“I can still hear his voice,” Joy Swan says.
“I can still hear him saying he wanted to put a mantle of safety over Australia.”
The sprightly Sydney senior citizen was a volunteer letter writer at Rev John Flynn’s Australian Inland Mission Assembly Hall in York Street from 1946 to 1952.
Now 91, the former teacher recalls Rev Flynn, whose vision led to the Royal Flying Doctor Service, as an eloquent and engaging story teller, a man of creativity and a tireless campaigner for those who lived in the Outback.
“He never asked for money. He told a story and you were captured for life.
“We had this wonderful time listening to John Flynn’s stories, his yarns, same as he would do around a camp fire.
“Some of his stories were absolutely hilarious. A number of them were very dramatic, because he told about rescuing people.”
Joy says Rev Flynn’s policy was to send a hand-written letter of thanks to people who made donations.
Every Tuesday night for six years she joined half a dozen others in the task. And up until his death in 1951, Rev Flynn frequently joined them.
She remembers Rev Flynn being passionate about maps and speaking frequently of his friends, including Alf Traeger, the inventor of the first pedal-powered radio transmitter and receiver.
“Flynn saw a need and any time he saw a need, he did something about it,” Joy recalls. “And what he did was always quite a brilliant solution.”
Joy remembers Rev Flynn recounting the story of an Outback funeral where a group of drovers stood beside the graveside and sang ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
Rev Flynn’s response was to produce a sturdy linen-covered book for distribution to those living remotely. It contained words and prayers for important occasions as well as practical household hints.
Joy says Rev Flynn was a passionate ‘fixer’.
“As soon as he got to a property he went straight into the kitchen and fixed the pots.
“He could put a plate back together so well you couldn’t see the cracks. He loved clocks and could mend them all. He even mended grandfather clocks.”
She remembers a man dedicated to supporting families in the Outback.
“His idea was you could not have a community until you had women and children, a family. From families, you get a community. And that’s why he was so focused on community halls in the Outback.
“I remember one of the drovers came in and told us about the first time he saw a family with a baby in the Outback, and it almost moved him to tears. To bring the women to the Outback, that was Flynn’s idea, to make a community.”
Joy says Flynn was finely-built and always dressed in a black three-piece suit with a watch chain.
“He had a gentle voice. Some people present themselves in a big way but he was just laid back. He had this wiry strength… he had done so much work in the Outback. Even then he was getting on but you could tell he could manage anything.”
Joy says her brother, Charles Catt, the former chief engineer of Qantas, was a close friend of Arthur Affleck, the pilot of the first RFDS plane chartered from the airline.
“They were great mates. It’s another link.”
She remembers helping sort through Flynn’s correspondence after his death.
“That was one of the most exciting bits.”
She says there were letters from all over the world from people asking for assistance in setting up aeromedical services.
She recalls seeing correspondence from Africa and from the Inuit people in the Arctic asking for his help and advice.
“That’s how the idea of the Flying Doctor spread all around the world,” she says. “He was an extraordinary man.”