Obituary: Geoff McClure

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From the Melbourne Age

Farewell Chook, the ultimate pro

By MARTIN BLAKE

March 16, 2010



Geoff McClure with his family - son Sam, daughter Madeleine and wife Jillian. Photo: Joe Armao

GEOFF McCLURE was an old pro, and you can't get enough of those in the news business.

He knew a story when he came across one. He knew how to extract it from a reluctant contact, how to assemble a team of informants and keep them content, all the old skills they can't necessarily teach at university. He was also a fine editor; he knew the value of the visual aspect, knew how to cajole the best out of a reporter.

He bounced between the two strands for most of his career, his final stint being as author of "Sporting Life" for The Age, a column that always showed up in the surveys as being one of the most popular pages in the newspaper for more than a decade. He loved it, too, for "Chook" did not know the meaning of going through the motions, could not do anything by halves.

It defined him and drove him, yet this was only a chunk of his 40 years in journalism. Hailing from Broken Hill, he'd started out at the Herald as a cadet, became a police roundsman and a sub-editor. It was during his police-rounds days that Peter Eakins, a journo and Collingwood footballer, dubbed him "Chook", a nickname that stuck forever. Stories of its origin and meaning vary; I preferred to believe that it related to his fussing nature and the way he worked. Certainly I know scarcely anyone who called him Geoff.

In the early 1970s he went to Fleet Street and worked on the Daily Express for a few years as a sub-editor, a period he remembered with great fondness. Then he came back to the Herald and across the black-and-white checked linoleum corridors to the Sun as sports editor, a position he held for five years when the paper was selling about 600,000 copies, a big job in a town such as Melbourne, by anyone's measure.

Chook married Jillian, a Hobartian, and they moved to Tasmania where they ran a mixed business and then the newsagency and gift shop at The Sheraton Hotel on Constitution Dock for a few years. He also had a stint as sports editor of the Mercury in Hobart, before coming back to Melbourne to be the first editor of Sports Weekly, an ambitious, all-sports magazine. History shows that general sports magazines are profoundly difficult to sustain in Australia and that publication folded after a couple of years, which is when he came to The Age, first as Green Guide editor, then Olympic editor and finally as the first author of Sporting Life.

Chook loved the adrenalin rush that you get on a daily newspaper, starting a day with nothing but an empty space to fill, or spending half the day working on a column item that falls over (though in truth, his tongue was sharp at these times). He wanted Sporting Life to be edgy and newsy, "telling them [the readers] something they don't already know". He would be in early, digging around, working the telephone, scouring the papers and the internet for a hook. "Got a lead item for me?" he'd say in the morning, almost every day of 10 years or so working alongside him. "Have you seen this written anywhere?"

His sometimes brusque manner combined with his love of the game could rub people the wrong way. Chook liked to research, write, source the pictures and lay out his column. No one would have complained if he just pumped it into the computer and went home, leaving the editors to sort out the design. But Chook would complain and bleat if an editor moved a picture or changed a line or two, or on the occasions when he was told he had gone too far with his penchant for using pictures of especially attractive female athletes, and that the sensibilities of The Age readers would not allow it.

Here was a journo with a passion, and they can't teach that either. He never let it go. He wrote the column from home, long after he had been diagnosed with cancer and endured bouts of chemotherapy. Once when he was too ill to work, Chris Judd came to visit him at home (Chook being a Blue through and through). Geoff was chuffed, for he knew and liked Juddy. But I doubt the Carlton skipper expected the bed-ridden journo to cajole a few quotes for a story out of him, which is precisely what happened.

His mates from Carlton's glory days — Percy Jones, Alex Jesaulenko et al — often called to see him and they would open a bottle of his favourite chardonnay. Ron Reed and Mike Sheahan and Ken Davis, old pals from his Herald and Weekly Times days, stopped by regularly. They would have all had the same reaction: we were stunned at how tough Chook turned out to be. He fought like a particularly cranky lion, cussed at everyone around him and refused to be beaten, even when bladder cancer moved to his bowel.

He went back to London to see his beloved Chelsea play, and to catch up with some Fleet Street pals, but ended up in hospital gravely ill, and then on a plane back to Australia, escorted to the tarmac in an ambulance. That was more than a year ago. One night back at home, the ambulance came and Chook, semi-conscious, heard them tell Jillian that he might not make it to the hospital. A few weeks later, he told me that he'd seen the other side that night.

Yet it is more than six months ago. He kept rallying from the inevitable stumbles. He wanted to know every minor detail of his treatment and why it was happening. I doubt he was the easiest patient.

He fought it until his family told him it was OK to go. It was for them he was fighting. He once said that Jillian had "saved" him, and he constantly boasted about his daughter Madeleine, who is beginning a media career in London, and son Sam, who is studying arts-media at Melbourne University, both following him into the business.

Chook would have turned 60 in August. He's too young, had too much love of life to be gone. But the words of Red Smith, the great American sportswriter and Pulitzer prizewinner, console us, if only a little. " Dying is no big deal," said Smith. "The least of us will manage that. Living's the trick."

'Collo' and the countdown clock

WHEN The Age sports section was redesigned in May, 1998, "Chook" McClure drove the creation of a daily sports column filled with a mixture of news, gossip, tidbits and quirks, and was at its helm from day one. Many a campaign was waged in Sporting Life, but the most enduring was undoubtedly the push for a countdown clock to be installed at what is now Etihad Stadium as a means of heightening spectator tension in close matches. "I didn't know if it was my campaign or his, all I knew was every time he was short of a story he'd ring and say, 'Hey Collo, what about the countdown clock?"' Etihad boss Ian Collins said yesterday. "We both had a passion that we would have liked to see it happen, and it still may happen. We'd just create a story around it, even when there was no story." In his days at Carlton Collins used Chook as a scout during one of his stints living in Tasmania, and their long-time association had all the fire of the best administrator-journalist relationships. "We went back to the old days ... he'd call it as it was, and I'd call it as I saw fit. He'd write a story and I'd say he didn't get it quite right, and he'd fire back, 'Well if you bloody well told us what was going on there wouldn't be a problem!' But I used to love him because he'd never let anything go. We had lunch up in the Medallion Club one day, he was my guest, and we sat down and chewed the fat. He rang me up the next day and said, 'All of that stuff you said yesterday, was that on the record or off the record? Because if it's on the record you've filled my column for the next six months'."

A one-over wonder

ANOTHER regular in Sporting Life over the years was former Carlton ruckman Peter "Percy" Jones, whose friendship with Chook (who Jones called "Rooster") goes back to the early 1970s, when the football larrikin was sharing a house with Chook's great journalist mate, Ron Reed. Jones yesterday recalled playing cricket with Chook and "the Hound" (as Reed is known in the trade) one Sunday afternoon in Albert Park. "Rooster fancied himself as a medium-pacer, so when the Hound came off after a torrid spell he threw the ball to him with the instruction, 'I don't want you bowling any shit'," Jones said. "The first ball was a full toss outside off stump and bloke's gone 'Crack!' through the covers, and Hound had to chase it all the way to the boundary. You could hear him cursing and muttering. The next ball he did the same thing again, and the Hound's given Rooster an awful spray. Rooster started bowling short then, and the bloke kept hitting him off the back foot through the covers. He only bowled one over, but it was the funniest over you've ever seen."

A Rooster and a feather duster

CHOOK'S love of the old, dark navy Blues saw him obtain access to some sacred places at the club over the years, never more so than on grand final night, 1979, as Carlton fans swamped Princes Park to greet their premiership heroes. "Chook and Colin Lovitt [QC and fellow Carlton nut] were celebrating with us and I told them they might as well come up on the stage," Jones recalled. "We're all up there getting introduced to the faithful, and you could see everyone wondering who the hell the other two were. I gave the Rooster a push, he cannoned into Lovitt, and he fell off the stage."

Some Sporting Life highlights

MANY a story was broken in Sporting Life over the years, and Chook was rightfully proud of them all. They included:

— An interview with Darren Grech, the Sydney fitter and machinist who etched his name in history (or at least his initials) when, while working at the Olympic stadium in the lead-up to the 2000 opening ceremony, he painted "DG" on the inside of the cauldron (captured in Vince Caligiuri's photo of Cathy Freeman).

— Channel Seven's football blueprint for the future, including cameras on the ground during play and miniature cameras in the goal posts.

— Former Richmond coach Tommy Hafey slamming the Tigers' recruitment of Ben Cousins.

— A blow-by-blow account of what beleaguered Richmond coach Danny Frawley said to an abusive fan from the coaches' box.

— And, in one of his last columns last November, that boom Collingwood recruit Luke Ball and Nathan Buckley are related (they share the same great grandparents).


From the Melbourne Age

Beloved writer loses the fight

ANDREW RULE

March 16, 2010


THIS newspaper lost a stalwart when Geoff McClure died yesterday, but the loss was not ours alone. Not just The Age but Australian journalism - and sport - lost an enduring character when Geoff lost a long battle with cancer.

Although he worked for The Age from 1997 until his last Sporting Life column appeared in December, McClure made his name long before. His column was compulsory reading over the past decade because it was informed by experience and contacts he had gathered in the previous 30 years.

That became clear last night when friends from all sides of journalism and sport gathered to toast - and gently roast - a tribal elder one sports writer affectionately calls ''the perfect curmudgeon''. McClure would like that. His gentler side was reserved for his wife, Jillian, daughter Maddie and son Sam.

Among mourners gathered yesterday were some born since the teenage McClure arrived from Broken Hill in 1969 to work at the afternoon daily The Herald.

He was dubbed ''Chook'' for obscure reasons and it stuck. When two old friends came to say farewell recently he broke the gloom by pointing out they were a menagerie - ''the duck, the hound and the chook''. He was referring to his former editor Colin Duck and great friend, sportswriter Ron ''The Hound'' Reed. Yesterday, owners of several aliases were swapping stories - some of which will find their way into a eulogy ''The Hound'' is writing.

An example. When McClure arrived in London in 1972 hoping for a job in Fleet Street, he camped on a friend's floor. He repaid his host by cleaning out his flatmates at cards. The biggest loser is now an eminent cricket official who reportedly has not played poker since.

After McClure joined the Daily Express as a subeditor, his escapades included a trip to an Amsterdam club. He and a fellow Australian ran up a bill double the amount in their pockets. After a London workmate bailed them out, a happy McClure tried to kiss a Dutch policeman.

He was later recruited by a Canadian newspaper but stayed only two days before returning to London and, eventually, to a shining career as a sports editor and writer in Melbourne.

Apart from his beloved Carlton's demise, McClure tackled setbacks with true grit. His biggest challenge came when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2007. As he wrote in a moving piece last July, he cheated death and lived a year longer than the experts thought he could. He willed himself to see his son finish school and he did. In death, as on deadline, he found grace under pressure. He was 59.