60 years on, Vern Wright’s vision endures

Club historian Tony De Bolfo uncovers the story behind a landmark moment in Carlton history: the establishment of the Spirit of Carlton.

On the night of Tuesday, August 16, 1955, the former Carlton footballer Henry William Cleveland Toole wheeled his way through the doors of the football club entrance at the old Princes Park ground. Toole, whose recent illness had forced the removal of both legs, had regained his mobility by way of a wheelchair paid for by the then President Ken Luke.

At the much-anticipated reunion, “Harry” Toole had come home to thank the great “KG” for this noble gesture, and to formally acknowledge the enduring support of two old on-field contemporaries of the 1920s – Billy Blackman and Newton Chandler, “The Grand Old Man of Princes Park”.

Toole’s welcome presence on a night in which yarns were shared of the days that used to be, underpinned a landmark moment in Carlton history. Earlier that evening, the club’s Former Players and Officials Association (the Spirit of Carlton as it is now known) was formally established.

The Association’s founding was recorded by the then Carlton secretary Wally Floyd in the club’s annual report of that year.

“The formation of a Former Players, Officials and Staff Association has been under discussion for some years, but during the past season the committee made a decisive move, after presentations from a number of former players – headed by M. Ewins, V. Wright, R. Hiskens and J. Watson – to have the secretary draw up a draft constitution for consideration at the annual re-union of former players,” Floyd wrote.

“Accordingly, on Friday, 12th August, a very representative gathering, called together by press notices and circular where addresses were known, met and successfully launched the Association. The secretary’s draft constitution was adopted with only minor alteration and office-bearers elected and installed.”

Floyd noted that the Brunswick-born five-game former Carlton footballer Vernon Wright was elected President with the 18-game returned serviceman Morris Ewins “of 66 Glengyle Street, Coburg” the Honorary Secretary and another former player, Cr. Frank Williams, Treasurer.

“A strong committee was also formed and this has met on many occasions since and has drawn up details for full-scale activities for 1956,” Floyd declared.

“Those eligible for membership are former senior players, officials and staff of the C.F.C. and further information can be gained from either the Club or Association secretaries.”

The Former Players and Officials Association prospered through the 1960s under the watch of Wright and secretary Reg Morgan – the baseballer turned footballer who was lucky to survive a ruptured spleen when representing this club’s reserve grade team in 1943.

Through the years, past player reunions were regularly convened at Princes Park on matchdays – for a time in the Heatley Stand, then in the Gardiner and later the Hawthorn Stand, in a room whose walls were festooned with photographs of past Carlton greats. The President Chris Pavlou, himself a loyal servant as player, coach and director, hosted these much-loved club functions.

In November 2006, through the informal overtures of the club’s former runner Bob Lowrie, a solid core of former players, coaches and administrators gathered at Giancarlo Caprioli’s University Café on Lygon Street to assess their beloved Carlton’s waning fortunes. Pondering the malaise were Jim Buckley, Mike Fitzpatrick, Ken Hunter, Steve Kernahan, Mark Maclure, Keith McKenzie, David Parkin, Val Perovic, David Rhys-Jones, Geoff Southby and Robert Walls, with apologies accepted from Alex Marcou and David McKay.

The gathering of greats to a man resolved to restore and enhance the spirit and culture of the Carlton Football Club in a non-political way.

Hence the slogan “Spirit of Carlton” was born.

Two years later, at an annual general meeting of the Past Players’ Association, it was resolved that the Spirit of Carlton group would form an amalgam with the traditional association, and that the entity’s name “The Spirit of Carlton Past & Present” would be adopted.

The outgoing president, 1968 Carlton Premiership player Dennis Munari and former president Pavlou, both of whom had worked tirelessly in keeping the traditional association up and running, were on hand for the transition, in keeping with Vern Wright’s vision of all those years ago.

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