It’s more than 50 years since Cecil Burgess joined the Back Creek fire brigade, fresh out of school.
But this and the Yass Valley councillor’s lengthy history of good works for the district have now been recognised with a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the 2018 Queen's Birthday Honours List.
It’s a day like any other for Cr Burgess when the Tribune calls with congratulations for a chat. He is working, as he does, “seven days a week … just going up and down in the paddock, ploughing”.
Cr Burgess, 67, has worked the land “all my life … just an ordinary working person”. He knows there’s no such luxury as a public holiday for farmers; and that, in life as in the field, you reap what you sow.
He largely taught himself the fundamentals of farm life: ploughing, welding, shearing, “and all that sort of stuff. Spent a lot of time on tractors; spent a lot of time on horseback with stock – cattle and sheep.
“I’ve got no education much,” he continues, hands tugging the brim of his weathered terry towelling hat. “I went to Gundaroo Public School when I was aged nine. Before that, I did correspondence.
“My mother couldn’t teach me any more, because she’d gone to school until she was only 12 or 13.”
He later returned to school by correspondence, “because there were no buses, there was nowhere to go. We couldn’t go to Canberra, we couldn’t go to Yass, couldn’t go anywhere for high school.”
In 1967, before his 16th birthday, he left study for work. “Then ... the bus came,” he laughs ruefully.
Along the way, he married Jeanette, and they raised a family of four between Bowning and Gundaroo: Wayne, Michael, Luke and Debbie. “All my children work on the land with me,” he says, “and my son-in-law Adam. Not all the time; they’ve got other jobs.” He bussed them to Canberra for high school.
His OAM citation acknowledges “service to local government, and to the community of Gundaroo”, with a list of voluntary positions as long as your arm: Senior Deputy, then Deputy Captain of the Back Creek brigade for the NSW Rural Fire Service since the year he left school; past committee for the Bowning Iron Horse Gymkhana and Public School P&C; as well as for Gundaroo’s Literary Institute, Landcare, Progress Association, Soldiers Memorial Hall, Public School P&C and Bush Festival.
His says his father had the same community spirit. “Dad should have been on council, too,” he says.
“That’s why the Gundaroo school is still there, because of my father and a couple of others, and the hall and the common. He looked after all that stuff. I’ve just followed on, I suppose.
“I suppose there weren’t many people around in Gundaroo and ... I just got on everything, [such as] the Rural Fire Service. I’m getting older and older, but we still fight fires. I’ll get in and have a go!”
His nearly 23-year record of service as a Yass Valley councillor includes committees for saleyards, bush fire management, and the weeds and noxious plants authorities. What’s kept him going back?
“I wanted to get things done in the Shire,” he says simply, adding, “which has happened. I’ve got a lot of things done.” But this stint might be his last: by the time of the next local election, “it’ll be 25 years”.
But he’s proud of the working man’s pragmatism he brings to the council chamber. “That’s what we need on the council, a bit of common sense!” he laughs with delight. Just don’t ask him to email you.
Also don’t ask who nominated him, because he doesn’t know – well, not yet. “When I found out, I sneakily asked a few smart little questions, but I can’t find out. But – thank you very much!” he says.
“I’ve probably earned it, over the years. I’ve done a lot, spent a lot of time getting things done for the people, the ratepayers, over the years. All the rural people normally come straight to me.”
He mentions good working relationships with “Dave Rose ... and some of the other general managers; and Nic Carmody was a good mayor when he was there; and I get along with Rowena pretty well.
“Whoever put me in it, I’ll find out one day, I suppose, won’t I?”