By Paul Dobbyn
BILL Thornton recently notched up a century with well wishes from many including the Queen, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge.
A framed apostolic blessing from Pope Francis to mark Bill’s 100th birthday also has pride of place on the wall of his unit.
But ask him about his time as a political warrior in the days when Catholics among others were fighting the Communist Party for the control of unions and the years melt away.
Like an old warhorse, Bill straightens up and, mind still sharp, will recall many details of his time alongside B.A. Santamaria, being a part of the Catholic Social Studies Movement and later the National Civic Council.
Bill’s political influence lives on in his grandson Chris Ketter, an Australian Labor Party Senator he helped mentor in the craft of politics.
Born in Gladstone, Bill arrived in Brisbane aged six.
At the age of 13 he became part of the first intake of about 40 students into St Columban’s College, Albion, in 1928.
“The school had been bought as a lovely old house from a family,” Bill, formerly of Clayfield but now resident at Bethesda Retirement Home, Nudgee, said.
“The grounds and everything were pretty dilapidated to begin with.
“Lunchtime was pretty exciting – we chased goannas and snakes around the yard.
“(Christian) Brother Gilbert Molloy taught us how to use a long plank to hold the snakes down and get rid of them – you needed a springy plank, a stiff one was no good.”
Sports-loving Bill admits to “not a lot of homework done, but plenty of footy played”.
“So I ended up working in the meatworks at Cannon Hill,” he said.
“When war (Second World War) broke out, the recruiting officer told me I could serve the country better as a meatworker in a reserved occupation.
“Then a chap I was working with left and joined the army so I checked to see if I could also go.”
Bill left to join the air force where he served from 1944 to the war’s end.
Returning to the Cannon Hill meatworks, Bill found a new battle to fight.
“Fr Barney McLaughlin asked me to come along to a meeting in the Hibernian Building,” he said.
“I discovered that the Communist Party had their people in key industry unions across Australia with a view to controlling the Trade Union movement and thus gaining access to political power in Australia.
“The editor of Ben Chifley’s speeches described this as the battle for the ‘soul of Australia’, which was fought out mainly in the ALP and in the union movement.”
Not long after this meeting, Bill was invited to leave his job as a meatworker and work within the union to help combat the communist influence.
His son, Christian Brother Neville Thornton (Bill also has a married daughter Judith living in Brisbane) said the “political gene had jumped a generation”.