utz353

A top bloke.

This year, I rejoined my old surf club after two years in the badlands of Sydney's northern beaches and was issued with a new locker ...

Yawn ... boring ... get to the point ... rightio.

When the club secretary pencilled me in for the locker, he said "take number seven" and mumbled something deferential about the owner, who had just passed away.

I wasn't listening too closely because my daughter was trying to lick the salt off a glass door and I was watching to make sure she didn't start on a nearby power point.

Anyway, over the next few days I had to hunt down a pair of bolt cutters to get the old lock off the locker, telling anyone who'd listen I felt like I was jumping into a dead man's grave.

"You are," said one of the elderly gents who makes up the morning "coffee club" at the back of our surf club.

"Thanks for making me feel better about it," I said and went to my locker, "No.7", and watched as our caretaker snipped off the lock.

It was empty inside, a bit of sand and a few cobwebs in one corner and, for the first time, I mused that it being such a low number meant the old owner must have been a member for a looooong time.

A while later, I sat down for a cup of green tea (they're very trendy old blokes at our surf club) with the coffee club, and the same gentleman who'd chided me about jumping into someone's grave handed me the program from a funeral.

"This is bloke whose locker you've got. See if you can live up to that," he said, not unkindly.

The program was for a man named John Walter Utz and if you take time to read his obituary, you'll see he was quite an extraordinary man.

In short:

Utz was a confidant of four successive prime ministers: Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard.

He went to war as a teenager (I'm told he was 14) and lost the hearing in one ear after his ship was torpedoed by the Japanese.

"Utz was repatriated and recuperated by surfing at Bondi. Years later, he would become patron of the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club," says his obit.

After what many would deem a tough entree into adulthood, he graduated from Harvard University, went on to become a businessman and rose rapidly through the ranks of Wormald Industries, becoming MD, then executive chairman.

He served as chairman of the Sydney Legacy Torch Appeal, was appointed as a Member and a Companion of the Order of Australia, became president of the Australian Guarantee Corporation (AGC), president of the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia, a foundation member of the Business Council of Australia, a director of Qantas, chairman of AMP, a director of Woolworths, chairman of the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, chairman of Rothmans, a director of BP Australia, Westpac, Alcatel Australia, Crown Casino and GIO as well as a father to four children.

Pretty impressive?

I guess so, but what has made an impression on me since reading that program is that every person to whom I have mentioned Utz's name - young and old - has said the same thing: "A top bloke, a nice man, no airs about him, always made time for people."

One of my mates, who does a lot of master of ceremonies and TV work, said that, when he was younger, he'd sat at a table with Utz and a bunch of Sydney luminaries when he'd been announced as the night's MC.

"All these rich and powerful men were clapping and waiting for me to get on stage - I was only the MC for god's sake - and John held me in my seat for a few seconds saying 'always make them wait'," my friend said.

So Utz also had a nose for theatre.

I've written before about how a man would like to be remembered when he's gone and I don't reckon you can do much better than "he was a top bloke".

However, every time I now open my locker at the surf club, I also reflect on how much a man can achieve in his life, and I reckon if I get half as much done as John Utz, I'll die a happy hombre.

And then some twerp like me can have the locker.

SYDNEY TALK

I'll be doing a short talk and Q and A this week, Thursday night, September 22 at Dymocks, 428 George Steeet, Sydney at 6pm. If you'd like to come along, please go here.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here.