Good mates Coralee Lever and Frank De Lacy were brought together by fate it would seem. The pair have bonded closely during the past decade in a story that is sadly part tragedy, but inspiringly more about courage in the face of adversity, friendship, community spirit and renewal. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

By GRANT MAENAD

IN 1996, Coralee Lever’s husband Dennis was killed during the infamous Port Arthur massacre. He was one of the 35 people killed that day – April 28, 1996 – by deranged lone gunman Martin John Bryant.

Another 23 were wounded.

In the years following the event that shocked the world, Coralee has found the inner strength and courage to lift herself out of tragedy and dedicate her life to helping others.

For those who might not know, Coralee calls Red Cliffs home, and she runs a business there – a jewellers and gift shop known as Lever’s of Red Cliffs.

This story could be seen as beginning on that tragic day at Port Arthur, but Coralee would rather recall it beginning two years later, when Dennis was posthumously awarded a bravery  medal for saving her life on that dreadful April day.

That was Coralee’s initial contact with the Australian Bravery Association (ABA), an event that was to leave a lasting impression, and awaken a desire to do more, forever changing her life for the better.

Of her husband, Coralee says, “He was my world.” Of losing him in such tragic circumstances she says, “You never get over it. You just learn to live with it.”

And, on joining the ABA, she says it is “one of the best things I have ever done.”

“I wanted to do something to help others,” she said. “I believe life is what you make of it…and my life role is to help others.

“Working with the ABA is very rewarding.”

The organisation has become her ‘family,’ and she has been ABA national president Victoria/Tasmania since 2007.

And Coralee has been working with Mildura’s Frank De Lacy since then too.

The introduction was made by Frank’s son-in-law – Mildura policeman Gary Leerson.

At that time Frank, a keen wood-worker, was making beautiful red gum pieces to mark varied milestones for Mildura police members.

And Coralee, through her business, was often engraving the commemorative plaques to go on them.

She had Frank make one of his red gum creations in memory of her husband, and then had a light bulb moment. So impressed with the quality of Frank’s work, and the resulting pieces, Coralee had Frank make a larger special, one-off, honeycomb red gum perpetual trophy.

It became the Dennis Lever Award, and recognises an outstanding individual who has worked hard helping others and/or promoting the ABA.

Each year a new name is added to that trophy, and Coralee is humbled that one of those inscriptions is for her.

They (the ABA) were very sneaky about that, she recalls.

She had no idea it was happening, and the surprise was complete. The Dennis Lever Award was presented by the ABA national president at a black tie dinner in Melbourne in February.

This year’s recipient was Tony Hall, who Coralee says has worked tirelessly for the ABA.

There is also another ABA perpetual trophy – the ‘Our Brave Youth of the Year Award’ – and it is another of Frank’s pieces, Coralee explained.

“It is sponsored by Dr Geoffrey Boyce, an honorary surgeon,” she said. “A special committee considers potential young recipients from across Australia each year for this award.”

Coralee explained that bravery recipients are from all walks of life, with just three other Port Arthur survivors being members of the Australian Bravery Association. And to give you some idea just how much the ABA has become like a family to Coralee, she annually hosts a get-together of award recipients at Red Cliffs.

“We spend a long weekend together,” she says.

While they’re here, the medal recipients are treated to a five-star Sunraysia experience, including a civic reception, a good look around the district, and a Sunday casserole lunch hosted by Coralee at her home.

The latter is a firm favourite amongst her visitors.

The ‘long weekend experience’ is something she has done for more than a decade, and another way Coralee has found of giving back to “a very deserving group of people.”

But back to the red gum awards. Unfortunately, age catches up with all of us, and Frank has had to give up making the red gum pieces for Coralee.

It was a labour of love Frank says, but getting harder by the year. And he reluctantly relinquished the job.

Enter the Sunraysia Men’s Shed.

Shed members are now crafting the red gum memorials for Coralee, but still under the watchful eye of Frank, who is a shed member.

Coralee is full of praise for the new partnership, and that Frank is still actively involved.

It is a classic win-win for all concerned.

Sunraysia Men’s Shed publicity officer Alan Cameron said shed members had recently constructed a red gum trophy for Frank.

It was presented at a low-key ceremony attended by family and his fellow ‘sheddies’ this week.

“It was our way of recognising his efforts during the past decade making the ABA trophies – by his own hand, in his own shed, in his own time,” Alan said. “He used a hand saw to cut the red gum!”

That takes determination, sweat and time, Alan said shaking his head.

The trophy is also a way of recognising Frank’s value as a Men’s Shed member.

“He is a great bloke to have around,” Alan said. “Frank’s always wearing a smile, and enjoys a good joke.”

As much as the shed members enjoy Frank’s company, the feeling is mutual.

“We have a great bunch of blokes here,” he says.

And they are keen to continue making the red gum awards for the ABA. They can often be found, under Frank’s watchful gaze, with their “heads down and backsides up” crafting the coming year’s awards.

Moving the production of the pieces from Frank’s shed to the Men’s Shed has been a smooth transition, and Frank is thankful that the tradition will live on in the capable hands of his shed mates.