration put Colin back in hospital on Boxing Day 2018. He battled on bravely, but in his own words, “I’ve snicked a couple into the slips and was lucky to be put down, but this time the Big Umpire in the sky is going to raise his finger.” He died at home, being cared for by Cookie, on Valentine’s Day, 14 February 2019, aged 68. Sadly, the destinations on their bucket list, including Europe, Antarctica, and many more places together are not to be, nor are further adventures together on the “Island Pearl”.

Enthusiasm was the quality that set Colin apart. He was forever the optimist, and his sense of humour, sincerity and genuine interest in everyone he met endeared him to all. His motto was “Carpe Diem!” (“Seize the Day!”).We have lost a true friend and Port Elliot has lost a favourite son.

He was a fine orator, and, unusually, seemed to enjoy public speaking. With his natural talent, teaching skills, charisma, huge credibility and outstanding personal qualities, he could well have risen to the very top of the Education Department if he was so inclined, but he much preferred the interaction with students and teachers at the chalkface.

On the wall of Colin and Cookie’s home are these words from Mark Twain which epitomise their attitude to life :

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bow lines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.”