A MAN of compassion, a trailblazer for the indigenous community, a champion policeman, an excellent footballer and a dedicated father is how Merv Atkinson is being remembered by those closest to him.
Mr Atkinson lost his long battle with illness at the weekend at the age of just 60, but his legend will long live on in the hearts and minds of those he helped along the way.
IN 2008 MERV ATKINSON SAT DOWN WITH THE COURIER. THE INTERVIEW IN FULL IS AT THE BOTTOM THIS PAGE
From his time in the police force, through to his involvement with Koori youth, Mr Atkinson was a trailblazer, a man who did not let his own upbringing distract him from looking out for others.
Born on a mission on the New South Wales side of the Murray River, Mr Atkinson and his brothers would be removed from their home and brought in a Ballarat orphanage.
At the age of 17, he joined the police force, starting in Melbourne's western suburbs at VFL games and even a few concerts at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, before he arrived back in Ballarat.
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Long time colleague and friend Sergeant Peter Anderson said everyone knew his great friend.
"He was very identifiable, very recognisable and a very very good policeman," Sergeant Anderson said.
"He was widely respected. I can't recall ever hearing a negative comment both internally or within the community. Whenever you speak of Merv Atkinson, it is spoken with absolute respect."
But away from the force, Mr Atkinson proved just as effective, working with the Aboriginal Cooperative in Ballarat before becoming involved with the Grampians Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee (RAJAC) where he was instrumental in the creation of the Blues and Brothers initiative which allowed indigenous youth get involved with the Murray River Marathon.
Partner of almost 27 years, Heather said Mr Atkinson was a great role model.
"He was community minded, he was interested in social justice. He helped with so many Aboriginal children and so many of those children went on to great jobs," she said.
Mr Atkinson had suffered from kidney failure from his early 40s, which had required him to use dialysis, however, despite his illness he maintained his solid work ethic for many years, including his work with RAJAC.
He is survived by his partner Heather, children Ben, Hayden and Darcy and grandson Noah.
MERV ATKINSON INTERVIEW 2008
Where did you grow up Merv?
I was born in Swan Hill and grew up in the mission on the New South Wales side of Swan Hill. One day, four or five of us were removed by police and locked up overnight in police cells. We fronted up to the children's court and became wards of the state. We were part of the Stolen Generation. This was about 1963/64. I would have been about four or five.
What do you remember from that day?
I remember being fed pie and chips and having a blanket to sleep on. Then, being taken across to the courthouse the next day. We were transferred, I think by train, to Mildura to some orphanage-type thing. We were transferred from there to Ballarat to the orphanage here. I was kept together with my four brothers.
What were you told when you were taken away?
They didn't tell you anything and I didn't ask. The comforting thing about it was that you knew you were going to be fed and clothed and educated.
What happened then?
I went to school at Central Tech. I enjoyed school, played a lot of footy, basketball and tennis.
How did you feel about the orphanage?
I loved it. It was good, probably because, although the orphanage kids weren't exactly family, they were like your brothers anyway. If you misbehaved you certainly copped a flogging. If I wasn't educated at the orphanage, fed and clothed there, then I wouldn't be where I am today. That's the way I look at it. Sure, it has taken away the cultural side of my life. I am in the process of re-learning all of that again. The relationship that you have with other members of your family and your parents is not like your average family and I still don't have that connection.
Did you see your parents while you were in the orphanage?
Occasionally you would be dressed up and told your parents were coming to visit. Sometimes they didn't turn up and you would cry yourself to sleep because you are only a young kid. After a while it became ''if they turned up, they turned up''.
Have you had much to do with your family in the years since?
My dad was a dam builder and a shearer. He came to Ballarat for two years and we formed a relationship, then he unfortunately passed away from cancer. My mother is still alive. She lives in Swan Hill. I have a brother in Ballarat who I have a lot to do with.
How did you come to join the police force?
I was playing football with some policemen out at Buninyong and they were pretty good guys. They said ''what are you going to do with your life?''. I said, ''I haven't got a bloody clue''. They told me to join the police force. I heard a whole lot of other kids from Ballarat were doing the same thing and I thought ''why not?''. I finished school and on my 17th birthday I joined the police cadets. I graduated in October, 1977.
What did you do in the force?
I went into Russell St and did city traffic patrol and later worked with a squad that did all of the VFL matches and also rock concerts at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. I got to see Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, Thin Lizzy and Sherbet. Then I worked at Maidstone and went back to Ballarat in 1981. In 1987, I transferred to the district firearms unit in Ballarat and stayed there until I resigned in 2001.
What stands out in your memory from your time in the force?
I arrested a man at gunpoint who had stabbed a woman 97 times in Wendouree. I also remember the camaraderie of the membership was pretty good. It was also enjoyable and rewarding in terms of apprehending an offender, and taking them to court.
What did you do after life as a policeman?
I worked for the Aboriginal Cooperative in Ballarat for a while and then became involved with the Grampians Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee. I also found out I had kidney failure from a disease called scleroderma. I am on kidney dialysis and I've got to lose about eight or nine kilos to go on an active waiting list for a kidney. One in every 250,000 people get this disease. I am only the second Aboriginal person in Australia to get it.
How did you come up with the Blues and Brothers initiative?
The police and the Department of Human Services came to us and said there was this issue with Koori kids in Horsham, who were out 'til 3am and committing a whole lot of crime. Because of their age, the system doesn't seem to be able to do anything with them. I had a think about things and tried to put my police experience into how I could tackle this Koori community issue. We formed a Wimmera Koori Police Youth Group and also a Ballarat Koori Police Youth Group. The kids own the program. They decide what activities they want to do and make all of the arrangements. The police go along and participate and they work together and do a lot of sporting activities and have guest speakers. I paddled in the Red Cross Murray River Marathon in 1987 and thought this would be a good idea for the kids. We entered the first Blues and Brothers team in the 404km marathon, from Tocumwal to Swan Hill, four years ago.
How does the experience help the kids?
There are 26 paddlers in our team of 50 people and a police officer and a Koori youth are in each kayak. They swap over regularly but along the way they have to find out as much as they can about each other. At night, there are cultural activities. This year we finished first and second in the RK2 section. Out of all of the 55 kids that have gone through the program, not one of them has entered the criminal justice system. It's about police and Koori kids communicating, learning about each other and earning a bit of trust, then moving forward. Four of those kids now work for the Department of Justice.