25 Year Anniversary of E.J. Whitten Passing
25 Year Anniversary of E.J. Whitten Passing
27 July 1933 – 17 August 17, 1995
Monday 17 August 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of E.J. Whitten known affectionally across Australia as “Mr Football”.
In the months before his death, E.J. Whitten showed enormous strength and spirit by turning his battle with prostate cancer into a positive awareness campaign for men’s health. That legacy continues to prevail through the E.J. Whitten Foundation a charitable organisation that builds men’s health awareness and funds research into prostate cancer at the E.J. Whitten Prostate Cancer Research Centre at Epworth.
EJ Whitten State Funeral Secret
This week we are not only reminded of the 25-year legacy E.J. Whitten created but also how his mischievous nature seemed to inspire one of Melbourne’s biggest political pranks. The stunt which remained a secret for almost two and a half decades was only revealed last year by the “victim”, former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett.
Kennett explained that he woke on August 18th, 1995, to read about the sad passing of the iconic footballer E.J. Whitten due to prostate cancer. He was surprised to read he was quoted as promising the Whitten family a state funeral. Kennett sensed a “set-up” as he had not been contacted by the papers nor provided any comment!
State funerals were until that time, a privilege bestowed only on those who had performed significant public service.
After checking that none of his cabinet had promised the state funeral, Kennett requested his chief of staff John Griffin to contact the Whitten family, apologise and say there had been a mistake about the state funeral.
Before the mistake could be explained, John Griffin was told how much Mr’s Whitten and the family appreciated the generous offer from the government. Griffin felt he could not then tell the grieving family that it was all a mistake.
Kennett decided that considering the esteem Ted was held in and the outpouring of sympathy from the community that he would ignore protocol and proceed with the state funeral.
In the end, the state of Victoria embraced the funeral. It was televised on two networks, hosted by both Eddie McGuire and Bruce McAvaney, people packed into the church, and thousands lined the streets for the funeral procession in honour of Mr Football.
Kennett reflected on the decision to go ahead with the Whitten state funeral saying, “It brought about change that better represents the times we live in by opening the door for state funerals for Victorian citizens who have made major contributions to Australian life, beyond public service.”
Kennett however, remained in the dark on who was responsible for the prank that brought about the state funeral until some 24 years later when he had a chance encounter in a Tasmanian airport with media and property mogul Anthony Catalano.
How the plan unfolded
Herald Sun journalist Alice Coster called on her investigative skills and revealed in one of her columns how the plot unfolded.
As the story goes, the Age’s newly-appointed property editor Anthony Catalano and former Chief State political reporter for the Sun-News Pictorial, turned PR merchant, John Hine were imbibing at the Imperial Hotel across from Parliament House with a car detailer also known for his impersonations.
Footy Show host Eddie McGuire was on TV delivering the sad news of Whitten’s death while the three ‘conspirators’ thought of a good way to honour the great EJ and his service to the community.
After scrawling a “press release” on the back of a beer coaster the car detailer put on his best voice, pretending to be Kennett’s loyal adviser Steve Murphy.
He called the night editor on the direct line at the Herald Sun, telling them he was out to dinner and not close to a fax machine. But he would read them a government press release that had been quickly written after the late-breaking news of EJ Whitten’s death.
The “release” stated the footy-loving premier was so moved that he had decided a State Funeral was in order for the AFL great.
The story appeared next morning and “once it’s in print it must be true.” one of the culprits mewed.
It seems those involved kept a pretty tight lid on the matter for almost two and a half decades but eventually couldn’t resist letting “the cat” out of the bag.
Catalano ran into Kennett while en route to Satellite Island in Tasmania while Jeff was on his way to see his Hawks play Carlton in Launceston. Coincidentally, CEO of the E.J. Whitten Foundation Nick Holland and Chair of the Foundation and CUB CEO Peter Filipovic were on the same flight as Kennett.
Upon seeing Kennett, Catalano could not help but ask why he had gone against protocol and afforded Whitten the state funeral. Kennett knew immediately his instincts and suspicions of 24 years ago had been correct.
In the end, no harm had been done and the change in protocol brought about a better way to honour Victorians who have made major contributions to Australian life, beyond public service.
The E.J. Whitten Foundation continues the spirit of E.J. through its work with the community in the Time to Test and Indigenous programs. The Foundation also strives to keep the “fun” alive through its fundraising events including the E.J. Whitten Legends Game and Grand Final lunch.
We have raised over $14 million towards research and treatment trials for prostate cancer. While we continue our efforts to find a cure for prostate cancer, our programs have had an enormous impact on Australian men resulting in thousands of lives being saved.
The E.J. Whitten Foundation is extremely grateful to our supporters for getting behind us during this challenging year. September is International Prostate Cancer Health month. If you are in a position to help us fight the “good fight” against prostate cancer please donate by texting “EJ” to 0473 000 111 or visit www.ejwhittenfoundation.com.au for further information.
Your engagement helps make a difference to the one in six Australian grandfathers, fathers, brothers, sons, and families affected by this disease. Please share this story with your family and friends. We are truly grateful for your support.
To donate to the E.J. Whitten Foundation
SMS “EJ” to 0473 000 111
Visit www.ejwhittenfoundation.com.au for further information.
Nick Holland CEO of E.J. Whitten Foundation is available to discuss on 0416 162 292