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Hope springs from devastation

Hope springs from devastation

News presenter Ron Wilson has never forgotten the generosity he experienced from The Salvation Army following aftermath of Cyclone Tracy

Forty years ago this Christmas Day, Cyclone Tracy roared through Darwin destroying Australia’s northern-most city.

Sixty-five people died, hundreds were injured and 30,000 of Darwin’s 49,000 population were left homeless.

National television and radio news presenter Ron Wilson – then a 20-year-old radio rookie – and his family survived the cyclone, but lost their home and everything else.

The Salvation Army was there providing crisis support for Ron and his family. The shared experience launched a close relationship between Ron and The Salvation Army. In the 40 years that have followed, Ron has remained a supporter of The Salvation Army.

Ron has been the face and voice of many Salvation Army promotional events, including Red Shield Appeal launches, and has made personal appearances to promote the Army’s work.

He says he will always make himself available to support the Salvos because of what they did for him and his family in Tracy’s aftermath.

Ron WilsonRon and his family – parents and one brother – had been living in Darwin for four years before Tracy struck. They had immigrated to Australia from Northern Ireland, living first in Melbourne and then Darwin.

He was acutely aware of the coming cyclone as Christmas 1974 approached. Ron was an announcer working on Darwin’s 8DN radio station. He had been broadcasting warnings for several days.

But Tracy was far more ferocious than first anticipated.

The Wilson family home was just one street back from the beach on Darwin’s most northern suburb. It took a direct hit. As early morning Christmas Day winds intensified and their house shook, Ron and his family sought refuge beneath mattresses on the lounge room floor.

Agonising hours passed as they heard the horrid sounds of smashing glass and stripping of timber.

As they reappeared from beneath the mattresses, they discovered their home was gone.

Even today, Ron finds it difficult to retell the story. It still emits strong emotion.

“Within 24 hours of Tracy’s havoc, The Salvation Army was on the streets,” Ron remembers.

“Simple things; but things we needed right then and there … food, clothes, a helping hand … a smile and encouragement to keep going,” he says.

“The Salvos stuck it out with us in the miserable conditions with no electricity, no running water, no sewerage facilities, in the oppressively humid heat and drizzling rain in the weeks that followed.”

Within two months, Ron and his mother were on an evacuation flight to Sydney. His father remained in Darwin to help rebuild, while his brother had left for Canberra and university enrolment.

The only possessions Ron and his mother had on arrival in Sydney were the clothes they were wearing and a few more in a small bag.

“As ever, the Salvos were at Sydney Airport when we touched down,” Ron says. “We spent the next six weeks at the East Hills migrant hostel. It was a very frustrating time – no money of our own, no job, no friends; just bad memories.

“The Salvos seemed well aware of the risk of depression and through their daily visits encouraged us on all of the positives that lay ahead.

“Salvation Army officers [pastors] visited us every day, without fail. Each day they handed us a $20 bill. It doesn’t sound like much today, but it was enough for treats like a bar of chocolate.

“It also allowed me to work a nearby public phone into overtime trying to track down a job.”

Ron was successful in finding a radio job at Wollongong station 2WL (now WaveFM).

“A week later, the Salvos arranged for mum and me to travel to Wollongong, where we were met by a Salvation Army officer who had rented us a unit and paid the first month’s rent.

“The unit building was brand new. It was probably better accommodation than I had ever lived in before. Not only that, but it was furnished – all brand new furniture. Never once was I asked to fill out a form, prove my need or given a lecture.

“It was just friendship and help. Eventually, we rebuilt our family and our lives. And that is why I will always do whatever, whenever, for the Salvos.”

Ron has since had a highly successful media career, including a 30-year association with TEN 10 as news presenter on the channel’s national breakfast program and evening news, and presenting news broadcasts on several Sydney radio stations.

He is currently breakfast newsreader on the NOVA FM national radio network.

Story by Bill Simpson. Photo of Ron by Shairon Paterson.

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