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Man of faith for every season

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Members of the Denahy clan gather with Bob, the ever-smiling patriarch, seated at centre. PHOTO: supplied

Bob Denahy showed the difference a father can make for his family – and the world

It has been pointed out by commentators in The Catholic Weekly in recent weeks, that many of the recent discussions about the role of the Catholic laity in Australia have been couched in terms that are procedural or positional. Very few have considered the importance of a spirituality or practical theology for the outward and engaged life of the laity.

During the post-World War II period not a few lay men and women pursued lives which aspired to a sort of “experimental” and “missionary” melding of faith with social teaching, family with localism and classical with folk cultures.

Robert Sebastian Denahy was one notable example of one of these.

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Robert, known to everyone in the last decades simply as “Bob” was a “man of letters”- not in the sense that he carried around a swathe of academic post-nominals- but rather he was a man immersed in literature, in culture and in a love of language and in learning.

Bob’s children convey this too.

They were the first “home schooled” children my family had met – and we were amazed by the “catholic” interests and literacy of the four Denahy children.

“We have inherited [from him] a deep love of music, of humour and of Japanese culture.”
– Tom Denahy

Just after the crowded Requiem Mass for his father at St Patrick’s church in Albury, Tom Denahy, the second of Bob and Mariko’s children generously mused by phone with me over his father’s life and legacy. Tom, who is fascinated by his father’s reading, his sense of “the missionary” and of adventure, is currently the Manager of the Wagga Tennis Centre and runs a highly-regarded photography business in Wagga. He is much sought after by those preparing to wed.

“As I get older- I find myself grabbing the books he read” reflected Tom.

We speak about Bob’s growing years on the outskirts of Benalla which fostered his great love of the North Eastern region of Victoria and of a simple but joyful life in the outdoors.

“Boredom was an unknown disease for Dad and his siblings at Benalla,” writes, eldest son Peter.

Tom added that this delight-filled though not always practical love for the “land” – continued in his family’s relocations to 20 acres in Harcourt, then to Whitlands, to running a photo lab in Wangaratta, to Holbrook, NSW and finally in 2018 to Yackandandah.

Bob Denahy beside the statue of St John Paul II outside St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.

“We saw some crazy times… such as Dad trying to move 6 calves along with 4 kids in the back of the family station wagon.”

For a time Bob and Mariko moved to Sydney so that Bob could work as an organiser for the National Civic Council, but Tom said he was eager to “get out of the big smoke.”

When Bob was a boy he became a boarder at the Christian Brother’s school, Assumption College, in Kilmore. He missed his home life extremely.

When he was 14, he decided to explore formation as a priest with the Redemptorists – where he acquired an extensive and successful formation in classical languages, French, mathematics and ancient and modern history.

After five years with the Redemptorists, Bob continued to study to become a teacher, teaching and working in the Immigration Department before pursuing his attraction to missionary charity and travel.

He travelled to India and to the Ryder-Cheshire orphanage in the foothills of the Himalayas, returning to complete his BA (Majors in Latin and Philosophy) before becoming a volunteer teacher in New Guinea.

He travelled to Vietnam and India, and then made his most fateful trip to Japan. He began a position as English teacher in Hiroshima in 1969 and during that time, was served and smitten by a Japanese Buddhist girl at the Yamaha Music store.

Her name was Mariko Kido and her father was cellist and conductor with the NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster.

“For a time he took us to live in a Thai refugee camp while he worked with the Hmong people, perhaps that was a bit dangerous … but Mum and Dad welcomed many refugee families to our home back in Australia.”

Tom recalls drily: “The Kido family were a deeply cultured family and fascinated by Dad. Mum became Catholic – even though her family were devout Buddhists. Dad converted Mum’s Dad to cornflakes.”

Bob and Mariko’s marriage at the Memorial Cathedral for World Peace in 1970 – is captured by delightful (now vintage) snapshots which capture perfectly the cultural interchange of those years in Japan.

The Denahy couple travelled back to Australia where Bob became a Japanese Master at the prestigious Geelong Grammar for three years. Peter was born in 1972, before they returned to a teaching post in the university at Okayama, where Tom survived his difficult birth and infancy. Bob then became a teacher back in Australia at Girton College in Bendigo and the family welcomed two more children – Susan and Paul.

In 1969 the young Bob walked into a music store in Hiroshima and was served by Mariko Kido. Their encounter began a lifelong story of love, faith and happiness. PHOTO: supplied

In 1983, Bob drew some media attention by making the (then dramatic) decision to withdraw his children from school and to begin a systematic home schooling for them.
Tom said: “Dad was very annoyed by the declining standards in education. He called the offerings “Mickey Mouse” and “skimmed milk” – and with the assistance of resources from Seton College, began to teach us at home in poetry, literature, clear thinking, grammar and maths. He loved Banjo Patterson, Chesterton and Belloc.”

I mentioned to Tom, that at the time of our first meeting, I was struck by how free, mature and community-minded the Denahy children seemed to be. “Yes, Dad wanted his children to be exposed to the plight of the poor,” he said. “For a time he took us to live in a Thai refugee camp while he worked with the Hmong people, perhaps that was a bit dangerous … but Mum and Dad welcomed many refugee families to our home back in Australia.”

“Dad always had other activities to his teaching – running the Photo lab, picking grapes, learning to fly … he was always moving and always seeing the humour in things.”

“We never had a TV as kids. Dad taught us to recite poetry and we learned phonics. We studied in the morning and then put on our Drize-A-Bones and rode our horses everyday, mixing with stockmen and other bush characters and learning to make stock-whips and wood turning.”

“Mum was amazing – it was tough for her – with the language issues, and being so far from her family.”

Tom also spoke on the centrality of the faith to both his mother and father.

“Dad was a bit more Baltimore Catechism, while my mother Mariko has taught me to listen to the language of God in silence.”

“I have learned so much from both of them,” he said.

“Dad was a bit more Baltimore Catechism, while my mother Mariko has taught me to listen to the language of God in silence.”

“We have inherited a deep love of music, of humour and of Japanese culture.”

Eldest brother Peter performs as Pete Denahy and describes his musical show which “blends fiddle tunes, bluegrass style original songs and madcap comedy to provide the audience with an escape from reality most of them feel is worth their while.”

Tom likes to join Pete as he leads tours of the blue-grass venues in Japan.

Bob passed away on 2 June this year with Mariko and their four children and their families beside him.

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Eyes on the world

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