FOR Denis Gordon, the dilemma is not so much what to have for lunch in Belmont, but where. He chooses smoked salmon pasta at Lake Macquarie Yacht Club. But we could have eaten at the golf club, or the 16-foot sailing club. He’s a member of all these places, just as he is of the Lakes United rugby league football club and the surf life saving club.
If it’s in Belmont, Denis Gordon is part of it. More than being a member of this Lake Macquarie community, he is one of its carers. For 53 years, he has been a local doctor. He has delivered hundreds of babies, and treated tens of thousands of patients. In Belmont, just about everyone knows “Dr D”.
No sooner has Denis Gordon sat at the table overlooking the marina than a bloke approaches the doctor to shake his hand.
Those healing hands have been grasped a lot through the years, out of thanks and gratitude. But in the next few weeks, his hand will be shaken in farewell. For Denis Gordon is retiring at the end of March. That will mark the end of an era. Members of the Gordon family have been treating the Belmont community for more than 80 years.
“I’ll miss a lot of the people,” Dr Gordon says, gently smiling.
Just as Denis Gordon has given life to Belmont, Belmont is Denis Gordon’s life.
WHEN young doctor Neil Gordon bought into a general practice in Belmont in 1936, he was delighted. He loved the water. His wife, Hazel (but nicknamed Suzie), wasn’t so thrilled. She wanted to return to the Blue Mountains area where she had grown up.
Suzie was the practical one in the relationship, having learnt a range of skills, from riding horses to balancing the books. Before moving to the lake, she had also been cast as an extra in films in Sydney.
“She was getting two pounds a day for bit parts, and Dad was working at Crown Street [Women’s Hospital], and he was getting a pound a week,” Denis says.
When the Gordons settled into Belmont, Suzie was preparing for a new role: motherhood. Denis arrived in June 1937. He was virtually born into medicine. The family home was at the back of the property, and the surgery was at the front.
Denis’ father all but lived at work. When he wasn’t in the surgery, he was making house calls, from Catherine Hill Bay to Charlestown: “He was on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
With three collieries in the area, Belmont was a mining town. Miners and their families comprised the bulk of Neil Gordon’s patients.
“He liked the miners, he thought they were fair dinkum,” Denis says of his father. One of those miners, Bill Stephenson, would lend Neil his car to do house calls, when the doctor’s 1927 Packard broke down. Mr Stephenson would later become Denis’ patient and then his gardener. The links are tight in Belmont.
One of Denis Gordon’s earliest memories of living by the lake is when he almost drowned in it. He was about three and playing with his cousins on Belmont jetty when he toppled off it.
“I can still remember looking up and seeing the light,” he says. “If you ever go down with a pair of goggles on and look up you see that light. It’s quite lovely. I wasn’t thinking I was drowning or anything! Anyway, some bigger boy jumped in and pulled me out.”
The experience hardly scared young Denis away from the water. He and his younger sister and brother spent hours in the lake, swimming in the old baths along the Belmont shore.
He also loved playing golf and rugby league and was selected in the state schoolboys’ team as hooker. While he was passionate about sport and claims he “wasn’t a keen student”, Denis was accepted into the University of Sydney to study medicine: “I never thought I’d do anything else, to tell you the truth.”
The workload was enormous. The amount of anatomy he had to study was “like learning the Bible off by heart”. And in the midst of all that was National Service. But by the early 1960s, Denis Gordon had some good news to tell his parents in Belmont. He made a reverse-charge phone call, and the operator asked who was calling.
“Dr Denis Gordon,” he replied. “So that meant they knew I’d passed, and if they didn’t want to take the call and pay for it, they got the message anyway. But, of course, they took the call.”
His father invited Denis and some mates to a celebratory round of golf and dinner at Belmont. One friend brought along a young nurse from Royal Newcastle Hospital, Robin Ewing. She was a Lake Macquarie girl, from around Warners Bay.
“She was a bloody scorching bird,” was Denis’ assessment.
Despite those initial impressions, it took a while and a change of city – Dr Gordon was doing some work at Royal Newcastle Hospital – for them to become a couple.
My mother really liked her,” he explains. “Mum said, ‘How long have you been taking her out?’, and I said ‘About six months’. And she said, ‘No son of mine takes out a girl for more than six months without letting his intentions be known. You tell her if you’re going to marry her or not’.”
He let his intentions be known. They were married in 1964. Initially, the Gordons were in Sydney, as Denis was training in obstetrics. He was accruing a wide range of skills, because he wanted to be an “outback doctor”, working in the Kimberley region.
Then his mother called. His father was sick, the practice was suffering, and Denis was needed in Belmont. The young couple moved back to the lake, and he started work in the surgery he had grown up behind in January 1965.
Denis and Robbie’s plan was to work for a couple of years at the lake then head to England for further training. But they never left. They worked together in the surgery, day and night, along with Denis’ father and, for more than a decade, his younger brother and sister-in-law, who were also doctors.
As well as being a nurse, Robbie was a local celebrity, hosting a children’s program for a while on Channel 3, and, her husband proudly says, she was great with people.
“She was so good, one day I was seeing this lady and she said, ‘Could you hurry up, doctor?’. I said, ‘Why?’, and she said ‘I want to go back out and talk to your wife’.”
Medicine led to deeper ties in the community. Each week, Denis had a round of golf with former Lakes United and Australian representative rugby league player Albert Paul. In 1969, Paul had agreed to coach Lakes, and he asked Denis to be the club doctor.
Denis said “yes” and remained the club doctor for 15 years. What’s more, he introduced a revolutionary approach to training. In 1970, Denis had bought a camera and playback machine to film and improve his golf game. He began taking the equipment to every Lakes game, and the team would watch the footage after each match.
“We were the first club in Australia; nobody else was doing it,” Denis says.
For more than half a century, he’s also been the doctor for the local surf life saving club: “I only go there for big carnivals now. But I enjoy it.”
Denis and Robbie Gordon created a family of their own. They adopted a boy, Robert. He had a heart condition. Robert died in 1973, aged just two. As a doctor, Denis knows the medical reasons; as a father, it doesn’t lessen the grief.
“It certainly makes you understand other people’s grief,” he says.
Denis and Robin adopted their daughter, Jane, in 1974, and son John two years later. John is an electrician, and Jane is a haematologist. The father assures he doesn’t give his doctor daughter professional advice.
“I ask her questions,” he counters. “Haematology is so specialised. I rang her up this morning about something.”
Denis Gordon is 80. He’s decided it’s time to retire as a GP. It’s not quite the retirement age set by his father; he was still working at the surgery beside his son until he was 82.
Denis inherited some of his father’s patients. There are those Denis delivered into the world and is still treating. Other patients he has known since they were in kindergarten together. He has cared for generations of families. One of Denis’ early patients was a World War One veteran; he is now seeing the digger’s descendants.
Denis Gordon already knows what he will do on his final day, March 27: “I’ll just see my patients. But I’ll be in every day for a week or so, just going through all the results. I won’t go away for a while.”
As for life out of the surgery after March 27, Denis Gordon intends to keep educating himself on medical developments. He will play golf a few times a week, and, as a car enthusiast, he will continue to tinker with his vehicles, including a 1953 Jaguar XK120. Which means he will continue to speak that arcane language car enthusiasts use – “it’s the oldest right-hand drophead coupe in the world”.
Above all, he and Robbie will enjoy each day in Belmont in their home, which his father built in 1949, with the lake views that reaffirm to Denis Gordon that this is, and always has been, the place for him.