ON THE going down of the sun this Anzac Day, Wal Scott Smith will mark not only the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, but also his own retirement – after almost eight decades of unbroken service looking after the Martin Place Cenotaph in Sydney's CBD.
Chief custodian Smith, 96, has finally decided the day’s Last Post will signal his own final day on the job.
“I started this work in 1940 as a 17-year-old, when there was a road either side of the Cenotaph and you had to be careful washing it down with a hose that you didn’t get the cars,” says Mr Smith, who’s become, over the years, a firm favourite with the crowd. “Sydney was a lot different back then.
“But Anzac Day is still the same. I still have a tear in my eye every year for the memories of the people who have been lost.”
Mr Smith was awarded an OAM for service to the community in 1999 and was ANZAC of the Year in 1998 and 2013. The grandfather-of-four stands guard over the Cenotaph, washing it down, polishing it, assisting with the services and helping with the laying of the wreaths at Anzac Day, as well as about 70 other services held at the hallowed monument annually.
He’s turned up rain or shine, and even one year with a drip in his arm from a triple bypass a few days before. But last year was the first Anzac Day service he’s ever missed after his doctor refused to allow him to leave hospital during a bout of ill health.
“And he’s still got two black eyes from that!” laughs Mr Smith. “He just wouldn’t let me out, which was very hard. I think that’s one of the reasons I decided this year should be my last year, and I’ve trained a team of five very good people to take over my job.”
His daughter Cathy Mansillo, 52, said it was a tough decision for him to retire. “Missing last year just broke his heart after 77 years of devoted service,” she says. “He always says he’s getting younger every year, but he does have some health issues.
“It’s not an easy job when the work for Anzac Day starts on April 24 and then he stands guard over the Cenotaph throughout the night ready for the dawn service the next morning, and then all the other services that follow.”
RSL NSW president James Brown said Mr Smith would be greatly missed by everyone who’s become so used to seeing him over all the years. “He’s a national treasure, and such a familiar face after so many years,” Mr Brown said.
“He started as a boy scout when he was asked to come down and help out, and has carried on ever since. He’s such an institution in Martin Place now, he’ll leave very big shoes to fill. He’s a hard act to follow.”
One of the men attempting to do just that is Kel Ratcliff, who’ll admit only to being 79-plus in age. “He’s amazing,” Mr Ratcliff said of Mr Smith. “And we joke we’ve had a 30-year apprenticeship under him!”
His mentor admitted, however, he was going to find retirement tricky. “I will miss it after all these years of looking at the calendar to see what services I have on next,” Mr Smith said.
“But I’ll still come along to every Anzac Day and point the finger at the Cenotaph attendants if they’re not doing the job right!”