17 February 2023

Despite setbacks, Tommy prevails to help others

| John Thistleton
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Photo of Tommy Hailston

Tommy Hailston loves cats, and until recent years has always had them as pets. He once fed about 18 feral cats near Marulan. “It cost a fortune,” he said. Photo: John Thistleton.

Like the cats he craves, Tommy Hailston is a night creature, rarely retiring to bed before two or three o’clock in the morning. His single-bedroom unit at Baptist Care in Goulburn is filled with images of hundreds of cats on cushions, bedcovers and walls to fill a void at home.

Baptist Care Clinton Place is otherwise perfect for Tommy to enjoy his retirement and reflect on his great triumph that happened well before he started school, and decades before he was recently announced as the 70-year-old Goulburn Senior of the Year.

His only complaint is that he is not permitted a cat. Along with dogs they are not allowed in the well-maintained seniors community. So feline statues, cat-themed signs and whiskered, wide-eyed patterns stare at him into the wee hours of the morning.

One of Tommy’s four sisters Cheryl Jacobson has an abiding memory of his early childhood: his diminutive frame lying over his father Dallas’ shoulders during the worst of one of his ailments, Bronchietasis, a lung disease. It was the only way to get phlegm out of his lungs.

Tommy said that was not his only setback. “I was pretty sickly when I was young; I had Pinks Disease (infantile acrodynia), it was like you were being starved to death,” he said.

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Moving about and dancing, his legs gave way one day. “Mum took me to the doctor and it was bone disease, the bones weren’t growing,” he said. Cheryl remembers that plaster from the waist down covered his legs but he could move like lightning on the bed. His sharpest memory of that time was the awkwardness of everyday living. Going to the toilet was horrible. Having the cast replaced every three months for 18 months was hurtful.

“We would put him in the pram and take him down the street to go around all the shops,” Cheryl said. Although his right leg ended up a little shorter than his left, his optimism remained unlimited.

And sure enough, once at school his triumph came on the fields outside where playing most sports rewarded him with many playmates. They became his focus more than lessons and textbooks.

Dallas and his mother Vera had separated and while his father managed looking after his four sisters, Tommy was too much.

“Dad’s sister Joan Hailston took me in,” he said. “Dad was always there and Joan who I called Mum was always there. I could not ask for a better family,” he said.

Joan worked at Rogers Store and the department stores that succeeded it over many years. She lived with her aunty Elizabeth Fisher, another key person in Tommy’s upbringing. “Lizzy would see me off to school and be there when I got home. It was a very loving upbringing,” he said.

Halfway through his final year in fourth form he left school to begin a six-year apprenticeship as a watchmaker with jeweller Robert Adameitis. “He always reckoned to be a watchmaker you had to be small framed, don’t ask me why,” Tommy said. “I suppose because of small hands, small fingers for the tiny screwdrivers.”

Group sitting at a table.

Dallas Hailston worked for Col Ferguson at Golden Crust, delivering bread and bursting into tune so often he was called Goulburn’s Singing Baker. His sister Joan (centre) became Tommy’s adopted mother. Tommy is at right, then aged about 21. Photo: Hailston family.

After a decade he worked for jeweller Ange Zantis, a fabulous bloke and very generous according to Tommy.

Outside of work Tommy’s interests centred on Goulburn’s nightlife at the Phillip Court Hotel, Goulburn Teachers College and the Rugby Club.

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“I was a bit of a party animal as they say,” Tommy said. “You would end up leaving the pub at 11 o’clock, go to the old BP Signpost (cafe) and get fish and chips and then there was always someone’s place to go to a party. You would be getting home at three o’clock in the morning.”

Partying continued, even while working early shifts for cleaner Doug Hall, who had contracts for commercial and housing commission properties. Later Tommy worked at BP service centres on either side of the Hume Highway at Marulan for 28 years, including 15 years on the midnight-to-8 am shift. “I actually loved it, loved the hours because I had no trouble sleeping of a day,” he said.

Moving into and out of relationships, Tommy never married. “I was having too much fun being single. I didn’t really want to get tied down,” he said.

As he wound down work at Marulan he filled his days and evenings meeting people, attending events of a night and moving back to Goulburn, adopting the same habits. His gift for befriending strangers and helping fellow seniors was acknowledged in 2017 when he was named Marulan’s Australia Day Senior of the Year, and again in Goulburn during Seniors Week. Cheryl says Tommy has to be out and about with people, even more so these days without a companionable cat.

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