That's the Spirit: Col Ryan OAM - Gulargambone NSW
He’s the recipient of a number of awards for services to his community, including an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in 2016, but Gulargambone farmer and Lions Club president Col Ryan says his greatest reward is simply the joy of helping people. Jen Cowley sat down for an excellent coffee with Col at Gular’s award winning, community-based two-eight-two-eight café.
Col: I was born and raised here and I’ve lived here all my life on the family farm – first on my parents’ place then on my own place just out of town. I’m a farmer and grazier, but I’ve been involved in lots of things around town.
Jen: What sorts of things?
Col: Mostly through Lions. For instance, in the past we’ve worked with (Coonamble Shire) Council for a tree planting program around town – obviously, we haven’t done that for the past three years, there wasn’t much point because of the drought – but this year we’ll be kicking that off again. It’s a really good project for the town.
We’ve also worked with council to get a grant for our park, so there’s those sorts of things.
For many years, 28 in fact, I’ve done a lot with people with a disability through a Lions-based program called Licola (Wilderness Camp) down in Victoria. It’s owned by Victorian Lions clubs, and it has 16 houses that can accommodate people with a disability for a week-long program.
I started just taking two people for the first year, and then I became co-chairman (of the program) in the district, which goes from Lightning Ridge to Wagga, to the mountains and out to Bourke.
My late wife, Cheryl, and I worked together on it, and a Lions club lady from Narromine now helps me as co-chairman.
Col Ryan OAM, Gulargambone NSW
Jen: Was it experience with someone with a disability that initially motivated you to get involved with the program?
Col: No, no personal experience – I got all that along the way (laughs). There was a young bloke here locally who had a disability and we (the Lions Club) had heard about the camp and we needed someone to take him because he was a really big fella so I volunteered. We also sponsored another local girl, who had a horse accident as a young girl and spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She went down to Licola a few times with us. There have been many over the years.
It is such an amazing thing to see what a difference the camp makes to these people’s lives. It’s very satisfying – it gives you a real pick-me-up to spend time at the camp when you see how much they achieve in such a short time. It’s something that I’ve learned over the years about people with a disability – you never underestimate them. Some of them are very capable people. They might have a disability, but given the opportunity, they can accomplish many things.
Jen: Twenty-eight years is a long time to be involved with a program like that. What keeps you going?
Col: I just think it’s an excellent way to give something back to people in need. I can’t really pinpoint it, but I just like to help people. Lions is a great organisation that has given me the opportunity to help people and the community. I’m a charter member of the Gulargambone Lions Club. We chartered in 1987, and I’ve been with them all that time.
A friend encouraged me to look into Lions, and once I did, I was hooked by the way they do things for the community. That was the essence of it then, and it’s the same now.
Col Ryan OAM, Gulargambone NSW
Jen: Something I’ve noticed over the years is Gulargambone’s “can do” approach, so I guess Gular Lions have the same attitude – would you agree?
Col: That’s true. When they say “you can’t do this or that”, well, ‘round here that’s a red rag to a bull.
Jen: You know, you’re the second Gular person I’ve interviewed for this project who’s said the same thing, so that’s a pretty reliable sample then (laughs)!
Col: Well, it’s true. When they say “you can’t”, the only way is to get into it and do it ourselves and show them what we CAN do. I think we’re fortunate in that we have a good relationship with our council, because we’re just an outlying town, but if we want something done we always show that we’re prepared to put our foot forward if we can just get a bit of help.
Gulargambone has always showed that it’s prepared to help itself with a bit of a hand up.
Jen: What are some of the things you’ve been involved with over the years that have made you proud to be a Gular local?
Col: Oh, without doubt one of the highlights was winning the NSW Tidy Towns award in 2004. I was chairman at the time, having been involved with the committee for a while to try to help with a few projects we had going around town, particularly after we lost the banks and we needed to do something. There were all sorts of things they’d said we couldn’t have, and we do now because we made them happen.
As a result, we’d won lots and lots of awards of different types and we’d entered the Tidy Towns competition many, many times. We’d won our category – the 350-500 population category, which covers a fair few towns – and we’d won awards for different projects and so forth.
Then in 2004, we went to Broken Hill for the annual awards ceremony and there were only a couple of us from here went, and we won the overall award. I was rapt.
Jen: Was it like a “the winner is… Sid-on-ey” moment where you all leapt up in the air?
Col: Yeah, yeah – we actually did. Well, I did, anyway – I stood up on a chair (laughs)!
Then after that, in 2005, we hosted the awards because whichever town wins earns the right to host the following year. So we had a huge marquee down there behind the café and it was a magic night. A lot of work, but a fantastic night.
Jen: What is the essence of the town, and why do you love it so?
Col: The people. There’s a resilience here. People refuse to lie down – there’s a willingness to get up off the floor and keep going. Take the drought, for example. We all just powered through. We continued to come together and help each other. We just knew we’d have to get on with it.
If there’s anything happening, or there’s a need, people do get together and I think there’s a comfort in that.
Tooraweenah and Gilgandra are the same. I think it’s a sense of shared purpose. Here, in small towns, it’s easier to get people to join up in things and get involved and contribute.
Jen: If you had to name one, what would be a nice surprise that Gulargambone has in store for first time visitors?
Col: I think people would be surprised by the friendliness here. That’s good because tourism is an important part of our future and we are getting more things to attract tourists. If we don’t develop our tourist offering, we’ll have nothing. We don’t have any industry other than farming and grazing.
We do have a few things to show off, though. We have really beautiful surrounds and a rich history.
Our caravan park is one of our best kept secrets. Actually, not that secret – word of mouth is really getting around and tourists just flock here because of the friendliness and the facilities. It’s always chock-a-block.
Travellers are a huge financial boon for the town, so it’s up to us locals to make them feel welcome, and make an effort to say g’day.
People genuinely want to connect.
Jen: What’s the first thing you’d tell a visitor who was asking about your town?
Col: That it’s a community-minded place that has an interesting history around the district. Tourism really is our future, so we have to look at how we develop that. We have to work at that, and go above and beyond.
The people who run the caravan park do a great job of going that extra mile, and it really pays off. People come for a day and end up staying two weeks, using Gulargambone as a base.
That friendliness is what small towns have to offer, so we need to trade on that.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Col Ryan OAM, Gulargambone NSW