Milestone Man Norm Makes Coogee History

One Coogee club member recently had plenty to celebrate becoming the longest serving member in the rich history of the proud Sydney club.

Norman Hill affectionately known to all and sundry as “Nob” was honoured at a function in March to celebrate his 76th year of membership at the club. It’s a record that would be difficult to match let alone break, and Hill rightly considers it a very proud achievement.

In many ways Hill is an icon at the Coogee club and he continues to inspire members of all ages who are proud to follow in his footsteps. One of those is current NSW Young Lifesaver of the Year Julien Vincent who had this to say about the club’s longest serving member.

"Nob Hill is an enduring legacy in Coogee Surf Life Saving Club. After being a member for more than 75 years, he's one of our last remaining World War Two veterans and has many great stories to tell of his time in service in the RAF, it’s a pleasure to know him. I was fortunate enough to be involved in a documentary project where Nob sat down and reflected on his war experiences,” Vincent said.

The Australia that Hill was born into in 1924 was naturally very different to the one we call home today. King George V was the reigning monarch, Stanley Bruce was the Prime Minister, Balmain beat Souths in the 1924 NSW Rugby League Grand Final, and the nation’s population was slowly approaching 6 million.

In his own words Coogee was “fairly empty in terms of property, but was a wonderful place to grow up.” The beach loomed large in the life of a young Hill and he has fond memories of going down there with his parents in the 1930s and later still with his close friends as they grew into their teenage years.

“I remember when they first installed the shark nets on the beach there they actually only did half the beach. You had to pay to swim in the netted half! As a group we generally didn’t have the money to pay so we swam with the other “Scotchy’s” in the un-netted area.

“It’s interesting that every in those days Coogee Beach was an extremely popular location for people to gather. I can recall huge crowds on the beach it was very difficult to get a place on the sand, but fortunately we have been able to keep the park spaces at either end of the headlands and they have proved to be a wonderful facility for everyone to enjoy.”

For a young Norm though the day that would forever link him to the surf lifesaving family was just around the corner in March 1940.

“One day a group of friends were down at the beach and we saw the lifesavers and thought that looked like a lot of fun so we went down to the clubhouse and talked to the secretary about joining up. He asked us if we could we swim 400 yards in 8 minutes – we were young and fit told him of course we could.

“They gave us an instructor and we started our bronze medallion training very soon after that. I think they were very glad to have us as in those days they had lost a lot of members who were off in the war.”

Like many members of his generation, war was calling the young Hill and when he was 18 he made the first of two attempts to join the air force.

“I told the enlistment officer that I wanted to be in the air force, but they wouldn’t accept me because I was doing a fitter and turner apprenticeship and that was a skill that was required on the home front,” he said.

A couple of months later at the suggestion of a friend he again threw his name in the ring but this time with a new job and name. It was a ploy that almost backfired spectacularly. “On my next attempt to sign up I added an “s” and became Hills and changed my job to dairy farmer and when I went to the depot they had two forms. The officer in charge asked are you Norm Hill and Norm Hills? I told him I have no idea who Norm Hill is he just looked at me and said I think you do as you live in the same house and have the same parents!

“Fortunately he decided I was very committed, but later on when I was doing training one of the other fellows who was a farmer asked how many cows I owned. Of course I didn’t know anything about cows so I told him 1000.”

Paperwork completed there was just one more task for the newly enlisted military man; telling his boss he wasn’t able to come into work.

“I had to tell my employer but I couldn’t tell him I was going to war. He knew I played rugby so I rang him and told him I broke my leg playing and wouldn’t be able to come in for a few days. He said no worries and that I could come back on light duties. I went back and apologised when I eventually returned home and he just grinned and said so are you back to work you cheeky bugger!”

Hill later spent three years in Europe finishing up as a wireless operator and gunner and served on the famed Lancaster aircraft.

In 1945 he was selected in the Australia Armed Services Rugby Team, an allied initiative that helped restore a sense of normality to a nation devastated by war. Their first game was at the famed Cardiff Park against the mighty Welsh team and despite a valiant effort the Aussies went down.

Among the players on field that day was Ken “Killer” Kearney later of St George fame. After playing several more games, Norm and a close mate made their return home and though disappointed not to sail back through the Sydney Heads, he was very glad to be back on Australian soil.

One of the first places he went was Coogee Surf Club, a relationship that still exists today. Desperate to stay in his hometown he went into the local ballot to try and win a plot of land. Despite being unsuccessful he managed to stay in the area much to his delight.

Hill later went on founding member of the Coogee Penguins winter swim club, competed in the first City to Surf, and managed to for a swim and run on the beach almost every morning during a 27-year-career with Caltex.

He’s seen many changes to the club and surf life saving over the years two of the most important being the inclusion of women and the formation of Nippers.

“There are many women involved in the club today in leadership positions and they all do a fantastic job. We used to have a social ladies club and a dance every Sunday which was great. A lot of the boys actually ended up marrying members of the first women’s March Past Team and it was a great day when they could officially become part of the club.

“My son actually did the first season of Nippers and I enjoyed helping out with coaching in those early years.”

In a life full of interesting stories the question has to be asked what is the origin of the nickname Nob?

It turns out the moniker goes back almost 6 decades and like many of his stories has its origins during his war service.

“When I was training at Parkes one of the guys whose brother was killed on the HMAS Sydney was a bit older than us loved to give people nicknames, and one of the days I made the mistake of walking into the room next the bloke called dad and so was bestowed with the name mum.

“Anyway after the war he came down and joined the Surf Club. A few of us always used to go to the Boomerang Theatre together and one Sunday we went to see something about San Francisco and the earthquake. In one scene it showed how to escape everyone went to Nob Hill, and in the interval one of the boys said we can’t keep calling you mum, so forever after I became Nob,” he laughed.

The stories that Norm “Nob” Hill could tell would be enough to fill several books, but one thing that has never wavered is his love for his family, his mates, his club, and of course Coogee, the suburb where he has lived his entire life.

Appropriately the final word should go to the man who will celebrate his 92nd birthday next month.

“I love the club I don’t have any regrets, it’s been great for me and is truly one of the best run clubs in Australia. I love coming down and while most of my friends are gone it’s still a big part of my life.

“In the end I can’t complain about anything.”

Photograph - Norm "Nob" Hill celebrates his 76th year membership milestone at the Coogee Surf Life Saving Club in March 2016. Courtesy of Coogee SLSC

Mon 21 Mar 2016