Bill O’Brien doesn’t mind being called a peace-loving hippy. In fact, the Light Regional Council Mayor thinks it probably suits his character quite well.
But if you call him by the name written on his birth certificate, he’s unlikely to respond because even he barely recognises it nowadays.
Born in WA as “Garnet Edward” (a favourite jockey of his father’s), the name never stuck and “Billy Lid (The Kid)” eventually changed it by deed poll to reflect what everyone called him from “day dot”.
Plus, seeing the initials “G.O.B.” on official documents always made him cringe and people wondered who this Garnet chap was.
Mayor Bill still laughs at the thought and there are many more memories the 75 year old responds to in the same jovial manner as he reflects on his life.
Wearing open neck shirt, shorts and thongs, he sits inside the enclosed pergola of his “mud brick place on 6 acres” at Kapunda, the historic cottage he and wife of 55 years, Marilyn share.
There’s a computer, mobile phone and ring-binder of Council agendas on a table surrounded by lush green plants that are flourishing in the light-filled space.
This is Mayor Bill’s home office and he looks very content, yet life hasn’t always been this idyllic.
Raised in a broken family and growing up penniless in the rougher inner suburbs of Melbourne instilled independence at early age as well as a strength of character bent on honesty, mateship, loyalty and keeping the peace.
“I don’t like conflict, I hate it,” he says.
He admits to being a product of his environment which led him to take up smoking “far too young” and tucking into the booze. Those habits are now well and truly “kicked” and childhood illness stopped another in its tracks.
“I got my first tattoo when I was 13 years old – I got nine in a row. But, by the time I was fourteen I never had another one,” Bill explains.
“I was going to get a big one on my chest then I got a bad dose of pneumonia…. I never got another tattoo, thankfully that broke the addiction.
“Everywhere I went I had to role my sleeves down. Every job interview!”
His work ethic and love of sport replaced any notion of becoming an academic.
“I skipped school pretty much, wasn’t interested in it at all. Unfortunately, they weren’t terribly interested in me either!” he says with a wry smile.
A “plethora of jobs” peppered his young years. He even started an apprenticeship as a tailor but “sewing wasn’t his thing” despite his love of fashion.
Bill talks of “doing the milk round” before school, running to and from the milky’s horse and cart to make deliveries in the back streets of Collingwood and Fitzroy in the dark of the night.
“It was bl**dy scary but I think it was about 10 shillings a morning and that was big money back then.”
Those early mornings cemented his fervour for long distance running and he’s since clocked-up 65 marathons and dozens of triathlons.
Finishing marathons in under three hours; cycling, kayaking and running around the state in a six day triathlon and participating in the Big Red Run through the Simpson Desert are “real highlights”.
He still runs every morning.
“Sport has been there all my life. I love those multi day events, it suits me better because I’m not quick, but I’ve got a bit of stamina. It’s in your head too, you’ve got to be dumb!” he laughs heartily.
When he was barely twenty, Bill married Marilyn. She had just turned 17 and they lived in her home state of South Australia.
“Then I got called up for National Service – pulled out of a hat which I just vehemently disagreed with,” says Bill.
“I had tried to join the army earlier and it was made quite clear that I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t qualify then, and now, all of a sudden I did?
“I was pretty determined not to go away with a whole lot of people who didn’t want to be there.”
He ended up in the Air Force which he found to be “a pretty reasonable option”.
“I was a Leading Aircraftman, didn’t want to do my Corporal’s exam or anything else, I just wanted to do my time and get out of there.
“I was in air movements, around the Vietnam conflict and I had a passport to go. We could have gone any second because we were in Darwin. Fortunately, from my point of view, we didn’t.
“I enjoyed the comradeship but I was a bit of a rebel. I wouldn’t cut my hair and I’d have the warrant officer shaking his fists at me!”
To this day, Bill still refuses to have short locks, thinks he’d “look like Prince Charles”.
Working behind the Airman’s Bar on weekends did, however, open doors to a future in hospitality.
“We came back to SA after I got out of the Air Force. We had our son, Paul, who was born in Darwin, a red setter dog and a red RX3! So we were fit for the world with a pocket full of memories!” says Bill.
Picking up work as a wine waiter at the Weintal in Tanunda paved a new direction.
“Die Gallerie restaurant was about to open and David Hardy, Rod Schubert and Roger Teusner asked me if I would like to work there – it was the first bistro in SA, well ahead of its time.”
Others noticed his prowess with people and he heeded a call to Seppeltsfield Winery to work as a tour guide which launched a career in the wine and tourism industry, leading him to Rutherglen, where son Pete was born, then back to the Barossa to expand Leo Buring.
Yet Bill’s fondness for fitness never waned, and eventually he and Marilyn decided to open “Tri-Sports” in Tanunda.
“I loved being able to relate to people and just seeing the smiles on kid’s faces getting their new boots!” he says.
“We ran the store for about 8 years and transferred to Nuri in the end. We were really kicking against the breeze though, it was not easy.”
A job in tourism development at the old District Council of Kapunda that then amalgamated to form Light Regional Council, started Bill’s career in local government.
There were exciting projects to be managed before politics reared its ugly side and it angered Bill to the point where he left in frustration.
“A job in Wilcannia came up for a Tourism and Economic Development Manager in the Central Darling Shire Council. I thought I’d give that a go!
“The first day I drove into the place I saw a major brawl in the street. I thought geez here we go!”
Serendipity took control again, albeit tragically. The General Manager died in a road crash and it was pure luck Bill wasn’t in the vehicle – he was meant to be.
Before he knew it, he was appointed General Manager of a council area the size of Tasmania.
“At that stage, I would have had a first aid certificate and driver’s licence, that was about it,” Bill recalls.
“I thought I would learn life as life hit me and hopefully look at things with common sense and in a kind-hearted sort of a way. I think that’s done me well over the years.
“It was only then that I realised just how horrendous the job was going to be. Council hadn’t put an annual report in to the Department of Local Government for four years!”
Despite the pressures, Bill overcame the challenge with his team of “fantastic staff”.
“Within 3 years, we won top shire in the state…I was absolutely staggered!”
His eight year contract complete, Bill returned to Kapunda where he and Marilyn had bought their house years earlier.
Then the local IGA came up for sale.
“We took it on…In the first year we upped the sales by 73 percent!
“We were employing people and it was a lovely place to go to work. I didn’t like getting up early for the milky though!”
During the four years owning the store, locals encouraged him to run for Council and he “didn’t want a bar of it”.
“I said I would only stand as Mayor because I knew how hard it was to get anything done as a single elected member. You can be a rebel, you can be whatever you like and nothing happens.”
Twelve years on, he still relishes his role as “Mayor Bill” and if he has his way, he’ll keep putting on his tie for one more term before happily “passing on the baton”.
He’s fired up, ready to take on any competition that comes his way and the fact he’s overcome major health scares, including a heart attack, proves he’s a fighter.
“Kapunda, the sleeping giant, is waking up” he likes to say and he can’t believe he’s been part of the process, given how his life began.
“I’m a great believer in what’s meant to be will be. Things have happened that I would never have given the faintest thought about. Yes, I took chances, but why not? It’s another experience that is only going to do good.”
Bill does, however, have one regret.
“I didn’t pay enough attention at school, not that I would have been a good student anyway, it’s not my cup of tea,” he smirks.
“I’m not a silly person but I’m not terribly bright either. Even so, I reckon I’ve done alright.”