‘A great and good man’: Victoria farewells Sir James Gobbo

On the streets of Melbourne, the city’s homeless knew him only as Jim. This is where the former governor of Victoria, eminent jurist and devotee to all things Italian would regularly spend winter nights, dispensing warm clothes and warmer conversation.

There were other places you were likely to run into Sir James Gobbo.

Victoria’s political leaders and some of its sharpest legal minds gathered at St Patrick’s Cathedral to farewell former governor James Gobbo on Tuesday.Credit:Eddie Jim

As his successor at Government House, Linda Dessau, told those gathered at St Patrick’s Cathedral for Sir James’ state funeral, he liked to sneak out of the governor’s mansion and make the short stroll down to the MCG to catch the last quarter of Carlton games.

On the day that Carlton pipped Essendon to win the 1999 preliminary final, Sir James was spotted driving back along Birdwood Avenue with his Blues scarf flapping joyously out of the governor’s car.

He was also well known to the stall owners at Queen Victoria Market, where he would go in the pre-dawn hours for a heart-starting espresso and the pick of the day’s vegetables. That is where a young James Gobbo first worked in his parents’ cafe after his family migrated to Melbourne from a village near Venice.

That the son of Italian immigrants would go on to become the Queen’s representative in Victoria was “a watershed for our state,” Ms Dessau said. He served between 1997 and 2000.

“Sir James was the first Catholic governor of Victoria and the first from a non-English speaking background,” she said. “It was the first time that Victoria’s dynamic, multicultural community had been able to see themselves reflected in Government House, the first time that children of migrants could have a sense of shared identity with their governor.”

It is not too trite to say that families like the Gobbos built modern Melbourne.

Another story told by Ms Dessau, borrowed from Sir James’ memoir, was how during his time as governor he used to go to the Shrine of Remembrance to search for the initials his father Antonio left scratched in a sandstone blocks when he worked on its construction in the 1930s.

Among those gathered to commemorate Sir James’ prodigious career in the law and passionate community and public service were two generations of political leaders and some of the state’s sharpest legal minds.

Shirely Gobbo (centre), the wife of the late Sir James Gobbo, is escorted into St Patrick’s Cathedral.Credit:Eddie Jim

Premier Daniel Andrews was joined by former premiers Denis Napthine, Ted Baillieu, John Brumby, Steve Bracks and Jeff Kennett. The Chief Justice of the Victorian Supreme Court, Anne Ferguson, led a stacked bench of enough serving and retired jurists to fill up five rows of the church. Former governor-general Peter Hollingworth was seated next to Alex Chernov, who occupied the governor’s mansion in Victoria immediately before Ms Dessau.

On his 90th birthday, shortly before his death last week, Sir James said his proudest achievement was his family: his wife Shirley, who he met nearly 70 years ago when he was in Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship; their five children Jeremy, Flavia, Olivia, Danni and James; 14 grandchildren; and his great-granddaughter Raffy.

They too, all knew him as Jim.

Jeremy Gobbo, QC, Sir James’ eldest son, remembered heading off on summer holidays with the family car stuffed with an espresso machine, boxes of pasta and blocks of parmesan and recounted the family joke that, even though Sir James spent 10 years as the Chief Scout of Victoria, he didn’t know how to tie a knot.

Mourners gather at St Patrick’s cathedral on Tuesday.Credit:Eddie Jim

His home away from home was the Italian Assistance Association, a charity dedicated to improving the welfare of Australian Italians. It was one of scores of community organisations and causes that Sir James supported, volunteered for or led.

“He wasn’t famous or an influencer in the modern social media way but he certainly had a massive influence on innumerable people,” Jeremy Gobbo said.

Allan Myers, QC, said Sir James was deeply committed to his Catholic faith, most notably through his active membership of the Order of Malta, a lay order of the church dedicated to humanitarian work. This is why you could still find Sir James distributing food and clothing to homeless people well into his 80s.

Sir James’s legal career saw him take silk at the age of 40 and become a Supreme Court judge at age 46. Six years later, he was knighted for his services.

Victoria Governor Linda Dessau and husband Anthony Howard at the funeral on Tuesday.Credit:Eddie Jim

Mr Myers said Sir James played an influential, though largely untold part, in the dismantling of the White Australia Policy through his activist work with an immigration reform group that occasionally met at his Carlton home.

He later joined a group of immigration experts which advised Malcolm Fraser on how to respond to the refugee crisis that followed the Vietnam War. He was, said Mr Myers, a great and good man.

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