• Legends of Australian Sport (L-R) Kyle Vander Kuyp, Kurtley Beale, Lloyd McDermott Mullenjaiwakka (C), Scott Johnson, Gary Ella. (Supplied)
Tributes flowed this week for a giant of Australian Rugby Union and a pioneer amongst Australia's legal fraternity, the late Mullenjaiwakka Lloyd McDermott, 1939-2019.
By
Julie Nimmo

20 Apr 2019 - 4:36 PM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2019 - 7:28 PM

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following contains images of deceased persons.

A revered Elder of our community was laid to rest this week. 

At his service, Mullenjaiwakka Lloyd McDermott was remembered as an inspirational man who indelibly changed our nation for the better, demonstrating excellence as an elite athlete and an intellectual, having studied the law and science. He fluently spoke German and Latin, he wore a barristers wig and for pleasure played jazz on the guitar.

While Lloyd McDermott personally achieved so much, his efforts were not focused on building personal wealth. All that he gained he shared; his passion was to provide others with opportunities to succeed. 

"Lloyd got one opportunity and that's all he needed." said his daughter, Ms Phillipa McDermott.

As a young man Lloyd McDermott proudly represented Australia on the sporting field, but he refused to ever pretend he was a white man.  He was a proud Mununjali and Wakka Wakka man who carried his origins into every sector of his life, including the NSW Supreme Court where the Chief Justice formally recognised him as Mullenjaiwakka Lloyd McDermott.

Powerhouse parents and a sports loving son

Born in 1939 in the town of Eidsvold, central Queensland where the Burnett River flows, Lloyd was the only child of Clive and Violet McDermott. Their precious baby arrived at the end of the Great Depression, not long after World War 2 had begun. Individuals everywhere were challenged but for Aboriginal Australians the barriers to prosperity and success were immense. 

Eidsvold had been built up in the 1880's as a bustling town populated by gold miners. Today it is home to the Wulli Wulli, Gurang Gurang and Wakka Wakka peoples and is renown for its cattle industry. 

And yet for all the wealth that has flowed through the town over the years, very little of it fell into the laps of the McDermott family.

At the time of Lloyd's childhood the community was segregated, for Aboriginal people like the McDermott's the colour bar was fiercely enforced.    

Segregation in Queensland

"He wasn't allowed to go to school because they wouldn't have Aboriginal kids there." said Ms McDermott, reflecting on the obstacles her family had endured.

And the segregation extended to the supply of food. Ms McDermott recalled "how [the families] had to wait until all the white people had left the shops before they would serve them, if they got served at all."

Standing out in any crowd, young Lloyd was a gifted athlete. He held the Queensland record for the 100 yard sprint for more than ten years. He would tell his daughter "Phil, I had to run twice as fast, just to be their equal."

Lloyd McDermott started school at the relatively late age of 11, but he went on to "complete four degrees at University, speak German and Latin fluently, have an accomplished legal career, an international Rugby career, have two foundations named in his honour, and receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Deadly's which was his most treasured award because it was from his people" said Ms McDermott. 

As a teenager he was sent to a private school, the hopes of his entire family willing him to succeed. "Dad's family saved every single cent they had and then some was given from other relatives to pay for one year's tuition at The Church of England Grammar School" explained Ms McDermott. The following year, he secured a scholarship based on his academic and sporting achievements. 

Ms McDermott remembers her father always acknowledged this amazing act of faith and opportunity. "For one little Murri boy who lived in a tent and didn't go to school until he was 11, he has achieved so much."

Representing Australia Internationally

At the age of 23, after a year of playing Rugby for Queensland, Lloyd McDermott was selected to play as a winger for Australia and tour New Zealand. 

Former Wallaby player, Gary Ella reflected on how this selection shocked the community, "It was a real shock, the fact that an Aboriginal person had come up. He was the first recognised Aboriginal person to play and he played with honour."  

Attending the funeral, President of the Australia Rugby Union, Tim Gavin said "his support for the Wallabies was immense. And his support for young people coming through in all forms of life, both on the Rugby field and in a professional career was a great example to everyone really." 

A pioneer and a legend 

Lloyd McDermott's contribution to the game of Rugby has been memorialised in the Wallaby jersey, Indigenous stripe design. It features an image of a wallaby on the front with symbols for the 14 Indigenous players who have represented Australia - Cecil Ramalli, Lloyd McDermott, Mark Ella, Glen Ella, Gary Ella, Lloyd Walker, Andrew Walker, Jim Williams, Wendell Sailor, Timana Tahu, Anthony Faingaa, Saia Faingaa, Beale Hodgson and Matt Hodgson.

When Rugby Australia announced last year, the Wallabies would wear the striped jersey when they played against England, Lloyd McDermott told the Herald  "It gives me a great sense of pride in being Australian...The fact that it arrived was something very special."

It's anticipated the jersey will be seen on-field again when the Wallabies play in the Rugby World Cup later this year.

Of course when Lloyd McDermott played half a century ago, Australia's identity abroad and at home was very different. National pride in Aboriginal culture was at best, complex. The 1967 Referendum was still five years away. While Australians had enjoyed the movie Jedda and artworks by Albert Namatjira were popular, identifying as a proud Aboriginal man in the early sixties created a career altering moment for Lloyd McDermott. 

   

The cost of boycotting Apartheid 

One year after Lloyd McDermott debuted for Australia, the squad was preparing for their next tour, scheduled for South Africa where it was impossible for an Aboriginal person to travel unless they declared themselves an 'honorary white'. 

The proposition to, in effect, reject his Aboriginal heritage was unacceptable to this 24 year-old. Instead he withdrew from the Australian Rugby Union team.

"That cost him greatly" according to one of he closest friends, Tony McAvoy SC. "He never played for the Wallabies again after he refused to play against South Africa. 

"The message we get from Lloyd is, you can’t be what other people want you to be. I think it’s a lesson we all need to remind ourselves from time to time."

Instead of an illustrious career on field, the young Mununjali and Wakka Wakka man dedicated himself to the law.

Our First Aboriginal Barrister

Completing University in the 1950's, Lloyd McDermott was admitted to the NSW Bar in 1972. "With his admission Lloyd became the first Aboriginal barrister anywhere in Australia." said friend and barrister, Ian Lloyd SC.

The two men shared a 43 year friendship that began when Ian Lloyd moved into rooms next to Lloyd McDermott, at 16 Wardell Chambers. 

"Lloyd was the dispenser of great wisdom to all of his colleagues in Chambers. He also sat as an acting Judge of the District Court and as a part-time Commissioner of the Land & Environment Court, presiding over native title claims when such claims were in their infancy."

He was so deeply and widely admired that he was permitted by the Chief Justice of New South Wales to introduce himself to the court by his traditional name Mullenjaiwakka Lloyd McDermott, a move that Ian Lloyd SC considered "unusual anywhere in the world at that time."

The path to this position of respect was a hard road.  Studying a law degree in Queensland during the 50's, as the only Aboriginal student, would not have been easy according to Tony McAvoy. 

"It was at a time when Qld law still allowed segregation of Aboriginal people in reserves and we suffered greatly from racial discrimination. So the fact the he was able to complete a law degree in a hostile environment and go on to take the next step to become a barrister was enormous.

"It is hard for us, who practice law now to imagine how difficult that would have been." 

Lloyd McDermott had many loyal friends, such as Greg James QC, recalled Mr Lloyd. "Greg admired Lloyd’s wisdom and patience. Whilst president of the Mental Health Review Tribunal, Greg approached Lloyd to sit on the tribunal as a part-time member. Lloyd was happy to do so, and he sat as a valued member of the tribunal for many years, first under Greg’s presidency and then under Dan Howard, SC.

"Lloyd joined the NSW Bar Association to encourage young Aboriginal lawyers to join the NSW Bar. Many have done so and Lloyd was a proud mentor to all of them, and none more so than Tony McAvoy who a few years ago became Australia’s first Aboriginal silk. Lloyd was also was a trustee of the Bar Associations Mum Shirl Fund, a trust set up to assist the bar’s Indigenous members."

 

A white man's awards? No thanks.

The eulogy by Mr Ian Lloyd provided an insight into the personal ethics of Lloyd McDermott. He recalled making an application with his friend, Tony McAvoy to have their esteemed colleague considered for an Order of Australia.

"We submitted the necessary paperwork, but when the Governor General’s Secretary rang Lloyd to confirm that he was happy to receive the award, Lloyd politely rejected it. No “white man’s award” for me, Lloyd said."

Family friend, Mr McAvoy reflected on his mentor's capacity for humility. "One of the things that happens when you take on important positions such as a barrister, is that a lot of people will treat you differently and it's easy to get swept up in all of that. 

"Lloyd taught me how you fulfil that role of leadership without letting it get to your head, to remain humble and don’t ever let yourself think you are better than your mob." Mr McAvoy shared with a warm smile.

A dedicated philanthropist

Many will remember the man for his commitment to young people.  In 1991 he founded the Lloyd McDermott Rugby Development Team, or 'Lloydies' as they are fondly known, to raise the rate of participation in Rugby of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders players by offering educational scholarships and mentoring.

Their focus is to connect rugby with education, and prepare young people for leadership.

 

After the funeral service, President of the Lloyd McDermott Rugby Development Team and former Wallaby player, Gary Ella spoke to NITV and said "Lloydie has been a great friend of mine since 1991.

"He's been an inspiration to me and thousands of young Aboriginal people. He gave so many of us opportunities to improve our education, our career opportunities, and... just being a better person. He’s going to be sorely missed."

 

In honour of Lloyd McDermott's impact on the game and players, past and present, this week the Queensland Reds played in South Africa wearing black armbands. 

Before the game, a tribute was read to the players in the changerooms, which closed with this; 

He never got the opportunity to play in South Africa, but tonight you get the chance to play for him and embrace the spirit of ‘Mullenjaiwakka’ as you all run out on the field.  Tonight, we play for Lloyd.

The Queensland team tribute moved Ms McDermott to tears when she heard the news. 

The Queensland Reds enjoyed a narrow win against the Durban Sharks, scoring 21-17 at the home ground in Durban.

 

He was a jazz musician trapped in a lawyers body 

Lloyd McDermott's daughter Phillipa spoke of her father's love for music, "it was playing all the time; jazz, Motown, R&B", adding, the soundtrack to her life was "Frank, Ella, Billy, Sarah, Dianna, The Duke, Nat, Louie, Charlie P, Donny and Roberta, Stevie...And they saw lots of live music starting with one of his dearest friends, Johnny Nicol."

Sharing rooms at the Wardell Chambers in Sydney with his life long friend, Ian Lloyd SC remembered "Lloyd was a man of many skills. Frequently Lloyd would leave Wardell Chambers in the evening and head up to Kings Cross, where he played guitar with the Johnny Nicol jazz band.

"On other occasions he would head home and study for his post graduate degrees in law and science."

"I frequently greeted Lloyd with the comment “black is back”. His response was always the same “it never went away”.

 

At home Ms McDermott remembered "he'd get out his guitar and play us a few numbers. We'd pretend we were Dianna Ross and the Supremes.

"Dad lived it large and no one had a better time than Mullenjaiwakka Lloyd McDermott. He loved the Cross, where all the action was, the Bourbon and Beef Steak was a regular haunt, sometimes he'd be sitting with the band.

"At heart he was a jazz musician trapped in a lawyer's body." said Ms McDermott.

 

ARU President, Tim Gavin fondly told NITV "he was loved by many. He was such a charismatic character, people always warmed to him, he’ll be sadly missed. I am very sad."

After the service, Mr McAvoy said "I think Mullenjaiwakka Lloyd McDermott led by example, telling us to be proud and strong and to be true to ourselves. And by doing that he was able to lead a rich and full and happy life." 

One of the many life lessons he passed on to his daughter, "He taught me about our people and to be proud of our incredible endurance and resilience. He was loyal and he loved our people.

"He was magnificent, hilarious, brave and kind. A job well done. Godspeed Dad."