January 11, 2023
People & Places

Living legend

Not matter what life has thrown at 97-year-old Irene Johnson, this diehard Port Adelaide fan has always supported her two great loves in life: family and football.

Talking about herself doesn’t come naturally to 97-year-old Irene Johnson.

Sitting in her neat-as-a-pin Rosewater home, Irene – or Rene as she is affectionately known – insists she’s nothing special. But a lifetime of photographs, newspaper clippings and awards laid out on the kitchen table tell a different story.

These historical snippets, dug out especially for SALIFE, give a window into the remarkable life of a woman who has always been guided by deeply ingrained values of selflessness, service and sacrifice.

Despite facing gruelling hardships, particularly in early life, Rene has never been one for self-pity and has instead centred her life around what matters most – family and football.

Today, the staunch Port Adelaide fan still attends a footy game every weekend, regardless of the weather – alternating between her beloved Magpies and the Power.

“I’m more black and white than Power, though,” she insists.

Rene with her daughter Judy, great granddaughters Violet and Audrey, and granddaughters Leonie and Andrea. Photograph Sarah Long

Each week, Rene and her daughter Judy, 70, arrive at the oval two hours before kick-off to ensure they don’t miss out on their favourite seats.

“Mum waits on a bench outside the gates,” Judy says. “She won’t wait in the car in case we miss out on our seat. So, when the gates open, I run like crazy to get there.”

Irene could choose a comfortable and covered membership seat in the grandstand but she prefers to be at ground level, near the boundary line, close to the action and her beloved players.   

“I like being down with the people,” she says. “When you’re down the front you can yell out and nobody tells you off.”

Toughing it out is embedded in Rene’s DNA. She was born the third of 10 children to parents Ernest and Ivy Sandford. The family lived in Ship Street, Port Adelaide, right in the heart of Magpies territory. It was a happy but hard childhood, made even harder when Ernest died on his way home from World War Two.

So, at just 13 years of age, Rene left St Joseph’s Catholic School and got a job in a steam laundry in Port Adelaide. Incredibly, she remained working there for the next 18 years, guided by her deep sense of duty. Today, reflecting on these difficult years, Rene displays her signature pragmatic and positive outlook.

Young mum Irene Johnson with son Brian who was born in 1948.

“I got an exemption from school and I felt alright about that because it was to help the family,” she says.

“It wasn’t hard, we liked it. I had a lot of cousins working at the laundry, so it was good. We used to do the sheets from all the ships and we’d get seven and sixpence a week.”

She left home at age 16 to live with her older sister Doreen and her husband George, who had eight children.

Rene eventually married and had two children, Brian in 1948 and Judy in 1952. The family settled in Wellington Street, Port Adelaide and things were good for a while. Sadly, the marriage didn’t last and Rene was faced with raising two children alone.

She got work at Coles in the Port before taking a job at the Phillips factory in Hendon, testing television components. They were tough years, no doubt compounded by the stigma that still surrounded single parents in the 1960s, but Rene rose above it and taught her children to do the same.

“Mum would say, ‘Don’t come down to anyone’s level – you keep your head held high’,” Judy says.

Port Adelaide icon Russell Ebert and legend “Big Bob” McLean were two of Rene’s favourites around the club – decent blokes who were always happy to have a chat.

Despite her busy load, Rene volunteered at the Port Adelaide Football Club, raising money for the junior teams, where Brian played. Back then, the club was heaving with activity – social committees, concerts, cabarets, dances and bingo – and Rene was right in the heart of it all.

“I didn’t do much really, just ran raffles and things to raise what we could,” she says. “I liked the girls I worked with and I liked the football club.”

When a part-time role came up to cook in the club kitchen, it was the perfect fit for Rene.

“I cooked for four hours on a Saturday, which was enough then to pay for my house, and I still worked five days a week at Phillips to cover everything else.”

However, Rene was so good that management soon offered her a full-time position, allowing her to quit the factory work. Judy says her mum didn’t have any formal qualifications, she was just a great cook who worked hard and was devoted to the club.

“Mum would do the best King George whiting and people would come in especially for it,” she says.

Rene receiving her gold watch from Port Adelaide star Brian “Bucky” Cunningham, marking her 25 years of service at the club.

“The players loved her schnitzels and her surf and turf; I think I remember [former player] Tim Ginever liking those.”

Rene also cooked for visiting politicians and dignitaries including former Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

“I haven’t got much of a career. I’m a worker, a helper; I don’t mind helping anybody,” Rene says, downplaying it all.

In reality, this hard-working single mum was on first-name terms with many of the Port Adelaide greats who came through the club. She talks about Carl Fragomeni, John Abley, John Cahill and Russell Ebert.

“Fragomeni was a good player. We got on well with him, he’d come and tell us his problems when they didn’t play well and we’d say, ‘You’ll be better next week’. They were only young kids,” she says.

“Russell Ebert was my favourite, they were all coming up under [coach] Fos Williams. People like John Cahill, too, they weren’t snobby; they would come and have a chat.

A life member certificate awarded to Rene in 1971.

“Ray Haskard was our manager for 18 years and we worked as a team. I also respected [football general manager] Bob McLean, he was a wonderful manager and a very good person. ‘Big Bob’ they called him.”

Entrenched in the culture of the club, Rene also talks proudly of her son Brian, who played for the Magpies’ under-18s as well as a couple of seasons in the Port Reserves. Then, much to Rene’s disappointment, Brian moved over to Woodville when an opportunity came up to play in the league.

“I said to him one day, ‘You can play for Woodville but don’t think I’m changing my colours because I love my club’,” Rene says.

“I said, ‘When you’re not playing Port Adelaide, I’ll barrack for you, but when you are playing against Port Adelaide, I won’t barrack for you because I can’t’.”

Reflecting on her long and happy time at the club, Rene says the highlight was when Magpies legend Brian “Bucky” Cunningham presented her with a gold watch to mark her 25 years of service. She was also made a life member in 1984.

“There were a lot of good people at the club and we were like a family; we all got along well,” Rene says. “We did it because we loved it.”

Rene was full of pride when her son Brian, second row far right, played for Port’s reserve side.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Judy also took a job at the Port Adelaide Football Club in the 1980s, starting out washing dishes alongside her mum in the kitchen. She was then promoted to the bar before eventually being appointed bistro supervisor and then functions manager. Just like her Rene, Judy dedicated 25 years of service to the club she loves.

Rene admits it wasn’t always easy working as mother and daughter but they supported each other through the ups and downs.

Today, in keeping with family tradition, Judy’s daughter Leonie, 40, now works at the club, where she is currently head of membership and ticketing.

“Mum was over the moon when Leonie signed on with Port, carrying on that tradition of our family there, through the generations,” Judy says.

“One thing Mum has always said about her love of Port is that if they can see you are genuine and a hard worker, they’ll look after you. That’s why she’s so incredibly grateful to the club and it’s definitely why we all carry on loving Port Adelaide, too.”

While Rene retired from her official duties at age 70, she continued to help out when needed.

Rene loves her bowls and still plays a couple of times a week. She gets to the football two hours before kick off, even if it’s raining, and likes to be down the front where she can yell out to her beloved players.

Incredibly, up until last year, she was still cooking hot chips at the Port Adelaide Bowling Club, next door to Alberton Oval, where food is served on match days.

“She’s been cooking those chips since 1980,” says Judy.

“She only stopped because I said let’s go to the football together. Now, the footy is our time, just Mum and me. Sometimes the grandkids might come but it’s really our time to just be together.”

Rene says she doesn’t have a favourite player but she admires the way Sam Powell-Pepper plays hard at the ball and doesn’t give up.

“We like watching him and really cheer his goals,” she says.

Besides the footy, Rene is also passionate about her bowls. She plays twice a week in summer, and carpet bowls in winter.

“That’s what keeps me fit I think,” she says. “The doctor says that’s what keeps me alive.”

Sadly, one of the hardest times in Rene’s life in was when her son Brian passed away suddenly after suffering a heart attack in March 2010. He was just 61 and a “beautiful man” she says.

Today, Rene lives independently and remains active and busy. Monday is shopping, Tuesday bowls practice, Wednesday is a free day, Thursday bowls and Friday bingo. Saturday is gardening day and Sunday is at Judy’s, plus making time for the footy. There are also plenty of visits with the five grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren, who adore her.

However, one of those great grandchildren, Gus Neate, seven, doesn’t see eye to eye with “Big Nanna” when it comes to the football.

“He’s the only one who’s against us,” says Rene. “He’s been brainwashed by his father Oliver who goes for the Crows.

“I’ll say, ‘Gus, are you a Crow?’ and he’ll say, ‘Yes, Nanna’. I can’t change his mind.

The three generations of the family who have devoted their working lives to the Port Adelaide Football Club, Judy, her mum Rene and daughter Leonie, who is currently head of membership and ticketing. Photograph Sarah Long

“He’s a lovely little fella. Whenever I’m leaving his place he says, ‘I’ll walk you to the door Nanna,’ and he takes my hand.”

Judy says Rene has always been a team player and her motto in life is, “If you don’t have a good team working with you, you don’t succeed”.

It’s clear that Rene has never let the hardships she’s encountered define her. Instead, she’s carved out a life for herself and her family where happiness and success are measured in terms of dedication, loyalty and love. That legacy is now being shared by Rene’s grandchildren and great grandchildren who dote on Nanna Rene, or “the legend” as they call her.

“Mum gave everything to Brian and me,” Judy says.

“A lot of people don’t understand what she went through and how hard that would have been, but she never complains or expects anything.

“She’s always taught us not to give up – that’s why all the kids call her ‘the legend’. She makes you realise that, yes, bad things happen, but you just have to accept that and move forward; make the most of life.

“That’s what Mum has always done.”


This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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