SOMETIME soon, Ray Gilbert will quite literally flick the switch on his business in High Street Armadale.
For the past 47 years, Gilbert has committed his energies to the Custom Lighting showroom – and yet the man’s enduring love for his football club – whether as supporter, coterie member or sponsor – can be sourced to the immediate post-war years in the local Carlton neighbourhood.
For Gilbert, home was an apartment in the gloriously art deco Havana Court buildings on Drummond Street, east of the Princes Park ground, in the days when footy was gloriously territorial.
“I was born in Drummond Street at No. 887 – apartment No.9 I think it was. The apartments are still there, right next door to the church,” Gilbert said.
“Funnily enough, I lived over the road from the residence of Harry Frydenberg – Josh Frydenberg’s father (which is why Josh also follows Carlton) – and I used to play football with Harry in Drummond Street.”
Gilbert also remembered with affection his first forays to the place formerly known as Princes Park.
“I used to go the ground as a seven or eight-year-old. In those days you’d walk to the ground to watch the game and you’d get in at half-time for nothing,” Gilbert said.
“I remember Ollie Grieve, No. 27, and Bruce Comben in the back pocket, as well as Jim Clark and Ken Hands.”
And yet, it’s another childhood tale that Gilbert, a Life Member of the football club, will take to the grave with him.
“That I was born in Carlton, followed Carlton and love Carlton is true,” Gilbert said . . . “and yet this particular story is not about me and my journey, but more broadly about the important part that players play in helping young people”.
In 1951, Gilbert, then ten, was cut down with a serious kidney infection. The infection left him bedridden for six months, at a time when there was no television to take his mind off his malady.
Then came a knock at the front door to which Gilbert’s father responded – and there to greet him was the Carlton ruckman Ken Hands, the ’47 Brownlow Medallist Bert Deacon and the Premiership half-back flanker Jim Clark.
Hands, Deacon and Clark had all fronted up to pay young Ray a “get well soon visit” – a gesture Gilbert’s never forgotten.
“It was a total surprise, completely out of left field,” Gilbert said.
“My grandfather, who lost a leg in a roadside accident, had a driver – and the brother of the driver was the doorman at Carlton. Now my grandfather must have told the driver that his grandson had been laid up in bed for six months and the driver relayed that to his brother who arranged for Deacon, Hands and Clark to come down and visit me.
“This is a story I often tell the current players . . . at the end of the day, when you’re little and you’re not well it means so much that a player cares enough about you to tap you on the shoulder or shake your hand.”
The kindness afforded him by Clark, Deacon and Hands has been more than reciprocated by Gilbert, who for 27 years served The Carltonians coterie group as secretary, treasurer and president.
It’s also a matter of fact that Gilbert introduced Optus to the Carlton Football Club by way of a chance meeting with Optus’s head honcho.
“Custom Lighting bought a building in City Road, Southbank, at which we managed Commercial Lighting . . . and one day out of left field a very large electrical company Lawrence & Hanson came in and literally took that side of our business over,” Gilbert said.
“In the end the business closed and once that happened I tried to rent out the empty building which we tried to rent out – and lo and behold that’s how I met Ian May the head of Optus.
“I twigged straight away that Optus might be interested in Carlton, so I took Ian and (Chief Executive) Ian Collins out to lunch at an Italian restaurant in Nicholson Street. Ian then took over and had a discussion with one of the Carlton directors George Varlamos who was able to convince the council to agree to change the name from Princes Park to Optus Oval.
“Optus effectively became Carlton’s major sponsor, which probably indirectly saved the club from going belly-up.”
Amid the hovering uncertainties of season 2020, those in high places at the Carlton Football Club take comfort in the knowledge that passionate, loyal people like Ray Gilbert stand with them in the blue corner.