Bill Bruce is, at 104, a man with an enduring thirst for life as well as challenging work, meat and potatoes and a penchant for poetry.
The secret to a long and healthy life is quite simple, says 104-year-old Bill Bruce. “My eyesight isn’t quite as a good as it used to be, and I think I might be a little bit wobblier in the legs than I was, but I still think I’m in pretty good nick for my age,” says Bill, a veteran of the New Guinea and Pacific islands campaigns during World War Two.
“But the secrets to a long life are about getting the basics right – you’ve got to work hard, keep as active as you can, eat meat and potatoes and breathe through your nose. That’ll get you through.”
Oh, and Bill also likes a small glass of port after dinner, a tradition he has indulged in most days for the past three or four decades. Port, he says, helps settle him down for a good night’s sleep, another thing you shouldn’t miss out on if you want to live long and well.
William Wallace Mervyn Bruce, a man whose family clearly had some Scottish heritage, was born in outback Queensland at the Fort Cooper Hotel, as it was then known, in 1917.
His parents were the licensees of the hotel and while he was born there, Bill has few memories of it because his parents moved onto a property outside the small town the hotel serviced just a couple of years after he was born.
Back then the town was officially known as Fort Cooper, situated about 100 kilometres south west of Mackay, but everyone called it Nebo. That’s why local politicians renamed it in 1923, when Bill was six.
“I grew up on my parent’s property outside town,” recalls Bill, who had two brothers and three sisters. “We didn’t have a lot to do so we had to make our own fun. There wasn’t a lot of sport in those days because there weren’t that many people around.
“Most of the time I went exploring with my brothers. There was a cave up in some hills close to our homestead that had Aboriginal cave paintings in it, and we used to go up there to look at them. We always found them fascinating, and it kept us out of trouble I guess.”
Bill grew up without a lot of formal education but with plenty of hands-on experience around the property. He managed to establish himself as a handy rural contractor who could turn his hand to fencing and any of the thousand tasks that need to be done on a farm.
By then Australia was embroiled in World War Two. Bill signed up for the reserves in 1942 and was transferred to the Australian Army the following year. He was sent to New Guinea as part of a support battalion, where he learned about electrical engineering. He was soon recognised as a leading technician. “They put me in charge of the lighting and electrics when we were in camp,” says Bill. “It was a big responsibility. And to be honest I enjoyed it. I liked the army so much that when it was over, I volunteered to be part of the Occupation Force in Japan. But the commanding officer called me in and said: ‘Bill most of the blokes in this unit can’t wait to get home, and I think that might be something you should do too. Get home and have a good life.”
Get home and have a good life
So, that’s what Bill set out to do. When he returned to Nebo, he re-established himself as a contractor with a whole new set of skills, joining up with his brother who had also returned from the Army.
While he didn’t know it at the time, Bill was about to embark on a lifelong commitment to community service. He became an active member in the Nebo RSL, becoming secretary in 1960 and then president from 1987 until 2012.
He was responsible for organising Anzac Day celebrations in Nebo for more 50 years, but his service to Nebo didn’t stop there.
He was at various times, the secretary of the Nebo Busman’s Council (a story we’ll return to in a moment), the secretary of the Nebo Jockey Club for 20 years, and a founding member of the RAOB Lodge – The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes – which is a benevolent society that has as its motto “Truth, Justice and Philanthropy”. Bill was a member for two decades. He was also in charge of the local council workshop, a job he kept up for 25 years. In all, he was an essential part of a small rural community such as Nebo.
And all that service comes with a little recognition. Bill has a nature walk named after him to commemorate his 55 years of contributing to the Nebo community and, when the Commonwealth Games came to Brisbane in 2018, he became the oldest person to carry the Queen’s Baton on its journey around the country.
“I suppose that was a great honour to be a part of that,” says Bill. “I hope that I contributed to the community. I never planned it that way. It just happened. It needed to be done and somebody had to do it. Still, I had a lot of fun and met some great people.”
“I hope that I contributed to the community.”
Bill’s other great skill is poetry. He’s never written any, he says, but he has always harboured a deep passion for Australian bush poets such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson as well as classical English poets from the 18 and 19th century.
In fact, even at 104, he can still rattle off some bush verse from memory. And as a resident of NewDirection Care at Bellmere, for the past few years, he has helped celebrate Anzac Day with the other residents by reciting poetry.
“Would you like to hear some? As I said before, my eyesight’s a little blurry and my legs are a little wonky, but I can still remember the words,” says Bill, as he launches, resonant and clear, into a rendition of ‘Abou Ben Adhem’, by English poet James Henry Leigh Hunt.
“Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
This poem is regarded as a literary gem and it tells the story of an encounter between a Sufi mystic and an angel, but it is really about the value of fraternity among men. As Abou says in the final line, “write me as one who loves his fellow men”. If anyone can be counted as someone who loves his fellow man, then it is undoubtedly Bill Bruce from Nebo.