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The song that kept a family together

It’s more than 90 years since the plaintive notes of the Last Rose of Summer drifted over the wall that separated the boys’ and girls’ homes in South Melbourne. A young Bob Dowdell knew that his sister, Esme, was listening on the other side of the wall and playing her favourite song on the cornet was the only way Bob could hold onto the ties that bound them together.

Turning 100 years old last year, Bob remains in good health and fondly remembers his time at St Vincent’s Boys’ Orphanage despite the sadness he felt at missing his family.

Bob came to the Orphanage in 1921 aged four years and credits the education and experience he received there for making him the resilient and resourceful man who raised six children with his wife Alice, the love of his life for 61 years before her death in 2005.

Alice and Bob met soon after Bob arrived to work as a labourer on a farm near Shepparton. Bob returned to Melbourne to train as a policeman and was posted back to Shepparton where he and Alice married and started a family. Bob could turn his hand to almost anything and over the years spent time working as a factory worker, labourer, boilermaker’s assistant, farmer, policeman and ultimately ending up as a successful businessman and entrepreneur. The Dowdells set up the Overlander Hotel which became a Shepparton icon.

Bob’s daughter, Jennifer, is very proud of her father’s achievements.

Still to this day, Dad talks about his time at St Vincent’s, mostly with fondness for the life skills and education he received. In fact, his handwriting even now is quite remarkable for his age.

– Jennifer, Bob's daughter

“His experiences at St Vincent’s have contributed to his life and for that he is grateful. There was the loneliness and sadness of missing his family especially his mother and siblings, so very much whilst he was there as a young boy, but his resilience and determination to achieve and be successful in life has made all of us extremely proud of him. The values and traits he would have begun to acquire in those early years, have strengthened throughout his life and are still admired by those who know him today,” added Jennifer.

Bob also made his mark on the footy field, with two years at VFA side Northcote, three seasons with North Melbourne, and ending with a successful coaching position at Shepparton’s City United.

Still surrounded by his six loving children and adored by his many grandchildren and great grandchildren, Bob says, “I did all right for a kid who started in an orphanage. I’ve worked hard but always enjoyed my work and took it seriously. I feel lucky to have had such a wonderful wife and family and have always tried to live by the values I learned early on.”

Bob also found out years after they’d left the homes that his sister knew he was playing the Last Rose of Summer for her over the wall. It remains his favourite song and Bob’s daughter, Jennifer, says, “it still brings tears to all of us when we hear it”.