That's the Spirit: Tony McAlary - Warren NSW
Tony McAlary might be retired from farming, but these days he’s as busy as ever, stepping up to help his home town’s youth to lead more productive lives. The self-effacing, long-time Warren local doesn’t believe in doing anything by half, and has put his money where his mouth is in establishing the Warren Youth Group. In the six years since its inception, the group has helped brighten not only the younger generation’s future, but that of the town itself.
Tony: I guess it’s fair to say I’m retired now, but I’m still involved in lots of community things. I moved from the farm into town about seven years ago, but I’ve lived in the area all my life – I was away for school and I worked away for about three years when I was younger, but the rest of my time I’ve been in the Warren district. I feel I belong here.
Jen: Tell me how you feel about Warren.
Tony: I think it’s a great community and it has really good facilities which you may miss it if you drive straight through. It has good sporting facilities, a good hospital, a nice aged care place – pretty well everything you need for people of all ages. The schools are quite good and they’ve expanded the primary school lately.
It’s a place that people actually like to live in. Some people have come here temporarily and then stayed on for the rest of their lives - that’s a bit of an indication.
Economically and business wise, all these little western region towns have to work hard to maintain themselves because there is a gravitational pull towards Dubbo.
This is a local community where people really make a personal effort to support the town and make it an attractive place to live. You have to constantly work at maintaining and trying to improve your town to make it viable.
Jen: The fact that Warren has good facilities – is that because the community has worked hard in the past?
Tony: Yes, I think so. It’s a very generous town, and over the years I’ve seen a lot of money raised to support various facilities. I helped organise a fundraiser for our hospital through our Rotary club a few years ago and we raised $65,000 or thereabouts. That’s a lot of money for a little town. Just before that there was an event in town that raised $25,000 for the local pre-school. I think it’s surprising and quite amazing how generous people are.
Tony McAlary, Warren NSW
Jen: We see such extraordinary generosity in small communities – why do you think that’s the case?
Tony: I suppose people feel a sense of belonging. It wasn’t necessarily the wealthy people that put all this money in, it was the shop keepers and the wage earners who contributed most. That’s amazing, I reckon. If the cause is something everyone relates to – like the hospital or something like that – I think people step up. You feel more inclined to put your hand in your pocket for something you relate to. Sadly, though, there’s an increasing trend towards people thinking, “Oh well, the government will give us a grant anyway”, so that’s probably going to diminish local contribution to an extent.
Jen: Is that a dangerous mindset for small communities?
Tony: It could be. We certainly have been getting heaps of (government) dough over the past two or three years. I’m quite happy for Warren to have it but it does get to the point where it’s like a beggar with your hand out all the time. I don’t know how that will play out.
Going back to my youth, there was a big effort made by the town to maintain the ambulance service – we probably had a chocolate wheel every Saturday in the main street and we put on a rodeo to raise money and that’s how we kept the ambulance service going but now, of course, the government has taken that funding over so we don’t do that as a community. I’m not necessarily sad about that, they do a great job, but it’s not the town itself driving that fundraising.
Jen: Is it important for small towns to have people to drive projects?
Tony: I’m sure of it. We have a bloke called Bill Phillips who retired here from Canberra, and he runs an organisation called Riversmart, looking after the health of the river, and he’s a magician at finding grants and raising money. He has a metaphor, which is that you can have a bus and you can have some passengers, but if you don’t have a driver you’re not going anywhere.
It’s very hard to get people to get up and drive the bus. People don’t mind helping but they don’t want to be in the front seat, which is a bit of a problem. A lot of the things around town are run by older people like me and that’s a worry, I think.
If you’re a good bus driver, you should have a trainee seat next to you. Certainly, some younger people have a passion, but we older people need to be mentoring them more somehow.
Tony McAlary, Warren NSW
Jen: Speaking of young people, the Warren Youth Group was your brainchild – can you tell me what motivated you to establish the program?
Tony: I suppose that when I came to town, one of the things I noticed was a lot of young kids sitting around in the evening and into the night on the steps of the Post Office. I looked at them and realised these kids had no future at all and I thought nothing is going to change in their lives apart from having babies and probably getting into the drugs a bit more and nobody is going to employ them. I realised that unless something changes, there’s no way they’re going to get a job.
So, I thought we could try to make a difference and we started trying to run TAFE courses designed for us, then we got some volunteers to help and so on. It’s grown from there.
It’s hard to measure the success of it, but some young people have gone on to live more stable lives and have jobs. That might not be solely because of the youth group, but maybe we’ve supported them enough to get them going a bit better.
Jen: I think you’re being a bit of a hard judge there – everyone I’ve spoken with says it’s been a wonderful thing for Warren.
Tony: Well, I’m hoping that’s true I can’t measure it anyway, so I don’t know.
Jen: You made a significant personal contribution to get the group going, which was by any measure was extraordinarily generous. Why did you do that?
Tony: Well, I suppose that’s my personality. I go for a win – I don’t just go and half do something. There’s no point in setting out with projects that have no chance of success, you have to give it a good whack to give it a chance to get going. It’s a bit like golf: if you don’t get down to the other end of the fairway, you’re not going to get the ball in the hole, are you?
Jen: I’m not a golfer but I understand the metaphor – you’re saying that if you’re not prepared to step up with at least a willingness to try to find a solution, you can’t really sit on the side-lines and whinge.
Tony: That’s true. The common thing, which I find a bit frustrating, is when people in a position of privilege – the well-to-do or the middle class or whatever they are – try to say it’s all the young people’s fault anyway: “If they were any good they’d get up and do something for themselves and fix themselves up.”
I suppose there’s an element of that and whether it’s true or not its arguable but in the end, we know it’s not going to happen. So, you either live with the underclass that is possibly a threat to society or you do whatever you can to try to fix it.
Jen: Do you have faith in the younger generation?
Tony: I do know some pretty good young people in the 40-year-old bracket around here. I suppose I shouldn’t be saying this, but I suspect the ones I’m thinking of have had a relatively easy life to date, they’ve had good support from their parents and so forth.
I try to keep out of the moral issues, but I think drugs are a terrible thing and very harmful. I approach with a non-judgemental idea of things but at the end of the day, if someone is there to support these youngsters and given them opportunity there is certainly hope. There’s an opportunity to marshal the assets a bit.
We met recently with police in Dubbo who have a great program going to try to keep young people out of gaol – I think that’s the right attitude and we’re hoping to work more with them.
Jen: What are some of the misconceptions you think the wider community has about living in a small town like Warren?
Tony: I think they probably think small towns lack services, which is not necessarily the case. We have all the major services – doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals. If you come from Sydney, you might say, “Where the hell is Warren?” but we’re doing okay.
I think one of the economic opportunities here is to promote the town as a perfect place for people of retirement age. It could have a strong commercial benefit if it was to attract and support older people who found it convenient and economically viable to live in a town like this. I think that could create quite a strong economic base.
Jen: And what do you personally love about living in Warren?
Tony: I don’t think about it like that, I just think it’s my town. I did think about living in Sydney for a while and I did live there for a few months but it’s not really for me so I was quite happy to come back here.
I got to know all the people I didn’t know when I was young and I quite like that.
I guess it’s a bit like your house or your farm – you’re not sure why you love it but it’s yours. I don’t know why I love Warren, but it’s my town and it’s what I have.
Tony McAlary with the Warren Youth Group’s Executive Officer Kelly Sinclair, Warren NSW
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book will feature a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered over the past two years, and will be available in late 2020 through NALAG NSW and this website. If you wish to be notified when the book is available, please click here.