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Willey, Keith Greville (1930–1984)

by M. French

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Keith Greville Willey (1930-1984), journalist and author, was born on 14 August 1930 at Boonah, Queensland, second of four children of Greville Maynard Willey, bank clerk, and his wife Eileen May, née Kuskey. Educated at various state schools and Brisbane Grammar School (1944), he worked initially as a bank teller. After cadetships at Brisbane’s Telegraph (1949) and Launceston’s Examiner (1950), he worked for Adelaide’s Truth (1952) and Advertiser (1954), edited the Centralian Advocate (1954-55), and reported for Melbourne’s Age (1956) and Darwin’s Northern Territory News (1957-63). He won the Walkley award in three consecutive years, for best feature story (1961, 1963) and best provincial newspaper story (1962) for an article in the Northern Territory News.

Assigned by the Sydney Daily Mirror to cover the 1964 Territory of Papua and New Guinea election, Willey specialised in ‘off-the-beaten-track’ stories, including an illegal foray into West Irian (West Papua). For the Sydney Sun (1967-70), he covered the hanging of Ronald Ryan and the presumed drowning of Harold Holt in 1967; the Israeli-Egyptian border clash and Malaysian race riots of 1969; and, in 1970, the Vietnam War. He worked for the Cairns Post (1971-73) and then as a publicist (1973) in the Commonwealth Department of Overseas Trade. Completing an honours degree in Australian history at the Australian National University (BA, 1980), he lectured (1983-84) in journalism at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education, Toowoomba, Queensland.

For Willey reporting was not enough; he always looked for the larger story. He freelanced on many personal and commissioned projects, producing twenty-six books. All reflected his love of adventure and in them he explored the Australian character, especially the iconic stockman; the surf lifesaver also featured. Most notable were Assignment New Guinea (1965); the adventure story Crocodile Hunt (1966); the oral history Boss Drover (1971); the assorted cameos in Tales of the Big Country (1972) and Ghosts of the Big Country (1975); When the Sky Fell Down (1979); The Drovers (1982); and the fictional Joe Brown’s Dog, Bluey (1978).

Like his beloved stockmen, Willey believed in working and playing hard; his life was a regimen of swimming, social drinking, and writing. He delighted in swimming in the ocean, and in rivers, lakes and billabongs. Appreciating the culture of the public bar, he frequently ended his journalistic day enjoying a beer with mates, spinning tall stories and singing bush songs, before going home to write through the night.

On 25 April 1953 at St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, Adelaide, Willey had married Elaine Noreen (Lee) Fitzgerald, a stenographer. Survived by his wife and their three daughters, he died of cancer on 6 September 1984 at Toowoomba and, after a requiem Mass in St Theresa’s Catholic Church, was cremated.

Willey’s life and writings celebrated being Australian, as epitomised by the bush ethos. His incomplete ANU doctoral thesis on Australian humour in the 1930s was published posthumously as You Might as Well Laugh, Mate (1984), an apt epitaph. A prize in journalism at the University of Southern Queensland is named in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • Northern Perspective, vol 7, no 2, 1985, p 40
  • M. French, ‘The Sentimental Bloke’, Australian Book Review, May 1985, p 22 , June 1985, p 38
  • Northern Territory News, 7 Sep 1984, p 6
  • Chronicle (Toowoomba), 8 Sep 1984, p 3
  • Journalist, Oct 1984, p 8
  • private information and personal knowledge.

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Citation details

M. French, 'Willey, Keith Greville (1930–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/willey-keith-greville-15772/text26961, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 19 November 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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