AFL

A young man gone too soon

Seventeen-year-old Ford Guthrie died on Australia Day when a car in which he was a passenger hit a tree on a red-dirt road a few kilometres from his family property, Thermopylae, outside Moyston in western Victoria. 

I never met Ford although I saw him a couple of times at the Moyston Willaura Football Club. Last year, Ford was captain of the Pumas' under 16-and-a-half team, having won their best and fairest the previous season. He was about to enter year 12 at Ballarat Grammar, where he was to be captain of Wigan house.

Friend to all: Ford Guthrie was renowned for always engaging with people.
Friend to all: Ford Guthrie was renowned for always engaging with people. Photo: Supplied

I know they loved Ford Guthrie at the footy club. Cheryle Stapleton, club president in 2015, says, "He talked to everyone – that's what I always noticed about him." Mick Davis, another former president, says, "He was always engaging with people." Ford was one of the club's personalities and, last year, he played his first senior games.

I met Ford's parents in unusual circumstances in 2006. A fire had just roared out of the Grampians and razed their property. I hesitantly entered their house and was met by a man with what I subsequently described as a George Clooney smile. Hearing my name, he cried, "Martin Flanagan! I love your footy writing", and took me to meet an old sheepdog called Billy Brownless. With another of his working dogs, Couchie (named after Geelong Brownlow medallist Paul Couch), Tom Guthrie had shifted 1000 sheep with flames leaping at them from 100 metres away.

Later that day, Tom's wife Sarah took me for a drive around the farm. She drove me up to where the fire had burst out of the Grampians, leaving a giant black hole where it funnelled out of the trees, reducing everything in its path to white ash. I found Sarah warm, friendly, direct. The previous year, their winery, Grampians Estate, had won a national award; she took me to their vineyard, which was now as brown as rust. That's life, she said, shrugging. Sarah's a Kelly from down the road at Caramut. 

I met a remarkable spirit in the aftermath of the bushfire at Thermopylae and we've stayed in touch ever since. Tom and Sarah share my interest in Tom Wills, whose father was the first white settler in the Moyston area.  We also connected through the Moyston and Willaura Football and Netball Club, of which I am, or have been, the No. 1 ticket-holder.

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Then Tom wrote a book The Longest Drive, and I spoke at the Geelong launch. It was about his forebear Thomas Guthrie, who arrived from Scotland in 1847. It had lots of instructive anecdotes and climaxed with the drive organised by Thomas Guthrie with 11,000 sheep from his property near Donald, in western Victoria, to the Northern Territory. Ford Guthrie's full name was Thomas Rutherford Guthrie, Rutherford being the name of Thomas Guthrie's Scottish wife

From an early age, it is said, Ford possessed "a happy, cheeky nature". His footy coach, Ozzie, did an impersonation of Ford talking to his players; it sounded like he was offering them a fun time, a serious adventure. Like Tom Sawyer talking to his gang. When Ballarat Grammar started a shooting team, Ford went to the teacher in charge and said he wanted to join. "Can you shoot?" asked the teacher. "I go all right," he replied. A crack shot, he was a skilful and practised hunter.

The master of Wigan house at Ballarat Grammar, Andrew Watson, told of approaching Ford with problems like two year 10 boys not getting on or a year 7 boy unhappy. "Don't worry about it, Watto," Ford would reply with his trademark smile. "I've got it." And the problem would disappear.

Ford, in his father's words, was "his own man". At 16, he made the decision to commit to Thermopylae and a life on the land. Having made the decision, he applied himself to his studies in a way he had never done before. If the aim of life is to know yourself, my impression is that Ford Guthrie knew himself at a young age.

One thousand people attended Ford's memorial service, which was held at Thermopylae. The footy club organised the catering. ("Because," said Cheryle Stapleton, "that's what country people do"). Two impressions from the occasion stand out for me.

One was the incredible beauty of the setting - air intensely blue but not too hot, tranquil paddocks dotted with sheep and ancient gums. This was the land he came from and belonged to so implicitly. And, as was remarked upon by the clergyman, the day had an echo of World War I. We lost a generation of Ford Guthries in World War I, young men of promise, lives over when they had scarcely begun, leaving a haunting sense of loss and the memory of one who will be forever young.