|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: February 9, 1994
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Smoky are you still a Catholic?
[Laughs] No, not any more but I respect the Catholic religion and I think there is a wonderful lot of goodness in it, a lot of lessons to be learned and one is that keeping the family together. And I think that the respect of someone greater than yourself: God. I think it's there and the one's that I've seen in the families of Catholics have been very devout. But I look back with affection on that and the days of St. Vincent de Paul Boys' Orphanage, who I'll be going back to see very shortly. That was my grooming in life. Yeah, it'll always be there.
You think of the good part of that rather than the beatings?
[Laughs] Well, I look at St. Vincent's as the beginning of life, learning how to control myself and learn respect and learn how to cope with things. It's very good you know. You know the ... Even the confessions, when we had to go to confession, and you'd see them all lined up. Little boys would go in the little box there and you see a little trickle running our where he'd peed himself, you know, with fright. And I was about the same too. I'd go in there and I was so ... I was so intent to make sure that my soul was unblemished that I'd tell the priest things I had done, which I hadn't. He'd say, 'My son, what have you to tell me?' And I said, 'Oh, I swore'. 'How many times?' 'Oh, about sixteen'. [Laughs] I'd finish making up things. He said, 'Well that wasn't very nice of you. Well you can do the Stations of the Cross on your knees', or 'Three Hail Mary's and one Our Father'. And don't forget, I was always taught that if you pass a man of the cloth in the street, you always raised your hat. But of course the day's come when nobody wore hats anymore so I got out of that one. But I always remembered my catechism and I ... [PHONE AND SLATE]
So why did the boy, who was baptised by Archbishop Mannix, give away Catholicism?
[Laughs] Well, after many many years, I was asked one day by a great friend of mine, was I a member of the 'craft'. And I didn't know what the 'craft' was. I said, 'Oh, a member of the 'craft'?" Then he said, 'Oh, I'm sorry', and I was to learn. He asked me was I a Mason. And when he told me that he said, 'Would you like to be? Have you ever thought about it?' And I said, 'Well, it seems a great way of life. Tell me a little bit more about it'. He said, 'Well, we can't tell you everything because you'll ... There is a lot of surprise in it but let's say it makes a good man a better man, to make something of your life, so in other words you have to be a good man in the first place or I'd never have asked you'. And so that's how I joined Lodge St. Ives and I went right through the whole thing, took my degrees and finally become the Master of the Lodge. And from then on I went into other degrees of Masonry, ''til I finished up in Seventh or Eighth Chairs and I finished up with a Thirtieth degree. Then I went to America and they made me a Knight Mason of the United States.
What was ...
... by the Grand Master of South Carolina.
What was it that attracted you to Masonry?
The great thing of Masonry is ... and of course, it's misunderstood by a lot of people. There ... It is not a religion, and the difference between that and why there is always a difference between the Catholic religion and Masonry is because Masonry believes in the brotherhood of man on all levels, despite his religion or his creed, [or] whatever. They are all respected. He's on the one level so they don't discriminate between men. And it is a kind of philosophy of life you might say. You certainly learn how to read. You certainly know how to get up and propose a toast and respond. You know the usage of words. You know how to enjoy beautiful charges: things that have been written hundreds and hundreds of years ago and have stood the test of time. And [some of] the greatest men in the world, even kings on their thrones, have given up that to take on being a Mason. I found my life with Masonry was a wonderful brotherhood of men that would do anything for you and their charity is not something that is known widely because they don't advertise, but they raise millions and millions and millions and strangely enough the people who [benefit] are not all Masons. It's generally people who are destitute, not Masons at all. It's a great way of life and I still go around to my meetings and I've had ... and you'll find from out of that emerges great people like Rotary, who have learnt 'Go forth you've learned what to do now, go out and practice it'. And you never say nasty things about people. Say nothing, be silent, and having said that, I still join the Terry Hills Rotary Club as their Honorary Member and I've been with them ... the Hillbillies ever since. And I know that life has been very much enriched since I've been into these communities, raising funds and all this kind of thing, and mixing with those sort of people. It's been a great world.
What do you believe about God?
Well, God is a word that is really interpreted as goodness. God is goodness and, of course, there's nothing wrong with goodness, is there? We could do a lot of that in the world today. If I remember back when I was learning in my Bible History, God is everywhere but we cannot see him and so that is ... that's the spiritual force within us and I always carry that with me, so that gives me a lot of consolation and a lot of hope, a lot of faith. The three fundamentals of life is faith, hope and charity and that's how Dot and I live today, by those three fundamental values.
What do you think about your own death? You've been to a lot of funerals [Smokey laughs] and you must think sometimes, what will it be like when I go? What do you think it will be like?
Well, I ... now that's a question. You can expect that anytime. I've had some near misses. I haven't thought about it. Oh, I hope that I have behind a legacy. I hope that I have left behind something that will benefit mankind, that will be remembered as goodness, that has helped some kid understand. There's probably somebody may find me as a model, a role to follow on and probably perfect for better. I don't know. All I know that is, if I do go, that there is a place where we do meet again. And not without thinking there is another life, because as we can't understand the nature of space and all that, we are so naive in that way that anything is possible, isn't it?
Are you afraid of death at all? Are you afraid of death?
I was once. No. I have a great respect for it ,and I nod off as it is now. I often go ahead for an hour and that could have been that way. If I were to fear anything and ... it wouldn't be just death, it would be what happened before death, and I would hope that I would have the strength, like some of the men I know in my time, like Fred Hollows for argument sake, who had that wonderful strength within him before he died, to die graciously. I think I shall do that. I have been to ... beside the bedside of many men dying and holding their hands and squeezing their hands as they went. I know that they have found some confidence and some feeling of hope, even me being there. I hope that somebody will be there with me when I go. There is one thing that I would like, that I'll always be with Dottie.
Looking back over your whole life, what do you think has been the hardest thing for you to do?
Well, I don't know about that. What has been the hardest? They've all been milestones. They've all been mountains, that being my signature: climb the highest mountain you know. There'll always be a mountain. I think the hardest thing that we ever ... and I have to bring Dot into this because whatever I've done, Dot has shared with me, you see. And that was to start that ranch off and get that going and to endure the time we were on it, all that time, to be able to survive and never to go into debt. I can say that we've never borrowed in our lives. We've never mortgaged in our lives and whatever we've had, we've made do with what we had. This whole house here has been furnished on little bits and pieces - my collections and things that I've made myself and what we did buy was when we had the money to buy it. But we bought the house first and paid for it before we had the furniture. We slept on the floor in the early days. Got an old mattress. We ate off packing cases. The great Smoky Dawson, they'd all ... The carts would go by here from the Council, [and] all these guys would pull their hats down over them, making themselves look like cowboys and all be singing 'ridin'. They didn't know that Smoky was here sitting on a kerosene case but you see I was half the time out, didn't matter. I didn't need chairs to sit on right then because I was in a studio recording my series, so today what we have here is all paid for and a couple of Dawson chairs thrown in. [Laughs]
And having built up the ranch which was hard work, you then lost it in the fire. How did that happen?
That was devastating. That looked like it was the last thing, that really came out of the blue. It was one of these days and I remember it very well because the big company that were building the Entertainment Centre, Holland and Company, were up there at the ranch and they'd hired out my ranch to have their annual big picnic, break up - Christmas break up. And they had my band up there playing. It was a wonderful day but a very, very hot day and Reg Grundy was up there shooting a scene from Secret Valley. It was a series which he was going to make there and we were down in Luke's Kingdom, the frontier town, that we had there - a wonderful town, where we made Glenn Campbell Down Under with Olivia Newton-John and lot of other shows and the day was over and that night I smelled smoke. I looked across the hills and I could see flames down in the Kuringai Chase and then the wind came up and it was coming from the east, the west, the north and south. It was chopping and changing: [a] violent kind of wind and the next think I knew, the fire had broken up around near the Baha'i Temple which is only, on the same mountain as to me, and we had all these ... all my horses out in the ring and Roger Mirons, who was shooting down below, grabbed his camera and the film crew ran for their lives. Got out before the flames got there. Virtually speaking, there were pieces of branches of trees coming down over the top of us. The sky was red above us and we were in radiation. There was a telegraph pole about 200 yards away that burst into flame. There wasn't a tree near it. It was just out on sand, [but it] burst into flame [from] radiation. All we do ... We ran into Jerry Aafjy's next door, which was a big sand pit ... It had a big water hole and we wet ourselves. Threw all the horses in there - kept running them around and the police came and said, 'You've got to leave or you'll be cooked', because the flames were going over the troughs of Mona Vale Road. The fire fighters come up on the hill and they tried to get water from our tank and I only had a spring, that I fed ... that I had my horses on and they emptied the tank in one go, and the next thing they saw the flames all around. They saved the top of the tower and they saw it heading down toward Luke's Kingdom so they rushed down there, and there was this vacuum of nothing and then all of a sudden this great fireball just hit one of the buildings and literally blew it apart so a six tonne of bark just went up like a mushroom cloud. And I ... Matter of fact, I got a copy of a film the ABC took of that same ... there's Smoky's ranch going and there's mine going up like it was an atom bomb. It had created just a turbulence unknown, and trees were thrown to one side. And the next thing I had was just a blackened mass. There wasn't even a piece of charcoal. Everything I had in my carts and all the things I'd had for years and years in this great wonderful frontier town ... It was so wonderful, and had been used in so many films, and it was part of my income there, because I used to use it for tourism. And so ...
Was it properly insured?
No, they didn't insure that part of it at all, you see. In fact, the greater part of my place wasn't insured - only the saddlery and things like that, so when it came down to ... for compensation, the powers to be came up to us from Warringah Shire and said, 'Unfortunately you don't live here. It's not your residence', and you know, but, you know, it was my place of work and I'd raised millions of dollars there for the Shire over the years with Apex. Every weekend we'd be ... we were with something like Foundation 41, Multiple Sclerosis, the Autistic Children. We were in the forefront of everything, giving everything we had: our pony rides, not for percentages, but the lot. We worked for charity. They always had the fire brigade. The bushfire brigade used to have their annual picnics up there and have barbeques. The President of the Shire would come up. Everybody used my place but when it came to the point of compensation, we didn't come into that category. They were only just giving to the people who lost their homes, so there I was, and I just said to Dot, 'Oh well, we can always start again', and she said, 'Yeah, but how? How?'
And what was the answer to that?
Well, once again, this is the same thing, the good Lord must have thought, Smoky it's time for a change. You've been too long there doing one thing. [Laughs] So tears went ... We both were home here sobbing and looking at all our years go down the drain, all our memories and all the places that we valued so much and people used to come up there and ... all come up as visitors to see where the fire was - not to ride a horse. We had a few ponies and [they] didn't want to bother about a fifty cent ride on one, and that disgusted my wife. She said, 'All they want to is just come and look, so let's get out of it. At least there is one thing we don't have to worry about any more - the land tax for our amusement park'. So I had a great friend in Lee Bottrell, a great journalist there on News Limited and he was a great one for me and I had a lot of write-ups from Lee. 'The ol' spoke ... the ol' Smoke's on fire, but he won't give up', and he rang me and he said, 'I've got a place for your horses', and he told me about Lee Holm Hyperians Thoroughbred Stud out at St. Mary's and he said, 'These people are wonderful and they want to give you a fifty acre pasteurised paddock free, for your horses. They're going to send out a big float and take them all over there and spend their days there'. So that's when I got back into show business again. And I went over there and there was ol' Flash - he was in between You Bet I Do and Radio and Echo and these horses were winning great races, and Flash was eating up what they left over. He got very fat, spoiled but he ... Although he was ... He'd been gelded, he still kept his stallion characteristics and they always used him for teasing the mares [Laughs] 'til the day he died. He dropped dead at thirty-five, getting in a shampoo. And I'd just come home with a nice rug for him for winter and they rang me up and said, 'It's too late, he's just died'. That was a bit of a wrench. I had Flash for all those years. So Flash went and do you know all the other horses ... When Flash died we buried him there and [there was] a feller on the road, who was grading the road, and we ran out and said, 'Could we have a lend of your grader', I said, 'The ol' horse has died'. He said, 'Smoky Dawson, God [when] I used to be a kid I used to listen. I'd love to do it', and he got in and he put him on his big scoop and he said, 'I won't hurt him'. He put him on nice and gentle and we put him down in the pit. I grew a crab apple tree over the top of him like I've got one here. And all the other horses came round the ring and watched it: the ceremony. They're such strange things - horses. They go quiet all of a sudden when one dies and all my ponies died there on that ... out at Lee Holm Stud. Now those horses should be very grateful to Terry Mulville and Allen Gainey and the syndicate.
What would you like to tell children today? You were such a character for the children of years ago. What would be the thing that you would most like to leave behind as a thought that you have for how to live, today?
Well I think they should try to live like Smoky the cowboy, you know. Look for a climb: climb a mountain. Go for the highest one. You know, life is made up of many adversities and I always tell kids, you know, without adversity, there's no achievement, so why not go for the big adversity. Look for one, look for the trouble and look for the great success you get out of it. That's what you want and go for those high mountains and don't forget my old Codes of the West: don't forget to honour your mum and respect your mothers and your parents for all they are and what they are, and don't forget your friends, and don't forget your country and don't forget the old flag too. Because we do, when we march on Anzac Day, and I think if you do that, and have a little thought for your neighbour and your friend and try and help people, you'll have achieved a lot in your life time. That's what I'd say to the kids and I think that should make them feel pretty good.
Out of your life Smoky do you have anything that you really regret, that you wish you'd done differently?
Ahh, regrets? No, no regrets. As a matter of fact, if I'd ever thought of living my life over again, I don't think I'd really change anything because it's an experience that has been singled out for me. Everybody has a life planned for them, you know. It's in the process and I was destined to meet Dot. Always, every one of these things have turned to some lead off in a direction where I've got over that obstacle, that adversity and made it my goal. So the pattern is there, and I wouldn't want to change it because life is made up of those, as I say, dynamics. It's light and shade and along the way we've been able to experience all the joys as well as the sorrows. Today we are looking at a great happy world I live in - a sad world for many, but I think we can make it brighter by the simple philosophies of life, by getting up, perhaps writing a song too. Writing songs has a great value in life because when you write a song, particularly, your lyrics come first of course with a message, and then you transport it into the minds of other people and it becomes their's too. So from a record it becomes what you have planned and thought, becomes the lifestyle of other people. That's a wonderful privilege to have in your life - to be able to have that opportunity of being able to write a song. So it's very important that what you say ... what you say means something. I believe in word power. I believe in using the right word although I've been corrected many times by Dottie who says, 'The word should be such and such', and she says, 'It's very hard for you to be brief'. [Laughs] But of course, I'm me: that's Smoky, not Herb. [Laughs]
Smoky not Herb. So you in many ways, created yourself?
Yes, I have created Smoky and I look on Smoky as I share with Dot in our bank accounts, the Smoky Dawson account, shared by Florence Dawson and Herbert Henry Dawson. It is a business name and I often look with affection on that old Smoky [Laughs] because there's a lot of people using my name today too. Anybody by the name of Dawson, they adopt themselves as Smoky. We're one of the cricket, don't we? Graham. We've got Gary Gossum, the golfer, who I read ... who I met very recently, who's been more or less ... he's been my fan for years, and out there, there would be many colonel's and even cats and dogs. I know when I got the MBE and I went down to Government House to be invested, as I walked up the red carpet, and my name was called out, Herbert Henry Dawson, and by the time I got there, he said, 'Affectionately known as Smoky', and everybody looked up: oh, Smoky. And he lent over to me as he pinned medal on me and he said, 'We named our dog after you'. [Laughs] So Smoky is a very important name indeed. And I often think ... and it only come to me the other day, if I hadn't been born, all these Dawsons around wouldn't be called Smoky. Now they are very lucky indeed that I was born. [Laughs]
How would you most like to be remembered?
As just an ordinary bloke, as a kid who grew up with a bit of hate here and there, that found his way, that went through his life and valued life and never forgot to look back at somebody he might have forgotten. And always to remember those who helped you along the way. And have a thought for those throughout the world, too, that are in desperate need and even if you only save one, it's well worthwhile. Our short term on life is so brief, that we have a lot of work to be done, but you know, being together like this, we can all achieve it by the multitude all adopting that attitude. If everybody followed that bit of philosophy I'd be very happy indeed. Maybe I'll be looking down and say, 'Well, done there, well done'.
[end of interview]