He brought joy wherever he went, and cared for the people he met.
At 6am on December 28, 1968, the most famous man in Australia stood next to my bed, a huge smile splitting his face. Clutched in his hands was my dream present: a Scalextric car racing set. ''Happy birthday." We lived in South Gippsland, in one of a group of houses that served as training camp and holiday house behind a general store and pub located in the coastal village of Kilcunda. Lionel Rose, newly installed world bantamweight champion, had driven through the night from a function in Bathurst to be there when I woke up.
Slim (Lionel), had come into my existence years earlier when he had arrived at our front door to train with my dad, Jack Rennie. Mum and dad took him into our home and he became part of our family. Life was never to be the same again. He was my big brother in all ways. I loved him and he loved me. I know: he told me so many times. I will miss him.
Slim's public errors were well documented, but the boy to a man I knew was very much different. A publican once asked me to bring Slim in to sign some boxing memorabilia he had but added: "He can't stay and drink; my regulars wouldn't like drinking with an Aborigine." That was in 2001.
I was furious, and when Slim came to stay for a few days a month later, I told him of the conversation. He looked at me, saw my anger and said, ''Let's go down there."
The publican walked over to him and shook his hand. All the regulars yelled out the usual ''G'day, champ'' or ''How are you, Lionel.'' He signed the requested items from the publican and we stayed for about an hour being shouted drinks. During that time, the pub filled with most of the town as word got around.
As we turned to leave, a line formed near the door - middle-class mums and dads with their kids waiting for a chance to shake his hand and maybe get an autograph. The publican pushed through the crowd and gave Slim a bottle of his favourite, Johnnie Walker Black Label. Once out the door, Slim winked and grinned at me and we walked home. That was Slim.
Those unexpected visits were a part of my life. If I lived near the sea, we fished and talked, and if I didn't, we just talked. We spent a lot of time talking about indigenous issues, his people and their problems. It mattered to him. He feared that Aborigines would lose their sense of community, a closeness long lost to white society but familiar to migrant groups.
His photo must adorn more home albums than anyone else in this country. I often wondered from where that seemingly endless capacity for patience came. During Slim's heyday, our home hosted many indigenous leaders, from the passionate firebrand the late Charlie Perkins, who took every opportunity to push the needs of black Australia, to the other extreme of pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls, a man who had such a presence, with his shock of white hair and quiet dignity, that he could silently dominate a room.
A few years ago Slim had a stroke and lost the power of coherent speech. He stopped going out into the world, so it started coming to him. During a week's stay I saw the effect he still had on people.
At least a few times a day strangers would knock on the door and ask if they could visit him. A family would troop in, ask him to pose with them for the obligatory photo, then bring up some obscure name from the past and see if he remembered them. He would invariably smile and nod and they would leave happy. The respect they showed him was immense.
For most of my life I have heard stories about Slim from strangers. As soon as the connection is made with my surname, they launch into a tale, generally second or third-hand but important enough to them to recall. I have heard so many of these that they all run together.
A recent one I remember clearly is about a little boy who slipped on a flight of stairs. A pair of black hands caught him before he was injured and safely delivered him to the waiting father below. The father took the child and politely thanked Slim. As Slim walked away, the father said to his son in awe: "You know who that was? That was Lionel Rose." I was told this story by the child, now 37 years old.
He related it with a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye. It's not the depth of the footprint left in the dust of this earth that makes one great, it's the numbers of souls that are touched.
As Slim's remains and memory were given the final honour of a state funeral, two memories rose to the top of my mind. When Slim, dad and mum returned from Tokyo, world title secured and three massive trophies in tow, Melbourne's Myer store displayed them in its Bourke Street windows. Our phone ran hot the whole time they were there. About 10 per cent of the calls were abusive, focusing on the engraving being in Japanese. Of the other 90 per cent, most were from old Diggers - ''Good on ya, Lionel, you showed 'em," was an oft-repeated theme.
The second happened five years ago when I lived in a tiny community in central North Queensland whose population was mainly indigenous. On the wall of the housing co-op was a poster, old but well cared for, of Slim, out here, urging kids to strive hard to be the best they could. Well done, Slim, rest in peace.
Mark Rennie is the son of Lionel Rose's trainer, Jack Rennie.
Read more: http://www.watoday.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/what-made-lionel-great-was-how-many-lives-he-touched-20110516-1ept8.html#ixzz1MYxwswbC