Local treasure Gordon McKern has become the first person in Bendigo to be honoured with Rotary’s prestigious Service Above Self award.
Mr McKern, who was one of only five people in the district in the last 20 years to receive the accolade, was recognised for his commitment to helping others by volunteering his time and talents.
He was presented with the award at the Victorian Multi District Conference last week, but was typically modest about all the fuss.
“I’m just an old bugger,” he said. “There are other Rotarians in Bendigo that do at least as much as I do, but I guess I’m more of a public figure."
Mr McKern joined the Rotary Club of Eaglehawk in 1976 after relocating his business and his family from Melbourne.
"When we first arrived, we didn't know anyone apart from family and a few employees," he said. "Rotary changed my life dramatically."
"It gave me my start in community service."
In his 43 years at Rotary, he has contributed at all levels of the organisation from being a regular member, to Club President, and then District Governor from 1992-93.
"It’s always been part of my life," he said. "Also for my wonderful wife Anita, who wasn't a Rotary member but was a strong supporter through me."
Mr McKern also played a key role in the community over the last four decades.
He was the chairman of Coliban Water for 14 years and chairman of the Bendigo Art Gallery for six years.
He was also president of Bendigo Regional Institute of TAFE for five years and chairman of La Trobe University Bendigo Regional Advisory Board for four years.
He also currently holds the position of chairman at both the Ulumbarra Theatre and the Aspire Foundation.
Read more: Gordon our Citizen of Year
He received the Australian centenary medal in 2001 and an Order of Australia in 2009 for his service to the community.
He was also recognised as Citizen of the Year in Eaglehawk in 1986 and in Bendigo in 2014.
Mr McKern also played a key role in the amalgamation of the City of Greater Bendigo as commissioner.
“Gordon has become one of regional Victoria’s most respected community leaders,” current Rotary District Governor Bronwyn Stephens said.
“He’s a beacon in his Rotary club and also in the local community.”
Mr McKern also started the McKern Foundation, which for the last 25 years has supplied, delivered and erected all steel requirements for the Royal Children's Hospital's annual fundraising project of building a house for sale.
The foundation also supplies fresh fruit every week to every student at 37 schools around Bendigo.
Ms Stephens, who has been District Governor for eight months and a Rotary member for 10 years, said Mr McKern’s influence on Rotary and the wider community has been incomparable.
“He is one of very few people that is universally respected and admired and that only good things that are said of,” Ms Stephens said. “Gordon McKern is a Rotarian that genuinely practices service above self every day.”
“He’s touched a lot of people and sat beside them on their own humanitarian journeys,” she said.
As District Governor, Mr McKern led efforts to raise millions of dollars to help create the Rotary Bone Marrow Donor Institute in Melbourne.
“When you’re District Governor, you have a cause in mind which you want the clubs to get involved in,” he said.
“We wanted to raise $2 million but we managed to raise $4 million to go towards the institute.”
Mr McKern later assisted in efforts to create the BMDI Rotary House in North Melbourne, which provides accommodation for families of children who are undergoing bone marrow treatment at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
Ms Stephens said Mr McKern's efforts to help children and families who were affected by diseases like leukemia highlighted his selflessness.
“He had a particular passion for that one cause," she said. "He mobilised all of the people in our district and inspired them to all contribute."
“I believe that legacy would count as one of his biggest achievements," she said.
Mr McKern said he was proud of the work he was able to achieve with his fellow Rotarians in regards to the BMDI Rotary House, but that there was still more to do.
“It’s a wonderful cause,” Mr McKern said. “Currently, 11 families can live at the apartments for six to eight months at a time.”
“But there’s always a strong demand, so we’re hoping to either expand or relocate to allow for 20 families at any given time,” he said.
Mr McKern has also been influential in doubling the number of members of the Paul Harris Society, which recognised Rotary members who contribute over $1,000 or more each year.
"He has been hugely successful in persuading people to join and donate," former Rotary District Governor Dennis Shore said. "He is legendary not just here in Bendigo, but around the country.
Mr Shore, a close friend of Mr McKern, said the philanthropist was "one of nature's finest gentlemen".
"He is respected within Rotary, respected as businessman and as a community leader, and is admired as a family man," he said.
"I'm proud to call him a friend, as would many, many people," he said.
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