John Lahey has died, aged 88. John was one of the best known newspapermen in Melbourne. Most of his work was behind-the-scenes as a chief sub-editor, but he was widely known to the Melbourne public through his column Lahey at Large which ran in The Age during the 1980s and '90s.
He also worked in Sydney for a time, and in Nigeria and other places. In his half century of journalism, he filed from every state and territory in Australia, and from Indonesia, Italy, Greece, France, England, Ireland, the United States, Brazil and Israel. However, it was in his beloved hometown of Melbourne that most of his work was done.
John was born in Port Melbourne in 1929. He grew up there with one elder brother and attended University High School. He once said of his school: "I couldn't wait to get there every day. It was a wonderful place."
John left school at 14 to become a copy boy on The Argus, during World War II. He worked always in newspapers. At the Herald he ended up chief sub-editor. One former copy boy said of him: "On my first day there he suddenly appeared at my side. He said, you don't know who I am but I am the chief sub and I work over there behind that glass wall. If you want to know anything, come and ask."
Later, John joined The Age, also as chief sub-editor. He kept a giant book prominently in the reporter's room in which he outlined mistakes in the paper and explained how they should have been. He was close to the editor, the legendary Graham Perkin.
He was married three times, first very briefly, then to Jan with whom he had three children, Tom, Sarah, and Jenny. Later, he married a Sydney journalist, Barbara Martyn. Together, John and Barbara moved to Nigeria, where John became Director of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism. They lived there for four years and returned to Melbourne soon after the birth of their daughter, Kate.
Barbara died of cancer soon after, leaving John to raise Kate, aged two, in their Camberwell home. John returned to The Age in the 1980s, and wrote his column, Lahey at Large, for 14 years until he retired in 1996.
Kate became a journalist and continues to work at The Age. For the last stage of his life, John lived alone in retirement in Camberwell. For several years, he was among the judges of the Victorian Community History Awards. In 2006, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.
A passionate gardener, he developed a chatty rapport with the magpies local to his yard. Despite leading a quiet life he still managed to stay close friends with a host of people. His neighbour Clare, her husband Richard (dec), and Clare's children Elena and Diego were among his closest.
We can all remember his warm, friendly voice, "G'day mate!". We remember him smiling, laughing loudly, listening intently, whisky or red wine in one hand, settling in for a long chat, complete with Greek fisherman's cap. He was wonderful company, instantly bringing a smile to the face of whoever he was with.
Also, he made his mark on the children of his friends. One remembers still how she was taught to pour him a whisky: straight out of the bottle into the glass, accompanied by water in a special jug.
John was bearded and dark, and very quick witted. His eye for detail was unique, particularly when delving into Australian history, and his writing was always eloquently crafted. Despite his depth of knowledge, he always seemed more interested in the people around him; their families, their interests, and what gave them most joy.
One remembers still how she was taught to pour him a whisky: straight out of the bottle into the glass, accompanied by water in a special jug.
John was one of those rare types who made everyone feel comfortable. Funny without trying to be, clever without showing off about how much he knew, and a warmth that could lift your mood.
He wrote four books: Great Australian Folk Songs, Celebration, Damn you, John Christie! (a biography of an early Victorian detective), and Faces of Federation (on the Federation of Australia).
One of the former library staff of The Age says John was remembered with warmth and respect well after leaving the paper.
John Lahey was living in care when he died. He had Alzheimer's. He will be so well remembered: as a friend, as a journalist, and as a lovely man.
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