Torney family remembers Ballarat leader

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John Wystan Harris remembers his grandfather, horse racing identity and Ballarat leader Geoff Torney, as a man who would count his family not by blood but by the breadth of his community. 

The former partner of Byrne Jones Torney died on Wednesday night.

He is survived by his wife of 58 years Janet (nee Byrne), five children and 14 grandchildren. 

Geoff Torney remembered:

Today the family of Geoffrey William Torney will mourn his passing, a man who drew in all who met him with his generous spirit, wry smile and quick laugh. Unlike most, his family will not be counted by his blood but by his breadth of the community he loved. To know Geoff Torney was to become his family.

Geoffrey William Torney was born on the 29th of March 1935 at Ballarat hospital. He was raised in Waubra with his older sister, Noreen, until he was eleven and his parents George Torney and Mary McDonald moved to Ballarat. Geoff remembered that on moving to the metropolis of Ballarat from the rural Waubra, the family knew no one other than his mother’s bridesmaid.

Geoff Torney and Janet Torney in 2012. Picture: Kate Healy.

Geoff Torney and Janet Torney in 2012. Picture: Kate Healy.

Attending St Patrick’s College Ballarat, Geoff excelled as a public speaker and in debating, which surprised neither his parents nor any who knew him in later life. Geoff’s faith in his religion was instilled while he attended St Pat’s. He laterconfessed that he took to the idea largely due to the religious education teacher appealing to his inner punter – prayer todaymay pay significant dividends tomorrow.

In 1953, Geoff travelled to attend Newman College at the University of Melbourne to study law. Here he met Janet Mary Byrne, another law student from Ballarat. Surprisingly, the two had never met. He considered how their initial meeting could have gone very differently had Janet declined his bold offer of only attending a university ball with her if she paid. She did and he perhaps paid ever after.

Geoff and Janet Torney. Picture supplied by the Torney family.

Geoff and Janet Torney. Picture supplied by the Torney family.

Above all the others, his proudest moment was on 3rd January 1959 at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Here he married Janet, a constant companionship and love they shared for the rest of his life.

He graduated, joining the firm of Janet’s father, Thomas Byrne, in Ballarat in 1958. His career in the law provided many opportunities for him to have ‘a wonderful experience of people’. 

He prided himself on making clients and adversaries into friends. It was easy to understand as Geoff had as much tolerance for legalese as the people he represented but was completely unabashed in using it in their favour.

Geoff and Janet Torney with their children and grandchildren. Picture supplied by the Torney family.

Geoff and Janet Torney with their children and grandchildren. Picture supplied by the Torney family.

There was only one other passion that competed with the law and that was horse racing. Luckily, in 1966 he was provided with an opportunity to become the lawyer for the Ballarat Turf Club, an association that led to him becoming Secretary and President.

Sadly, Ballarat lost this man of the turf when the Moonee Valley Racing Club noticed his potential and elected him Chairman, leading to him becoming a founding Director of Racing Victoria.

Throughout life, Geoff gave more than he took from the institutions and people he touched.

Geoff Torney's grandson John Wystan Harris

His early relationship with the Church led to involvement with Aquinas College becoming the Australian Catholic University in Ballarat, with the Ballarat Special School, the Ballarat Courier Charity and many other philanthropic institutions and pursuits.

Geoff’s two great past-times of golf and having a punt were in his words ‘morally rewarding’. A great philosophy contained in both as one is up today and down tomorrow.

This well-led life came with its drawbacks. Given duties of care for a grandchild during one school holidays, Geoff announced that it was time for a walk to the shops to collect lunch.

His times spent in any walk of his life were only measured in his eyes by the people who he met and with whom he shared his time.

Geoff Torney's grandson John Wystan Harris

Shocked that his offer of a quick walk to get a pie or sausage roll was rebuffed, he asked what was wrong. Happily ensconced in front of the TV the reply came, ‘Because it won’t be quick. You’ll stop and say hello to everyone. It’s so boring.’

Throughout life, Geoff gave more than he took from the institutions and people he touched. From Ballarat to the Catholic Church, the racing community and the legal establishment, his personal form guide showed him in credit.

However, nowhere was this more reflected than within his own family. In whatever he did across his passions and duties, his five children and then fourteen grandchildren were his points of constant reference. In later life, the court room and racetrack took a back seat to christenings, birthdays and occasions.

Geoff counted himself rich in the experiences that brought him closer to others. His times spent in any walk of his life were only measured in his eyes by the people who he met and with whom he shared his time. He could have never have known how rich we counted ourselves for having him share his with us.