GOALKICKING maestro John Coleman was enjoying life away from Essendon Football Club when he decided to travel to Albury for a Rotary conference in 1973. Sadly, as this edited extract from a biography written by DOUG ACKERLY reveals, it coincided with the last weekend of his life.
IN March, 1973, John Coleman rang his old mate, Ron Freer.
The Essendon premiership player and coach said: “It’s not every day a man becomes a millionaire.” “What do you mean?” Freer said. “I’ve sold The Dromana,” Coleman replied.
Finally, it seemed that the restless businessman with boundless energy was prepared to “smell the roses”. Well, at least have a quick whiff before going onto something else.
He and Freer had been friends for 30 years, catching up twice a week in normal circumstances.
They had one of the squash courts at the MCG permanently booked for Tuesdays at 11am.
But, later that month, John rang to cancel. “I won’t see you next Tuesday: I’m going to Rotary up in Albury.”
Fellow Rotary member and former teammate Greg Sewell noted that Coleman was no “knife and forker” with the service club.
“He was always ready and eager, if there was a function on or some work to be done, he would do it,” he said.
“He was a good Rotarian: he made his contribution.”
The conference on the Murray was also a chance for John and wife Monica to get out of the big smoke, and they drove up the Hume Highway in convoy with Greg and his wife, Glenys.
It was the Colemans’ first trip away in John’s near new red 280E Mercedes Benz, number plate JDC-002.
It was an automatic as he was still having trouble with the thrombosis in his left calf. Daughter Jenny recalled, “It would ache, and he would often sit down and elevate it”.
It was a doubly auspicious occasion for the area, as Wodonga became a city on the Friday the conference opened in Albury’s town hall.
But, for Monica, there was a less benign portent when the couple checked into their motel.
“An eerie thing happened there,” she said. “When John picked up the key to our room from the hotel counter, I noticed it was for room 13.
“It is unusual for a hotel or motel room to be numbered 13, but John thought nothing of it.”
Coleman bumped into former Test cricketer Lindsay Kline and retired Collingwood footballer Thorold Merrett, who were among 1100 Rotarians, mainly from metropolitan clubs, who attended the four days.
On the Saturday, Coleman thought it would be a good idea to miss a couple of the sessions and catch up with ex-Richmond footballer, Ray Poulter, who ran Soden’s Hotel.
Sunday was a designated day of rest. After an all-denominational church service, it was off to Lake Hume for a barbecue and “fellowship”.
The Colemans travelled to Bright for Monday night and headed home on Tuesday. On the Wednesday, he drove to Dromana to check things out.
About 5pm, Cliff and Hazel de Plater were feeling a bit peckish and in need of accommodation.
For 60-year-old Cliff, Coleman’s establishment seemed to fulfil both requirements.
“The dining room was half full of diners,” de Plater said.
“If it was that popular, the hotel, in our language, had to be quite good.
“But, I didn’t realise at the time that they were diners only.
“And when we booked in to stay overnight, there was no thought that we were the only two guests in the entire hotel.”
They occupied one of 25 rooms available to the public.
Monica says her husband was buoyed by the prospect of a real break.
“He phoned me from the hotel late that night and talked again to me as well as to the children about a trip we’d been planning to take together,” she said.
“We had all been working hard, and John said over the phone, ‘We’ll make it a good one’.”
Exhausted by their travel, the de Platers were fast asleep when Cliff was roused by a knock on the door around 12.30am. It was the publican.
“(He) just had a bath towel wrapped around his waist,” de Plater said.
“Would you mind calling a doctor, please; I feel crook,” he said.
The laboratory technician from Canberra had no idea who my host was, let alone his drinking habits.
Coleman had locked his office and the only phone available was the public one in the foyer of the hotel.
De Plater acted quickly as Coleman returned to his room.
But, it was a tall order for anyone, let alone a tourist from interstate, to raise a doctor on the Mornington Peninsula at that hour of the morning.
He rang a local hospital, then tried a doctor who did not answer.
He rang another doctor whose wife picked up. She said her husband was unavailable and refused to say whether he was home or not.
De Plater recalled: “The doctor’s wife didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
Around 1am, Coleman reappeared at the top of the stairs. He was ashen and in excruciating pain.
De Plater went to his aid, and he slowly lowered himself to the floor and tried to descend.
“(He was) just sitting on the stairs, bouncing down one at a time after me (on his behind),” de Plater said.
De Plater felt helpless. He couldn’t think what to do. Within seconds, it would be out of his hands.
“Near the bottom, he just gave a slight gasp and fell forward dead on the spot.”
Coleman had suffered what app-eared to be a massive heart attack in the saddest of circumstances.
The gregarious family man and idol had passed away all but alone, in the company of a complete stranger.
In shock, de Plater rang the emergency number and summoned the police.
“I had no key to the front door, so the only thing I could do was to go back up the stairs to the fire escape, open the fire escape door, and let the police in,” de Plater said.
“They came in and, as soon as they saw John, they recognised him as John Coleman and one of them made a comment, ‘There will be quite an enquiry into this’.”
Coleman’s body was taken to Rosebud Hospital where Dr John Craig was summoned to officially pronounce life extinct.
When old rival, Melbourne premiership captain Noel McMahen heard the news, he was stunned, and recalled a conversation they had once had.
“I said, ‘Coley, why are you in such a hurry? What are you pushing things for?’ He said, ‘Macca, I don’t think I’m going to make old bones.’ I said, ‘Jeez, why would you say that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, but I just want to get things done.’”